Think Bigger

“Good luck” and other everyday words that keep us from hitting our goals

I was talking to an acquaintance in Toronto when she told me she had just moved from Sydney and was trying to find a job. She bemoaned how difficult it was to find work and I nodded along sympathetically. Then she said:

“It’s hard. I wish that something would just fall into my lap.”

Whoa, hold on.

I noticed that she specifically used “fall into my lap” to underline this wistful expectation or hope that things would “just happen” to her. That eventually good fortune will find her and give her exactly what she wants, without the requisite work. It changed my perception of how she was approaching her job hunt: There was probably more she could actively do. Fair? Maybe not, but it’s where my mind went when she said that.

This is the power of language.

The words we choose to include in our natural vocabulary carry certain meanings, hopes, and dreams that don’t need to be said outright. They open a window into our thought process and worldview. Dr. Jack Schafer, an assistant professor at Western Illinois University, wrote:

“Certain words reflect the behavioral characteristics of the person who spoke or wrote them. I labeled these words, Word Clues. Word Clues increase the probability of predicting the behavioral characteristics of people by analyzing the words they choose when they speak or write.”

Phrases like “fall into my lap” reveal a pervasive, underlying belief that things will somehow work themselves out with a little can-do attitude and luck; hard effort on your part optional.

And since that time, I’ve made it a point to pick up on these words, and I hear it in everyday conversations with friends:

  • Any luck finding what you’re looking for?”
  • “When opportunity knocks on your door, you should open it, duh.”
  • “Wow, you’ve really struck gold!”
  • Fingers crossed.”
  • “I just got lucky.”
  • Everything will work out in the end.”
  • “A good-paying job doesn’t fall from the sky.”

I call these “luck-oriented” words, and the twist is, most of the successful entrepreneurs I talk to have nearly banished these words from their daily conversations.

Because they know that luck plays an itty-bitty part.

Luck-oriented words can be toxic because they undermine the idea of concerted hard work and effort. They imply that you surrender agency and control over certain aspects of your life — like business — and whatever good that comes out is left up to a higher invisible power. We often don’t realize we’re saying these words. Worse, we don’t realize their impact on how we behave and how we’re perceived.

To use luck-oriented words, you’re admitting you’re waiting around for things to happen TO YOU, rather than recognizing that YOU have the power to make the decisions that’d actually benefit your goals. You’re telling the world and yourself you don’t need to drive the car. You’ll hang in the back, thanks.

If you want to eat healthier, you have to make the conscious decision to choose to eat healthier, like cooking food at home instead of ordering takeout. If you want to save for retirement, you have to make the conscious decision to open a 401k and contribute to it. These don’t happen by accident or because you “got lucky.”

Of course, no one actually believes that good-paying jobs “fall from the sky” or that “opportunity knocks.” We just love using luck-oriented words to keep the hope alive for a few reasons:

We are disillusioned by “success porn”

Incredible against-all-odds-themed success stories are endlessly paraded in the media. We hear from those who were “down on their luck” and somehow — with the vaguest of details — they turned things around. Now they’re more successful, richer, more fit, in a happy relationship, and so on.

Classic “rags to riches” sort of narrative.

The common narrative paints an unrealistic picture of how success happens and what it takes. But the message that’s easily missed is this: These people aren’t just lucky, they’re persistent AF.

Wayne Gretzky’s famous saying, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” comes to mind. But what’s NOT said — but merely implied — is that you need to take a TON OF SHOTS first, and eventually, maybe you’ll get lucky. When you look under the hood of these success stories, you start to see a much more boring, more true theme: resilience, aka lots and lots of missed shots and the will to keep making them.

J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before Harry Potter was finally published and went on to make her a bajillionaire. It took Tim Ferriss 26 swings before the 26th publisher accepted his manuscript for The 4-Hour Work Week. Babe Ruth had an amazing 714 career home runs, but also had 1,330 strikeouts.

As I’ve written in another GrowthLab post, luck is less “luck” and more about probability, where if you slap enough pucks at the goalie, even if your aim sucks, one will eventually go in. But you have to make sure to keep takin’ those shots. So make the decision to send those requests for coffee meetings, to come up with new business ideas after the last four failed, to write those blog posts that no one will probably read at first, to launch and relaunch those products — just keep on keeping on.

We don’t want to be personally responsible for not “making it”

I like to take the IDEA of hard work to a nice steak and candlelit dinner, but in reality, I often want to take it out back and clobber it with a baseball bat.

Struggling to learn new skills, to understand an esoteric concept, to rack my brain for a solution when something isn’t working, to do these things most of the time is just no fun. Hard work is HARD, yo. But what sucks even more is working this hard and having zilch to show for it.

What would our friends and family think? Worse, what would we think of ourselves? (That we’re a sucka, that’s what.)

Depending on luck to take the wheel is never having to own up to things not happening in our favor. It allows us to offload responsibility and feelings of guilt to the Powers That Be, so we can shrug and say, “Well, them’s the breaks,” when just maybe we actually didn’t work hard enough. Or do everything we possibly could do to work toward that thing we always talk and dream about. And that’s hard to admit.

I touched on this idea in another article: we say we want one thing, but our actions and decisions don’t add up to that thing.

The quicker we can recognize that we are capable of making decisions and taking matters into our own hands, the faster we can actually get what we want.

We feel like we “deserve” things

On Facebook, I often come across updates from friends getting job promotions (or new jobs), breaking certain revenue goals, or generally doing AWESOME things, and I’m happy for them. Inevitably there’d be a congratulatory message along the lines of “Way to go! You deserve it!”

Barf. “Deserve” is such a misleading word.

“Deserve” implies inevitability. “Universe, I did my part just enough, thanks. Now you have to do yours.”

