“It is the mark of an inexperienced man not to believe in luck.” – Joseph Conrad

By Jim Kempton

Why do Americans have such a pervasive belief that we are the product of our own making?

Ask most people and they will say that we create our own luck. But we so often forget that no matter how much preparation, energy and perseverance we invest, unpredictable luck still plays a critical role. Yet we usually don’t want to admit it.

E.B. White once said “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”

Although I have written about this before, I think the idea is worth revisiting. Here are some additional examples—some of which have kept me humble, thankful, respectful and appreciative whenever I get to thinking I personally deserve all my “self-made” successes.

Jim Kempton. File photo
Jim Kempton. File photo

At one point in my career, I became the vice president of marketing at TransWorld Publishing. I was in charge of the marketing at both Skateboarding and Snowboarding magazines. I took all the things I had learned in my years working at Surfer magazine and applied them to my plan at these two new publications.

The skateboarding sector of the boardsports business was in the doldrums but the snowboard industry was taking off like a rocket. So my efforts exploded the Snow magazine profits, but just barely kept Skateboarding afloat. I looked like a genius in snow and a dunce in skate—but did exactly the same things. It was simply the luck of the draw.

Sometimes it is literally the number on the card you get dealt: One of my friends and I received our notices about the Vietnam draft status together. I’ll never forget opening our draft lottery letters on the lawn in front of the college cafeteria.

By the luck of the draw our lives were set in motion never to be the same. My number was 342—meaning I was in the 5 percent who was least likely to ever be drafted. I could finish school and explore the dreams I envisioned. His was number five—meaning he was not going to complete college, his dreams deferred. He was off to the jungles of Southeast Asia to return as a very different man

So the lesson from all this is not that hard work or perseverance doesn’t count—it is that you shouldn’t count on them. You still must have determination, honed skills and deep commitment to succeed at anything. Life is a little like playing cards. You can be the best poker player in the world, but you still need the luck of a Royal Flush to beat a guy who got dealt four aces.

Jim Kempton is a writer and surfer who readily admits to having had lots of luck come his way—his wife, his children and his many friends. He believes the secret to life is not so much in getting a great hand, but in knowing when to cash in your chips and go home for the night.

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