Monday, April 18, 2016

Does luck play a role in academe? Absolutely.

Figure 1. Walter White in Breaking Bad
At The Chronicle, "Do You Know How Lucky You Are?" asks that very question. (It's behind the paywall, unfortunately, so the first piece of luck would be actually getting access to the article.)

The author, Robert H. Frank, explains that if John Cusack and Matthew Broderick hadn't turned down the role of Walter White on Breaking Bad,  the world might never have gotten the chance to see the brilliant performances that Bryan Cranston gave in that show.

Frank, a tenured professor, says that luck played a large role in his life as well, from being hired as part of an unusually large cohort of tenure-track faculty at Cornell to the success of his publications. As one proposed essay collection falls through, he submits the essay to one of the most prestigious journals in the field, and it's accepted. He extends the argument in another essay, sends it to another prestigious journal, and bingo, it's accepted, too.

Now obviously, as Louis Pasteur said, "fortune favors the prepared mind," but luck plays a significant role as well.

Maybe you send an article on, say, the aesthetics of lawn-mower blades to the Journal of Lawn-Trimming Aesthetics and the editor has just said to him/herself, "You know, we haven't done an issue on trimming tools for a while."  Is that luck, or is it the zeitgeist, or maybe both?

Or you meet someone at a conference who happens to be putting together a collection.

Or your manuscript is turned down by one press only to be published by a better one.

Of course, Frank only talks about good luck, not bad luck.  I still wonder what would have happened way back in 2007 if I hadn't been rushing off to class when Major University Press contacted me. About what, you ask? I never found out.

Can you think of times when luck played a part in your career?


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I wrote this super long comment, but then it seems to have disappeared. Well, I decided to channel that energy into a letter to the editors of the Chronicle. We'll see if anything comes of it. Since it's such a long response, I'll email it to you. If it's tldr, it won't hurt my feelings at all. But, spoiler, I have decided that luck has NOTHING to do with success. I think success has everything to do with audacity.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

ha. Actually, I can't find an email address for you, so if you want to read my letter to the editor, email me at fie upon this quiet life at gmail and I'll send it to you. If you don't want to read it, I won't be hurt in any way. Promise.

xykademiqz said...

I wanna read Fie's letter too!
(It's totally okay if I can't. But it sounds great!)
And audacity is definitely more abundant in those who have had lots of success previously... Such as good pedigre, etc. Can't be audacious if you are constantly drowning in impostor syndrome.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

xykademiqz - if you want to read it, email me. :)

Flavia said...

I think, generally, people want to believe that those who are more successful than they were lucky (to some degree--not necessarily completely), but are resistant to believing that luck played a role in their own success. And someone at Cornell who proclaims he benefitted from luck will rarely have detractors! (Haven't been able to read the article, though, alas.)

Do I believe I "deserve" the things I've gotten? I guess, in the sense that I have enough talent or ability. But lots of people have that, and haven't done as well. Being in the right place at the right time was absolutely crucial to one or two paths my career has taken.

Flavia said...

Aha! My spouse has a subscription to the Chronicle.

Agree with the article 100%. I especially like his point that we need to cultivate the circumstances & public institutions that permit others to be lucky, and their lack is part of the reason for our current economic divide.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I'll have to take a look when I'm on campus (we have a subscription there, but one has to go through the library databases from home, and they don't update quite as quickly as direct online access), but I basically agree: I've encountered relatively few people who seem to have done better than they deserved due to various forms of privilege, but I certainly know plenty who would thrive, and contribute, in "better" jobs than they have (though the whole question of what does or should constitute a better job is of course a tricky one).

Anonymous said...

I send a book manuscript to Rutgers University Press, at their request. Incredibly, they trashed it. I reminded them that they had solicited the manuscript and that's why I had sent it to them, and not the other way around. After the rejection, I sent it to Duke University Press, my preferred choice all along. They accepted it and published it a few years later. That was probably my luckiest break in academia. Many thanks to the editor of the series at Rutgers UP for not picking my manuscript!