If you are reading this, you are one of the luckiest people who ever lived. Maybe you don’t feel that way – maybe your life is a mess and you don’t feel lucky at this moment, or maybe your life is going great but you think it is all due to your own hard work and intelligence. Nevertheless, you are one of the lucky ones. To understand why, and why it matters, consider this story of another lucky one:
Ever since she was a little girl, Veronica Bennett dreamed of becoming a famous singer. She was the kind of kid who converted her living room into a mock stage, standing on the coffee table like it was a proscenium and holding a wooden spoon like a microphone while she sang along to her favorite records. She would choreograph and memorize elaborate routines to accompany each song. When she was fourteen, she even got her sister Estelle and cousin Nedra to try singing with her as a group. They practiced harmonizing together, and within a few years they were even singing at birthday parties and bar mitzvahs as “The Darling Sisters”, a name their grandmother had suggested.
While she enjoyed performing at parties, Veronica wanted to get noticed by someone who could get them a real gig, maybe even a record deal. Even though she was only seventeen, she, Estelle, and Nedra decided to try to get into the Peppermint Lounge, a New York discotheque frequented by the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, and Jackie Kennedy. The girls got all dolled up in matching yellow dresses with frills and teased their hair into great big bouffants, and then took the subway to wait in line in front of the club.
After they had been standing there for some time, a doorman noticed the three young women, all dressed the same, and he gave a heads-up to the club manager. The manager went down the line to them and said, “What are you doing out here in line? You’re already late!” Then he turned to go back into the club, expecting the girls to follow.
Veronica quickly realized that the manager must have hired another girl group to perform at the club, and when that group didn’t show up, he mistook The Darling Sisters for them. “Let’s go!” she said to Estelle and Nedra, and the three of them followed the manager in. He led them through the club to the stage, and then told them, “You’re dancers, so dance!” The girls climbed up and began moving to the music the house band, Joey Dee and The Starliters, was already playing. They were cute and enthusiastic, so, even if some people recognized that they weren’t professional dancers, the crowd and the band both encouraged them to keep going.
Then one of the band members came up to sing Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say”, a song that Veronica often performed at parties. Veronica, knowing this song well, sidled up to the singer and “started shaking everything [she] had”, receiving cheers and applause from the audience. The singer, playing along, passed her the microphone – and that was all she needed. She ripped through the rest of the song, generating wild applause from both the club patrons and The Starliters by the time she reached the end.
At break time a short while later, the manager – realizing his mistake – came over and offered the girls a regular job. Every night for months, they would head to the Peppermint Lounge after school – yes, they were still in high school – sing a song or two with The Starliters and then go-go dance for the crowd the rest of the night. They were so popular that when the Peppermint Lounge opened another branch in Miami, the owner flew the girls down for a few weeks that summer so they could perform. It was while they were in Miami that they were introduced to the influential New York DJ Murray the K, who hired them to perform regularly at his huge rock’n’roll revues.
By then, Veronica, Estelle, and Nedra had stopped performing under the grandmotherly name “The Darling Sisters”. Instead, they chose a name that echoed the girl groups, like the Chordettes and the Marvelettes, that they emulated. So when the legendary producer Phil Spector heard them perform and decided that he wanted to make them the next great girl group, he signed them up under their new name – The Ronettes. And later, when Veronica Bennett married Phil Spector, she became Ronnie Spector, the name under which she would eventually be inducted (with Estelle and Nedra) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It is so easy for humans to both underestimate and overestimate the part luck plays in their lives. You could read Ronnie Spector’s story and see her success as just the result of one incredible stroke of good fortune. If she hadn’t gone to the Peppermint Lounge that night . . . if the group who was supposed to show up had been there . . . if the doorman and the manager hadn’t jumped to the wrong conclusion . . . The Ronettes might never have performed anywhere more extravagant than a sweet sixteen party. But wait! Sure, that was a lucky break, but it would have meant nothing if not for all the work they had put in – learning the harmonies, practicing the dance moves – and if not for Ronnie’s willingness to make the most of the chance they had been given: following the manager, taking the stage, taking the microphone. That wasn’t luck – that was skill, that was diligence, that was confidence. It was Veronica’s personal qualities that led to her success, not the whims of fortune. On the other hand, how would she have fared if she hadn’t been born and raised in New York City, where she had the opportunity to meet music industry bigwigs? Or if she had been born a century earlier and a thousand miles to the south, where she might well have been someone else’s property?
You are among the luckiest humans who have ever lived. Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years, and only for the last 0.1% of that time have people had the widespread opportunity to live in societies that value and protect all individuals’ rights and aspirations equally. Only for the last 0.01% of that time have people enjoyed the kind of technology that permits instant connection to virtually all knowledge and potentially all places, that allows people to live safely and comfortably for nearly a century, and that has created economies in which most people can even consider the possibility of seeking and choosing work that they find personally satisfying. If you are on the internet reading this post, you are enjoying a kind a luck your ancestors – and, still, quite a large proportion of your contemporaries – could not even have dreamed of. Whether or not you also experience an additional bit of extraordinary luck, the way The Ronettes did – a chance encounter with a career benefactor, or a surprise opportunity to demonstrate your skills – don’t ever forget: you are already incredibly lucky, but luck is only a catalyst that works on effort, persistence, and vision.