Distinguishing Between Luck and Hard Work

You know those moments that happen in life where you wish you had the right words at that moment, but instead they come to you days later? I’m about to tell you about one of those times.

An old friend of mine – we’ll call him Jeffrey – has struggled throughout his adulthood with, well, many aspects of adult life. He’s struggled with maintaining a steady job. He’s struggled with alcohol dependence and substance abuse. He’s struggled with parenthood, too.

He has an older sibling – we’ll call him Will – that has done reasonably well with his life. This older sibling has a challenging but well-paying job and two children that are on solid professional tracks.

Whenever Jeffrey is feeling down on his luck, he’ll often go on a drinking binge and find someplace to hide out for a while. If you try to talk to him, you’ll hear the same few refrains over and over.

“Will gets all of the breaks in life. He gets all of the luck and I get nothing.”

“It doesn’t matter what I do. I can’t get ahead.”

“No one respects me.”

“I’m just going to be broke for the rest of my life. People who have money are just lucky.”

During those moments, the people who care for Jeffrey mostly just try to get him to sleep it off. They’ll listen to him for a while and then try to convince him to go to bed or to drink a bunch of coffee or do something else.

When a few days pass and Jeffrey’s complaints are considered, though, it becomes quickly clear how much of a farce they are.

Here’s the reality.

His older brother Will goes to work almost every day at a very challenging job. While I can’t speak firsthand about what it’s like, I know enough about it that I would dread going into work each day and even if I loved it I would find it challenging.

Not only that, Will spends his spare time cultivating side gigs. He has a mowing business and he also works as a farmhand during the peak of the harvest season. Will spends sixty hours a week (or more) working.

I respect that. A lot of people do. It’s pretty hard not to have some respect for someone who busts their tail every day to put food on the table for their family and ensure that their kids have the things they need and at least some opportunities after graduating from high school.

Will is not lucky. Will is a hard worker. Period.

At a quick glance, a person might perceive Will as lucky because of his family and because he has a nice car and a nice house. Behind the curtain, though, it’s clear that Will’s success in life is the result of a lot of hard work.

I identify with Will in that respect. I built The Simple Dollar from scratch while also working a full time research job. I usually have several side gigs going at any given time to earn additional money.

Nothing good in my life would have happened without a lot of hard work. Period.

Don’t get me wrong, luck does play a role. There are always uncertain events in life. Sometimes they’ll benefit you and sometimes they’ll work against you.

Having said that, hard work can overcome a lot of bad luck and it attracts good luck. It also amplifies the effect of any good luck that comes your way.

A person who is always trying to do a good job at work is going to be noticed by their supervisors and when it comes time for layoffs, that good worker is going to be one of the ones that’s kept. When it’s time for a promotion, the hard worker that does a good job of encouraging everyone else to keep it up is going to be eyed for that better job. The presence of that pink slip and that promotion might be luck, but keeping away the pink slip and attracting the promotion are the result of hard work.

A person who invests a lot of hours building a side business is going to have extra money in their pocket. When they need something (or when they want something), they’re going to have the cash for it. A person who comes home from work and doesn’t bother to keep working to improve themselves simply isn’t going to have access to that additional money. The difference is hard work, not luck.

In the end, I don’t really believe in “luck” at all, at least not in the sense of our lives being run by forces outside of our control.

Life is full of uncertain events, of course. Some of those events are positive and some are negative, and sometimes bad things can happen to hardworking people.

However, a person who works hard is going to actively reduce their chances of bad “luck” and actively increase their chances of good “luck.” The harder worker is likely to earn more money and have more professional support than the person who doesn’t work hard.

Mindset also plays a role in this.

Everyone has good and bad things in their life. I’ll use myself as an example instead of Jeffrey and Will here (as they don’t need to be exposed to the world any more than they already have in this article).

I was born with extremely limited vision in my right eye. I basically can’t see anything out of it other than vague colors and shapes. I am completely deaf in my left ear. I was born with an inactive thyroid gland for which I’ve had to take medication since I was three days old and which has a number of minor but unenjoyable consequences for my life.

I could easily hang my hat on these things and use them as reasons for why I am “unlucky” and why I can’t get ahead in life. In fact, in my weaker moments, I do that sometimes.

At the same time, though, I am blessed with a quick mind and a reasonably good work ethic. I have a wife and a number of friends and family that genuinely care about me. I can smell the flowers, hear my daughter’s singing voice, feel the warm sunlight on my skin, see my wife’s beautiful smile, and taste the wonderful flavor of a freshly-picked apple. I am blessed with a ton of things that many people in the world do not have.

It’s always up to me to decide which of those things to focus on. Do I focus on the fact that I have to tilt my head in conversation and constantly ask people to repeat things and use that as an excuse for failure? Or do I think about the fact that I’m good at solving problems and use that as a reason to work hard and succeed?

That decision is a fundamental one and it’s entirely up to me to make it. Countless good consequences and bad consequences in my life follow from that fundamental choice.

Do I choose to work hard and have the unpredictable events in life swing in my favor? Or do I choose to give up and blame others and let the unpredictable events in life push against me?

I will always choose the first one. Without that choice, personal finance success and career success become practically impossible.

So, what would I have said to Jeffrey if I had the chance to talk to him?

“Will gets all of the breaks in life. He gets all of the luck and I get nothing.”

Will works sixty hours a week. He doesn’t get all the breaks in life. He earns them.

“It doesn’t matter what I do. I can’t get ahead.”

Just like Will, you have the choice to work… and you have the choice to blame others and drown your sorrows in a bottle. Every time you make a choice like that, you’re deciding what kind of luck you’re going to have in the future. Choosing to work means choosing better “luck;” choosing to blame and complain means choosing worse “luck.” You have that choice countless times each day, so it certainly does matter what you do. You can’t blame others for the choices you make.

“No one respects me.”

People respect – and don’t respect – the outcome of those choices you make every single day. If you want the respect of others, make the challenging choice and make it regularly. Choose to go to work. Choose to do the best job you can do there. Choose to spend your spare time building up a side gig or two to earn some more cash. Choose to not drink.

Make those choices over and over and people will respect you. You’ve got to earn that respect with lots of tough but positive choices.

“I’m just going to be broke for the rest of my life. People who have money are just lucky.”

When you choose not to work, you choose to be broke. When you choose to drown your sorrows instead of busting your tail, you choose to be broke. When you choose to work hard and do the best you can at your job, even if it’s hard, you choose to have money in your pocket. When you choose to spend your spare time working even more, you choose to have money in your pocket.

It’s your choice. Luck has nothing to do with it.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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