Confidence Gap?

05.19.14

I’m Not Ashamed to Admit I Got Lucky—and Neither Should You

To the authors of The Confidence Code and even Jill Abramson, it seems to be a dirty word. But more women should talk about the role luck played in their career—and so should men.

In an article about their new book, The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman share stories from their own lives to illustrate how two of the most successful journalists working today still struggle with confidence. One example they use, which is supposed to be indicative of their “confidence gap,” is Shipman’s tendency to credit being “lucky” with her major career turning points.

Yet I noticed something strange this week. I took the self-confidence test that accompanied the coverage of their book on some news sites, and I rated extremely self-confident. But I also gave a recent interview in which I credited luck with playing a crucial role in my career. So do I secretly suffer from a lack of self-confidence? Or am I and others who cite luck, including Shipman, simply more self-aware or forthcoming than most people, especially men?

To be clear, Kay and Shipman are not the only ones who seem to have a problem with women using the “L-word.” Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was disdainful of the word, writes Rachel Sklar, a writer and founder of women’s networking site The Li.st. “I had a meeting with Jill two years ago, in her office,” Sklar writes. “She asked me about my career trajectory, and how I had transitioned from law to journalism to tech, across industries. I said I knew how to create good content, I can spot talent, and I work hard. She said, ‘I’m so glad you didn’t say you were lucky.” Your power does not come from luck. Your power comes from you, and what you invest in it every day, in the work and the sweat and the giving a damn.”

But as I recently explained during a Q&A with the millennial women’s organization Levo League, luck has played a pretty significant role in my journey, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Here’s the abridged story of how I became a professional writer: After working in low-level jobs in politics and communications, I had an idea for a book about generational differences among black voters. A friend in media hosted a party. At that party I met a literary agent. That agent introduced me to a colleague. Weeks later, despite having no major publishing credentials to speak of, I was signed by the agent, who worked with a prominent agency and represented clients far more famous than I. Six months later, as Barack Obama’s rumored presidential run made racial politics a topic of national fascination, I received my first offer on my first book. Thanks to the book deal, I was invited to appear on my first national television show a month later. That’s how my career began.

Now I’m a big believer in the definition of luck Oprah Winfrey occasionally mentioned on her eponymous talk show: “I believe luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you hadn’t been prepared when the opportunity came along, you wouldn’t have been ‘lucky.’” Could I ever say with a straight face that luck played no role in my career? Of course not. There are plenty of talented writers out there who don’t have the good fortune to have friends already working in media who will invite them to a party where they may make a connection that will change the rest of their lives. But as I also explained in my interview with Levo League, I work extremely hard. I try always to be prepared so that when an opportunity comes along, I’m ready to make the most out of my lucky break. After getting my book deal, I turned in a finished book in six months while simultaneously finishing a master’s degree at Columbia University. That part, and the positive reviews that followed, had nothing to do with luck. That, as Sklar might say, was all my sweat and “giving a damn.”

I have never met anyone in media who has made it through talent and hard work alone.

What frustrates me about this whole conversation about “luck” is that making it a dirty word seems like yet another way to perpetuate the myth that America really is a meritocracy. But the truth is, I have never met anyone in media who has made it through talent and hard work alone. I know plenty of people who got their first jobs in media because their parents worked in media, or politics, or entertainment. Others got their first job because they attended the right Ivy League school and the person recruiting, or the editor he or she was recruiting for, happened to be an alum. Others were able to secure entry-level jobs simply because their parents could support them financially for the six months or a year or two years of their internships, until they were finally offered that $25,000-a-year job that someone whose parents are not as rich as theirs could not afford to take. Yet plenty of the people who fit those categories either genuinely believe or pretend that their intellect and talent alone got them where they are. At least that’s what they tell the world when asked about their career trajectories. That kind of denial is not fair to the kid sitting at home who has potential but not enough financial aid to attend the Ivy League school he or she may have gotten accepted to or who cannot afford to take that prestigious but underpaid summer internship.

Those kids should hear the truth from more people—women and men. It may be something like, “I work really hard, but I was fortunate that my professor used to work at a publication that gave me my first job.” Or, “My father was friends with an editor who took me under his wing. I proved myself by working nights and weekends for a long time and finally got promoted.” In other words, talent, hard work, and intellect matter. But so does whom you know, who likes you, who doesn’t, how you look, where you come from, and plenty of other characteristics that have little to do with getting the job done but can have everything to do with getting the job.

Instead of discouraging women from acknowledging our luck, we should be encouraging men to ’fess up to their lucky breaks, too. Particularly privileged white men whose luck one could argue starts with…well, being born privileged, white, and male. Sklar writes that our power comes from us and what we do and do well: “That is your capital.” I agree with that. But sometimes it takes a little luck to make that capital grow. And there’s nothing wrong with saying so.