Is it Luck, or do I Suck?

Aug 03 2010 Published by under [Etc]

There is this phrase that some people I know like to throw around:

"The harder you work, the luckier you get."

Uttered by Gary Player, a golfer, at some point in history of the universe. Now, in theory, I like this quote a lot, particularly as it pertains to golf.

But I have totally soured to its use in the context of science. In fact, it irks the shit out of me. And here's why:

1. Sometimes you work really, really hard, and you don't get lucky. [Example, this one from my personal library: You've been trying to do this THING for two years. You've tried everything you can think of. You assemble data, make a list of attempted techniques, tuck a box of tissues under you arm, and sit down for a meeting with your advisor. Advisor looks at your junk and says, "Well, looks like you've found 15 things that don't work. Now all you need is one that works, goddammit." Super.]

2. Sometimes you get lucky without doing jack. [Example: You are a lazy ass and don't do much work. One night you get lit, swing by the lab, and in your drunken stupor start singing "I Want You to Want Me" to your African chipmunk pancreas cells. Without delay, the cells start producing diamonds.]

3. Most irritating, however, is the implication that if you don't get lucky, then you haven't been working hard.


The astute (and good-looking) reader may suspect that my disdain for the quote stems from my general lack of luck in the scientific arena. And there is some truth in that, of course. But I cannot cry and complain that I have nothing to show for all of my years in the lab, because that's just not true. When it comes to science results, however, everything I've gotten has been the direct result of work, not luck.

And this phrase seems like nothing more than something lucky people say to one another.

17 responses so far

  • Jason G. Goldman says:

    I hate lucky people. Just saying.

  • WhizBANG says:

    For a brief period of my life, everything I touched worked.
    I got an R01 and my scientific life was on its way.
    Then all semblance of luck left the building. No "expected results" occurred. We reworked the plan, did some different experiments, and eventually came up with a kick-butt hypothesis.
    Which, 5 years later, I cannot find a way to test.
    Some of the failures actually fit with our hypothesis. Some of them just demonstrate that the available techniques don't quite work for what we need to test.
    People wonder why I curse and drink? This...

  • physioprof says:

    I hate that saying as well, because it doesn't capture the most important aspect of "attracting good luck". In order to maximize your chances of getting lucky, you need to maximize your exposure to beneficial risk. This has much more to do with the judicious application of hard work in wisely chosen directions than it does the sheer volume of hard work.

  • Dr Becca says:

    And this phrase seems like nothing more than something lucky people say to one another.

    Yes, this. Nobody wants to admit they had no part in their (undeserved?) success. Ironically, it's those who do succeed as a product of hard work who will claim to have been lucky.

  • Nat says:

    I feel about luck the way Wesley felt about ROUSes (rodents of unusual size):

    "I don't believe it exists"

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I have had incredible bad luck and incredible good luck in the course of my career. I have not figured out if my degree of hard work has anything to do with either.


  • "3. Most irritating, however, is the implication that if you don’t get lucky, then you haven’t been working hard."

    This irritates me the most about that quote. It implies that even if I have been working 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week, then I must need to put in longer hours (or create a new day) in order to "be lucky."

  • Bashir says:

    How do you feel about "Fortune favors the bold", my personal favorite that I apply to both my career and golf. Wii golf mind you, but it works out pretty well.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    Ehh, I don't know how much I like that one, either. Fortune favors people who use their effing heads. As for Wii golf, I love it! Haven't broken in out though in probably a year, maybe it is time....

  • chall says:

    Oh I hear you. Especially the last part ... "if you've worked long and hard enough the luck will come to you" not? really? pahh....

    That said, sometimes there are those strange unplanned results that pop up on the side and give you happy times. Although, they are few and very far between.

    I would rather think there might be a bit of luck involved in "when" certain results pop up - you know, the happy gel that comes around when noone is there to join in in the cheer but the bad results arrives just in time for lab meeting πŸ˜‰

    Oh and Happy to see your new home πŸ™‚ Looks great. I need to update the link.

  • JH says:

    I like this quote better:

    "Chance favors the prepared mind."
    -- Louis Pasteur

    It is not so much that hard work should entitle you to get lucky, but more that *when* you happen to have luck, "being prepared" (which includes doing hard work) puts you in a much better situation to take advantage of the lucky occasion.

    Lot of people who don't put much efort into something get lucky as well but can't make use of it.

    And this I really believe to be true, even though I have not been somehow especially lucky in my life or work (but also not unlucky). I see the application of that quote every day in small things (work or sports or other things).

  • Candid Engineer says:

    @JH- You're right, I like that one a lot better. Thanks.

  • I agree with Physioprof. Your hard work has to be invested in wisely chosen directions.

    The most successful academics I know are ones who make that tough decision to stop chasing their favourite topic (which is producing no good results) and shift direction a little to a project that has a better chance of succeeding.

    Of course, if you're under instruction to just 'get it done' and nothing's working, that's shittier because you don't have the luxury of deciding when to call it quits. I've been there, and I sympathise.

  • John says:

    Work smarter, not harder.

    Enough said.

  • Namnezia says:

    @JH - Pasteur rules! (or ruled)

    I've often completely changed research directions based on weird-ass findings when trying to do a given experiment, and then taken it from there. The first postdoc that worked in my lab had a nice strategy. She had a "boring" project, which was very likely to yield some mundane but solid result. She had her main project which tested a given hypothesis and if it was true it would give kick ass results (which it did) but if it didn't it would result in some mundane but publishable result (which part of it also did). And finally, she had freaky Fridays. Every Friday afternoon she would just try out some crazy-ass experiment which 90% of the time didn't work. But whenever it worked, she would essentially launch a new line of research in my lab. And I really think that this free-form fucking around with your prep to try as many different ideas as fast as possible is key to finding a good project. Once something promising pops up you can do the experiment properly.

    If you are in a situation in which you are chasing an expected result - then yes, it's all about luck.

  • Most people think luck is something that lands in your lap with no work involved. My experience tells me luck requires a bit of effort and I consider myself very lucky.