I’ve been a writer for over 30 years. I feel uncommonly fortunate to get paid well to do something I love. Did I bust my hump to get where I am? Absolutely. But I’m also keenly aware of the exigencies of fate, large and small, which made my career possible. My gratitude is oceanic because my luck has been likewise.
So…this month I wanted to talk about the gentle art of getting lucky. I’m not talking about talismans or secret formulae, but the concrete things that literally make people more likely to catch a break. We do not have to be passive victims, ground to dust by the pitiless engines of publishing. We can take action and move the needle for ourselves and each other.
Luck is a funny topic, primarily because it borders on ideas about fairness and hope. As most folks learn growing up, the universe isn’t fair…or if it is it’s so ruthlessly, pitilessly fair that we should tremble before the mirthless, merciless justice visited upon all existence. When we say things aren’t fair what we usually mean is that we want something we don’t have or can’t acquire. That has little to do with luck and everything to do with desire.
In truth, I think the great appeal of genre is that characters (and readers) get what they deserve. Popular fiction posits universal fairness in a way that encourages people to take positive, healthy risks that improve their lives and loves. Sometimes hope is a thing with feathers, hard to spot and quick to vanish. The core truth of all genre is comeuppance: that characters succeed by taking action in pursuit of a goal. Stories helps us to empathize with adversity and trust in luck, but that doesn’t mean it teaches anyone to be passive or credulous.
My mom always said, “Luck is opportunity plus preparation.” She was never one for whining or grousing… so growing up, I learned that when things didn’t go my way she’d give me two choices: better preparation or hunting down opportunities. Things couldn’t always go our way, but she certainly wasn’t going to listen to me pissing and moaning because the universe hadn’t done my job for me. Harsh, but true, and I took it to heart. When I started working in showbiz, that strategy kept me safe and sane. While other youngsters dithered and griped, I pursued my goals like a starving leopard: prepping all I could and unearthing opportunities anywhere I could imagine them.
Debates and superstitions about luck have proliferated since humans developed an opposable thumb. Logical enough: humans die and we all want control we can’t have and stuff we don’t need. Some folks get those things, some don’t. The tension between the lucky and the unlucky make up a lot of what we call religion, magic, science, and philosophy….but that’s not what I’m talking about today.
All of us have experienced moments of bright blessing, lightning strikes and crazy breaks that changed our lives. Of course we wish those moments came more often, that we could in some way harness Lady Luck and bend her to our will. Whatever your beliefs, and whatever your personal fortunes, there are plenty of things you can do to maximize opportunities and preparation.
Either by nature or training, lucky people do share certain qualities that make them more likely to encounter opportunities and more willing to do the preparation necessary to avail themselves when the time is right. Rather than focusing on the reasons fortune graces some folks and not others, consider the behaviors that make fate conspire in your success. As Mark Twain once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
The less you participate in your industry and the less attention you pay the less lucky you will be. Frankly, you cannot BE lucky unless you are there when the opportunity presents itself after you’ve done enough preparation to take advantage. Educate yourself about the people, companies, events, and areas off the industry which would be of value to your career. THAT is where your time and attention should be invested for maximum return. Put yourself in the flow so the universe has maximum opportunities to buoy your chances. How can you get lucky hidden in a locked closet under a blanket? Identify the places and moments germane to your goals and get in where you fit in!
Every career involves frustration and disappointments, so you’d best learn to run that gauntlet. Drink harsh medicine so you can get better at the essential tasks before you need to be. Learn to spot the stuff that gets in your way and eliminate as many obstacles and convince as many opponents as you can. Eliminate impediments so that your time, energy, and resources get spent wisely. Move with the flow not against it. That doesn’t mean you need to be a sheep, but that you should access and adapt the currents around you to your advantage. By educating yourself and developing dexterity and flexibility you can turn ruinous hiccups into unexpected advances.
Hope is not a strategy. Do your homework about every project you take on and about the career you plan to have. Stay abreast of developments and shifts in the industry. Randomly gambling and lurching in a direction on the off-chance things will work out is a recipe for penury and ruin. As my mother used to say, “Gambling is investment for people who can’t do math.” Playing the odds means learning what your odds are and how to improve them. The more you learn about a situation, the skills required to navigate it successfully, the players on all sides, the more likely it can serve you. Pay attention to authors you admire and careers which seem uncommonly fortunate. Learn from the lucky ones because they are obviously taking the right risks.
Unless you share plans with the colleagues you trust, how on earth is anyone else supposed to help you accomplish them? Tell the world what you want so it can tell you what you need when it becomes available. You literally don’t have enough time or attention to meet or engage with all of the folks who might be able to transform your life overnight. Increase the odds by expanding your access. This is why surrounding yourself with talented people who don’t take your crap and who challenge your preconceptions can be such a game changer. Consider all the bestsellers who “came up together.” They were maximizing their odds as a pack of “fortune” hunters. Give people you respect permission to nudge you towards the success you want…and learn to avoid the folks who have zero intention of doing so.
Don’t ride any wave to its bitter end. Yes, lucky breaks happen and a rising tide often seems like it will last forever. Pro tip: it won’t. Paths zigzag, and while determination can be a strength, it can also doom your chances. Smart rats leave a sinking ship before anyone notices. Stay nimble and keep your eyes peeled for eddies in the flow around a situation. Learn to spot the signs of shifting tastes, market saturation, or reader fatigue. Don’t be the metaphorical bleary drunk staggering out of the bar on broken heels when the lights go on. Being inventive and observant enough to stay nimble will keep your hands clean and your options open.
Since we’re writers, we tend to mythologize our personal experience and we make pronouncements based on the flimsiest of evidence. Generalizing instantly about universal lessons or truths based on a single incident or individual will lead to prejudice and foolishness. Lose the habit of “learning a lesson” that doesn’t exist because it absolves you of responsibility, as in “she’s just a bitch” (or) “that editor hates everyone” (or) “readers are stupid.” Take responsibility and resist the urge to declare yourself an expert without a pile of first-hand data. How could you have prepared better? What opportunity did you miss? Any career is built over a great deal of time out of a slow accretion of wisdom, tricks, and outside nudges. As Lillian Gish once said, “What we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.”
Fortunate people know just how random, fickle, and unlikely any success can be. When you do luck out, share the wealth and stay humble. True luck is a concatenation of random, invisible, and complex forces…so even the most fortunate amongst us just surfed their wave effectively. Spoiler alert: publishing is a community; you don’t accomplish anything alone. At a minimum, someone else has to buy your work and read it. Absolutely take pride in your hard work, but stay grateful for all the allies and unseen elements that boosted your odds.
Boasting, myopia, or narcissism make you look like a selfish idiot who doesn’t deserve that luck. Next time, the universe (and random strangers) won’t be so quick to help, yo. Cool thing? Being humble about success means you can stay sane about failure. When luck leaves you hanging and everything keeps sucking, learn to push ahead without whining or waiting. Desperation, negativity, and envy do you no favors because they limit the folks willing to help and minimize the opportunities you’ll encounter.
Have you ever had a chance to make a difference to someone you didn’t know? Do! They don’t even have to know. You will and it will matter. Become their good luck without taking credit. Notice the moments when you can be an agent of fortune on behalf of someone else. All of us have contacts, skills, talents, and favors that can make or break someone else’s day. Participate in the luck of others and you maximize your own odds, because it keeps you in the flow, tests your mettle, flexes your muscles, and shares the wealth with folks like you who might deserve more than their “fair” share. Giving back to your community creates immutable bonds and shores up your peers in moments of darkness or doubt. One day, they’ll return the favor.
If you’re lucky.