Except it doesn’t work that way. There is no magic tipping point where the gods owe you something. There’s no work ethic bank account that you can draw from the moment it is in the positive. Life is more inexact than that.

Think of the most successful businesses of our time: They are successful because they provide so much value TO the world. Not “just enough.” But overwhelming amounts. Steve Jobs forever transformed smartphones (and pretty much all technology). Oprah inspires millions and offers a platform for others to be heard (and has for decades).

Chris Rock’s biting comedy tackles big, important issues like politics and race, and here he highlights this point about “deserving” things just because (warning: explicit language ahead):

Figure out what value YOU can offer to the world consistently and overwhelmingly, rather than what the world can give to you as if you deserved a trophy for showing up occasionally. It’s not how things really work. Good things happen only after you provide a staggering amount of value to the world — and you’d feel good doing so, too.

In a world where luck can play a small part, offering immense value to the world is one of the best ways to create your own luck.

“Often you will discover that the harder you work, and the more wisely you work, the luckier you get. But there is luck, and it helps.” — Neil Gaiman, author

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There Are 10 Comments


Alison N Smith

Stephanie, I meant to tell you long ago how much I like your posts. You are so smart & funny, and your writing style is wonderfully irreverent. You are just like that adorable, angry otter pic – you go ahead with your bad self!

Thank you so much for the lovely comment and reading, Alison! Feels good 🙂

Thank you for sharing this very interesting post with us i really enjoyed reading about it, it is very helpful with great information.

I love this quote: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. So true yet so hard to apply. Perseverence and grit are indeed the key to success. Carol S. Dweck wrote an excellent book on the growth mindset.

As allways, love your style, Stephanie!

Harold L Palmer

After reading this and the article on Paradox:

I came up with the following:
• The more I talk about doing something, the less likely I am to do anything.
• The more I try to forcibly convince someone of my stance in an argument, the less likely they are to be convinced.
• The more I try to hide your insecurities, the more insecure I feel.
• Paradox 1: The more time I think I have, the less I actually value it
And still I willingly squander so much of my time with procrastination and empty promises with myself that I’ll get to things later. Why do I think that the passage of time doesn’t seem to apply to me, like I’m immortal?
what’s truly most important to me and make time for those things and only those things.

Paradox 2: The more I rely on motivation, the more motivation will fail me
I really just need to take action in spite of feeling motivated or not.
“I didn’t feel like doing it, but I did it anyway,” I encourage you to dig a little deeper to find why I want to do that thing with the why exercise.
1. Clearly state what I want. Let’s say you want to be able to quit your job in one year. Ask why.
2. You might say that you want to stop doing the three-hour commute, which saps all of your energy. OK, ask why again.
3. Then you say that you want to free up more time.
4. Again, ask why: What would more time do? And you might say, “So that I can be happier and more fulfilled spending it with family and doing the things that really matter to me.”
“Why not you?”

Paradox 3: The more I know what to do, the less likely I am to actually do
What’s the smallest, most feasible, simplest step for ME to put this into action?
Paradox 4: The more I want things to be easy, the less satisfied I am with things that are easy
Ironically, I think I want things, like a house or a relationship, to be free of charge and/or gotten with little to no hard work on omy part, but in the end, I value them less.
it’s the struggle of striving and working for that outcome that is more satisfying than getting the outcome itself.
Paradox 5: The more I’m afraid to fail, the more I’m likely to fail (to improve)

The paradox here is that success comes from failure. When you fail, you learn to improve, and in order to improve, you must fail.

Paradox 6: The more I wait for things to “happen,” the less likely anything actually happens
Luck is less “luck” and more about probability: throw enough darts at the bull’s-eye, even if you have terrible aim, and one of them will eventually stick.
But also, I gotta throw all those darts Myself, man.
Continuing to believe that happenstance will start or grow my business isn’t just harmful. It’s the stuff of fairy tales that implies I am refusing to take matters into my own hands — whether that’s getting people to read my blog by guest posting or to buy my product by doing my due diligence in researching and then creating the best damn possible product that my customers actually need.

Finally someone told the truth!

Thanks for writing this Stephanie. Already shared this with a friend who got frustrated because everyone says she’s lucky to get that job.

You’re on point about that ‘rags to riches’ narrative — I’m so tired of seeing it everywhere to the point I don’t even entertain the idea of gently educating them when someone mentions luck anymore.

P.S. Love that “Lucky Cat” picture (lol). We have a lot of luck symbols in Vietnam, including this. When I lived in the U.S. it seemed that the Lucky Cat is one of the things associated with Asians. It’s interesting to see how it may (or may not) contribute to the cultural stereotypes of Asians there.

Hey Stephanie,

I agree with what you’re saying about valuing persistence over luck. That way you aren’t a passive victim of your life, you’re an active doer.

On the other hand, learning that free will doesn’t even exist—that our entire lives are 100% due to luck of the draw—was the most helpful thing I’ve ever learned. How can I hate someone when they’re just following their path, unable to do anything differently? How can I feel superior to someone when my happiness and success are due purely to the good fortune of my genetics and circumstance?

Could there be some wisdom in these expressions? Some reason why we’ve adopted them as a society? For example, we’re living in a time where societies are reshaping themselves to help those in need—more universal healthcare, welfare, human rights, etc. The weak (unfortunate) are offered protections from the strong (fortunate).

Of course, this doesn’t stop us from acting like free will exists when it serves us—taking responsibility for our lives. But it’s still all just luck in the end, no? And isn’t realizing that kind of magical?

If I had had a checklist before reading this, it would have checkmarks all over the paper.
It’s so true that we think that what we are doing (or pretending to do) is just what needs to be done and that the rest has to come because we are “good”.
It has happened to me many times, and still happens when I get distracted.

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