Acknowledge Your Dumb Luck

I rarely watch Rachael Ray’s television show, but I did catch a few minutes of it the other day, when Tom Selleck (the actor who stars on “Blue Bloods” on CBS) appeared for a short time. During which he mentioned his father used to say that “the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary”. It’s the kind of folksy, humorous adage that draws agreement, particularly in America.

I agree that work is important. What is also true is that plenty of people who work hard do not achieve – even in the fifty states, and now less than thirty years ago, frankly – what the US would term “success”. Granted, we have higher standards than, say, Bolivia. But working hard as a prescriptive means little if we don’t also acknowledge the role that pure, dumb luck plays in our lives.

As an example – hey, he put himself out there – Tom Selleck.

Here’s how he got lucky from the very start:

In 1945, he was born white and male in a society that rewards white males. He had the genes to be tall – tall is good for actors. Also the genes for handsome. Ditto. Luck, pure luck.

His parents – both of whom had English ancestry, another US bonus – had built and subsequently maintained a stable family unit. Stability enhances children’s growth. But the child cannot control for it. Lucky, again.

Children do not do well in poverty. The Sellecks were not wealthy, but his father sold real estate in Southern California. More than peanuts, then. More luck.

Young Tom was born healthy. (In fact, he was later athletically gifted enough to be awarded a basketball scholarship to USC.) His neonatal health was down to nothing he did personally, but luck.

So right from the start, aspects of his life were very, very blessed.

He continued to be lucky. He survived – thanks to vaccines – common childhood diseases. He was never randomly shot at, as children are in poor neighborhoods. He reached adulthood free of debilitating conditions, many congenital, that wiped out the health of other people born in 1945. He lived in a country that was never at war on its own soil. Because he was a college student, and then a member of the California Army National Guard, he was never called to risk his life in Vietnam as others did.

Did he have to work and wait many years for stardom? Yes. But stardom is hyper-success. As an actor, success comes with working steadily. The English actor Keira Knightley has said her parents attempted to discourage her from acting because they knew the odds against steady work. Any actor who has work is, yes, fortunate. An actor who turns down Raiders of the Lost Ark because he’s taken “Magnum, P.I.” (at one time, the two schedules conflicted) is looking at potential stardom and major money . . . and is exceedingly rare.

Had even one of those lucky breaks in his earlier life failed to show up – if Tom had been born female, or a different race, or with a congenital condition; had his parents lacked skills or mental acuity or devotion to their children’s well-being – he would never have been offered his roles.

So, yes, hard work often precedes success, but success does not inevitably follow hard work.

And the word “luck” precedes both, in the dictionary and in life.

Let’s acknowledge that.

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