Why it’s time women stopped saying their success is down to ‘luck’

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Moya Crockett
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Gabrielle Union says she’s made a conscious effort to stop thinking of herself as lucky. We should all follow her lead – because women are much too quick to dismiss their achievements as a fluke. 

When I first told people that I’d got a job at Stylist, two years ago, there was one phrase I found myself using over and over again. A friend or a relative would congratulate me, and I’d smile awkwardly and look at the ground. “Thanks,” I’d say. “But it was just luck, really. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

In a way, this was true. I’d been freelancing at Stylist for months when a staff job became available, and I’m sure management’s decision was influenced by the fact that I was already a familiar face. But when a close friend heard me say “just luck, really” for the umpteenth time, she stepped in. “But it wasn’t just luck, was it?” she said. “You also had to, you know, be good at what you do.”

This was a revelation to me. Until that point, I hadn’t genuinely considered the possibility that I might have been hired simply because I was good. I’d attributed my success to a raft of external factors: my then-editor seemed to like me! The timing was fortuitous! But not once did I think I might be able to take some of the credit myself. I just felt very, very… lucky.

I know I’m not the only woman to dismiss her achievements as being down to dumb luck. In one early study investigating imposter syndrome, researchers noted that female graduate students frequently attributed their high exam scores to luck, and other research has shown that women are more likely than men to cite luck as a reason for their accomplishments. In 2015, data from the analytics company Crimson Hexagon showed that 67% of tweets that used the word “lucky” in the first person – i.e. “I’m so lucky” – were posted by women. 

Helen Bownass, Stylist’s entertainment director, has interviewed some of the world’s most famous women – and she says the L-word comes up again and again. 

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve interviewed successful actresses and singers – and I mean A-List, stadium-filling, box office-smashing women who are making some of the most important work of their career – who call themselves ‘lucky’ when describing their success,” she says. “I often pick them up on it and ask if it’s really luck or if they’ve worked hard to get there. And they almost always agree they’ve worked bloody hard.”

Gabrielle Union is rejecting the idea of being ‘hashtag grateful’

In a recent interview, Gabrielle Union revealed that she’d made a conscious effort to stop thinking of herself as “lucky”, and highlighted how viewing herself that way had actually been detrimental to her career.

The actor and writer told CNBC Make It that feeling lucky goes hand-in-hand with feeling grateful. And while there’s nothing wrong with being thankful, Union found that those emotions meant she wasn’t picky enough about who she worked with when starting a business (she launched her own haircare line, Flawless, last year).

Because she felt so lucky that anyone wanted to work with her at all, Union said, she didn’t ask key questions such as: “Do you have a long term plan for this business? Do you have marketing dollars beyond this amount of time?”

Instead, she just “[felt] lucky that someone responded to my dream”, and “hopped at the first chance”. That, in turn, meant she ended up working with people who weren’t the right fit for her business.

“Believe in yourself, don’t sell yourself short because you feel lucky – ‘hashtag grateful’ – for the first motherf****r who pays attention to you,” Union advised. “And that goes for everything, but in business, I keep learning that, the hard way.”

“Don’t sell yourself short because you feel lucky – ‘hashtag grateful’ – for the first motherf****r who pays attention to you”: Gabrielle Union 

There’s another problem with viewing and presenting ourselves as lucky. Not only does it erase our own achievements, exacerbate imposter syndrome and put us at risk of selling ourselves short, it may also breed resentment from others who don’t feel so fortunate. Saying that you “just got lucky” when you get a longed-for job doesn’t just diminish your success: it renders your efforts invisible, giving the impression that good things just fall into your lap.

As Hannah Seligson noted in a 2015 piece in The Atlantic, depicting ourselves as ‘just lucky’ “tells the world that everything just happened easily, without lifting a finger. For instance, the woman who writes #luckyat32 underneath the picture of her two adorable children might not have said that she had children after seven wrenching, expensive rounds of IVF.” Seen from this perspective, crediting everything to luck isn’t just doing yourself a disservice – it can be alienating, annoying and upsetting for others, too.

None of this is to suggest that we shouldn’t be appreciative of what we’ve got, or recognise the ways in which our successes have been influenced by our circumstances. Case in point: I was lucky enough to be able to do a masters’ degree in journalism, because I am lucky enough to have parents who could help me out with tuition fees. It’s both possible and important to acknowledge honestly the ways life has dealt you a good hand, and how you have benefited from structural privilege, without undermining your own achievements.

But there are some things that just aren’t down to chance. Lady Luck didn’t simply roll the dice in your favour the day you nailed a project at work, started a successful side hustle or got a big promotion. You worked hard to develop your skills, you put in the graft, and you impressed people. That’s all on you. It’s time to own it.

Images: Getty Images