Good luck and hard work

I have some long-term hard-core nerd credentials. Back in early primary school, in the pre-homework years, I would set myself my own assignments and complete them with vigour and hand them in to bemused teachers. One infamous project in the Lewis household was “Fun with Planets”.

I come from a chilled out family with a love of learning. My parents never pushed me, but they never needed to. I was driven and pushed myself more than enough. I worked hard because I enjoyed it.

I’ve also had more than my fair share of good luck. I grew up in a loving and bookish family. I grew up in an area with great schools and dedicated teachers. I grew up in a time of indoor sanitation and dental hygiene.

Back in October, I posted a blog about my personal experience of the ubiquitous struggles of post-docing. To paraphrase, a senior academic responded that I should get over it, “You are lucky to even have a post-doc and its up to you to make a success of it.”

Good grief was I angry! Lucky? Certainly, but how about all my hard work? Why was that being ignored?

Thinking back over my career, it’s hard to deconvolve good luck and hard work. As a child, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to academically strong private school. My mum had entered my name for the exam on a whim, forgotten about it until late the night before and rushed to make last minute arrangements.

I succeeded in the exam with a combination of luck (the absence of a competing Alberta Einstein) and hard work (all that early investment in Fun with Planets). I ended up with a mixed bag – it turns out I hated the school but received a world-class education.

My good luck/hard work bundle continued. I was lucky to get into an advanced program for my undergraduate degree, lucky to go to university at a time when I could be generously supported by the Australian taxpayer and lucky enough to have many excellent lecturers.

But I also worked hard and enjoyed the opportunities I was afforded. I’m sure I studied with others who had equal opportunities and abilities but achieved less.

I agree that I’m lucky to have a post-doc, when others who are capable and hard working miss out. I’m particularly lucky that during my PhD I meet great scientists who were willing to invest in my research. I’m most grateful that I was lucky enough to apply for a postdoc working with a senior scientist who was willing to take a gamble on an under-qualified but overly enthusiastic young graduate.

At the same time, its more than likely they were willing to take such a chance because my Fun with Planets hard-working credentials were apparent.

All in all, I’ve had some good luck and some bad luck. In effect, ‘luck’ is meaningless. A successful and satisfying career requires hard work, persistence and taking chances. As a result, good things will happen, and of course, bad things will happen. Academics tend to retro-describe these respectively as ‘good luck’ and ‘I’m never going to be good enough and I mess up everything I touch’ .

I’m exceptionally grateful for the abundant opportunities and privileges that have permitted me to embark on an academic career. But these are just a starting point, hard work is also required.

* I’ve been meaning to write this post since that comment back in October got me thinking. Meanwhile, there’s a great complementary post you can read over at cubistcrystal on risk and hard work.

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One thought on “Good luck and hard work

  1. Discounting the contribution you made yourself is not a good idea. I hope you managed not to resort to violence. You have to make something out of the lucky breaks you get.

    Hard work in the sense of making an unhealthy number of hours can, however, also be detrimental in a creative profession like science. Dedication and really wanting to knack a problem with every fiber in your body helps a lot.

    The reverse is also infuriating, people who think they got to were they are because of their achievements, oblivious of all the good breaks (luck or their background gave them) and seeing people who did not get as far as inferior.

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