The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, January 19, 2009

With a little luck…

By Tamara Lee

When I first graduated university, I tutored students in writing and reading comprehension. The majority of my clients were ESL (English as a Second Language) high school kids. In those days, my business acumen was limited: I posted flyers, potential clients called, and I charged a suitable fee for one-and-a-half hour home tutoring sessions. At one point, two students—brother and sister—became my three-times-a-week meal ticket. They lived in a colossal home in one of Vancouver’s most upscale neighbourhoods. Lovely kids: hard working, respectful, and intelligent. They also practiced violin and piano, took extracurricular classes, played tennis and ping-pong. Their chock-a-block full schedule both impressed and unnerved me.

One week, I became quite ill with the flu and cancelled classes. I spent the week recovering: reading books, writing, sleeping. Upon my return, the students were polite but not quite as attentive. Before I left, the students' mother informed me my services were no longer needed; a new tutor had been hired while I was away. In one fell swoop my personal income was slashed by two-thirds. I was gobsmacked. The mother said, with a smile meant, I suppose, to ease the pain as she quoted an axiom from her culture: “Unlucky in this life; lucky in the next.”

There were many things learned from this scenario, but a lesson in “luck skills” was not one of them.

In contemporary western culture, the concept of luck plays such a small role overall that those who place heavy emphasis on it are often accused of lacking a sense of reality. But I wonder if this position is changing.

In Woody Allen’s film Match Point, Allen explores the thin line between good and bad luck, acknowledging hard work is important, but that it really boils down to luck:

“The man who said ‘I'd rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a [tennis] match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose.”

Throughout the film, each character resolves his or her good/bad luck ratio differently: some who have always had good fortune, seem unaware of luck’s value; those who work hard and find luck are ever-aware of luck’s precariousness. Those who don’t deserve good luck still manage to squeeze it out; those who don’t deserve bad luck lose in all manner of disappointing ways. Allen seems to point out the randomness of luck, and how those who recognize how hard they’ve worked to attain it are the only ones who appreciate it.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell is one of those people who sees luck’s greater role in success. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’d seen the Woody Allen film before embarking on his latest “uncovery” in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Upfront I will say I’ve not read the book, and am extrapolating the book’s content from interviews with Gladwell I’ve heard and read these past few months, which is essentially this, as Richard Handler summarizes:

“For Gladwell, what is important is that all success is contingent — a crapshoot. Successful people are lucky, born at the right time, the right place and under the right stars and historical circumstances.”

Whatever you may think of Gladwell, with his book will come a widespread discussion of its content, including how much luck has to do with a person’s success.

All this may suggest, then, that regardless of all the work one puts into a pursuit, without luck, a certain set of circumstances, and—maybe—talent, one still may not reach “success.” In order for that suggestion not to put us into a funk, we might recognize this means we as a society need to seriously reconsider what success is or isn’t.

Gladwell describes in his interview with Charlie Rose, a book that follows up on the lives of those who attended the first school for gifted children. The book reveals that none of them had done anything exceptional with their lives. Until you look further and realize that they’re all happy, and possibly chose not to pursue that exceptional kind of success, having seen early in life what pursuing success of that ilk entails.

Another factor in the equation Gladwell writes about is the western world’s essential intellectual laziness—how kids in other cultures (I’m assuming he goes beyond Asian culture in his book) are more motivated to figure out problems, to keep up their studies, to excel. I get the sense he’s saying we in western culture have an underachievement complex. My former ESL client would probably agree, if that newly graduated me were held up as an example of western culture. Thankfully (not luckily), my work ethic has changed for the better.

But the most important idea taken from all of these sources—the personal experience, the film, the social pop philosopher—is that in any society, not providing children with greater educational opportunities, and teens the tools to recognize an opportunity when it is shown them or how to follow up on such a thing, means capable, deserving adults may remain at risk of getting stuck in the realm of “bad luck.” Certainly, learning the hard way has its value, but if we can provide opportunity to those who start out in a “hard way,” everyone wins. With a little opportunity…


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Teeming with scintillating ideas! Great post T.Lee.

Mon Jan 19, 08:51:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Thanks, Andrew!

Tue Jan 20, 10:37:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I enjoyed that interview with Gladwell. I'll probably pick up his book. I liked what he said about providing everyone with the opportunity to live up to their own potential. I think we need to define potential and success more broadly than we may. Not everyone needs to earn a lot of money or be famous in order to reach their potential, but our culture values fame and money, discounting other measures of success.

Thanks for giving me so much to think about, Tamara.

Thu Jan 22, 10:43:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger t said...

Thank you. You know, I think 'potential' used to have, by its etymology, a more expansive meaning. Glad you were able to get something useful out of the Gladwell stuff, Tricia.

Sat Jan 24, 05:56:00 pm GMT-5  

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