Is attributing personal accomplishments to luck a backhanded compliment?

Something I noticed happening in mixed company is for a person to hear one of the peers casually talking about a recent accomplishment- graduating from school, finally being able to buy a house, having a baby, etc and attributing the accomplishment to ‘luck’. This often seems to happen with stuff that makes the listener jealous- maybe they themselves dropped out of college, never were able to scrape up enough money to afford a house of their own, stuggled to find ANY job much less a decent one. When it comes seemingly so easy to someone else it seems easy to assume ‘they were just lucky’.

However, I think that saying it is kind of rude. If someone is humble and not trying to brag, they themselves will confess what aspects of it were ‘lucky’. But if they worked their ass off, did it without any help or free rides, dismissing it as ‘lucky’ is rather condescending.

My wife had to deal with this recently. Last May she completed her Master’s of Social Work. She already had a good-paying job lined up, and she now makes more money in a 40 hour 5 day workweek than I do working 7 days straight/75 hours total. She’s had a few people make some disparaging remarks to her, and the common thing about all of them is they say ‘she’s so lucky’.

Her aunt told her she was lucky to marry a guy with a good-paying job to support her (However while she was in Grad School she had a grant which completely paid for her entire education and gave her tax-free living expenses; I didn’t end up paying a dime out of my paycheck and as far as I was concerned Grad School was essentially her ‘job’ for 2 years).

My friend’s wife told her she was lucky to be able to go to Grad School (She spent 5 years undergrad double majoring in Social Work and Business, the first person in her entire family to go to college and now the first to go to grad school. She had NO SUPPORT in undergrad, she had to figure everything out, get student loans, work them off, build up work experience, work toward, and earn a grant that would allow her to be able to afford grad school, apply, and get into grad school.)

One of my aunts told her she was lucky to have found a job so easily since her own daughter was unemployed for 1.5 years after finishing college (My wife busted her ass on internships, networked with nonprofit agencies, obtained many useful certifications and effectively started preparing for her current job 3 years ago).

It takes a lot of respect and humility to be happy for another person’s success, to respect how hard they worked to get there even if it was something you yourself wanted and could not accomplish. But I notice that people don’t like to be reminded that there might be someone out there that accomplished more than them not because they were ‘lucky’ or ‘talented’ but simply because they worked harder and more persistently at it.

I think it is fine to attribute one’s own successes to luck. It is obnoxious, I agree, to claim that someone else was successful due to luck.
To a certain success our success depends on one’s luck in genetics and upbringing, neither of which we have much to do with. But that is something one says about themselves.

Unless someone wins the lottery, of course.

Same. You don’t talk about someone else being lucky, as it’s somewhat rude and is dismissive outside of the lottery.

However, two people could work their butts off equally for something and arguably whoever managed to get it might have simply been the lucky one.

And finally, not everyone means it in an envious/rude way - they simply haven’t considered that what they’re saying could be seen as negative. They’re misphrasing their feelings. Saying “Oh, you’re so lucky to have X” is to some people actually a way to say “Oh, I know how hard it is not to have X. It must have been rough for you before now.”

Sometimes people use the term “lucky” to mean anything that is a good event. For those people saying “It’s lucky that you found a job” is equivalent to saying “It’s awesome that you found a job.” No slight intended there.

But the examples you give… yeah, that’s just inappropriate. If they did that regularly to me, all three of those people would be relegated to the type of people I smile and make small talk at parties with, but that I would never again talk to otherwise.

Utterly obnoxious. However, if someone says she was fortunate to have the backup (you!) to allow her to accomplish it, I wouldn’t object to that.

It’s common, though, to hear obviously brilliant/capable people attribute their own successes to luck. To me, that often seems like it’s just modesty, and possibly even false modesty.

Let me put it this way - no amount of hard work and effort would have made me a football star. Or a basketball player. Someone lucky enough to have the attributes that make for great sports stars are lucky in a sense. My good luck is in other areas, so I’m not complaining. It isn’t all luck, of course, but luck has a lot to do with it.

I don’t know. I think brilliant people are often brilliant enough to see where things outside of their control could have gone a different way, and to appreciate that.

On the other hand, while luck plays a role in any specific incident, overall we all get lucky breaks somewhere, and brilliant, capable people know how to foster opportunities for these breaks to occur, and how to take advantage of them when they do.

What always makes me uncomfortable is when people comment on a choice like it’s either lucky, or an accomplishment.

For example, my husband stays home with our son while I work. This was a choice we made, and it is a Big Choice: we saved for years to be able to afford to do this, and now we live very, very frugally to do this. We did this because it’s important to us. But that doesn’t mean we think it’s the right thing to do or the only thing to do. It’s just what we want–pretty badly–for our family.

So I get irritated when people that make what I make say “Wow. That’s lucky. We could never afford that”, because obviously, a lot of hard work and sacrifice–not luck–went into this. But I also get irritated (or embarrassed) when people say “That’s impressive” or something to the affect of “That’s the right thing to do, and more people should find a way to do that” because it’s not really an accomplishment, either. It’s just what we wanted for us. It’s not a statement about what people should do.

I don’t think any of the things in the OP are really that bad. Saying “you’re lucky to have found that job” or “you’re lucky to have graduated” is IMO, just something people say. It’s just small talk and to be insulted by it is like calling someone out for asking how your day was when you know they don’t really care. You just say “Thank You” or if you really want to you could say “Thanks, but I really busted my ass too, it was a lot of hard work”.

Luck is essential to success, and I admire anyone who is willing to admit the fact.

The other two essentials are hard work and intelligence. All three are best. You can succeed on luck alone, but not on the other two alone.

Being intelligent is also lucky. School and learning has never been hard for me, and that makes me very lucky. I see other people who had to work much harder, and realise that I am ridiculously lucky.

Sometimes I think my life is a long string of luck, and my hard work consisted largely of me showing up. How hard was the stuff I actually did, really? It wasn’t all that hard, and I always do things I enjoy . Mainly the difference between me and someone in a different situation is that when luck happened, I showed up.

That said, another person saying it is rude. Even if they’re probably not entirely wrong. Of course, saying “wow, you’re so lucky to get a job in these hard times” isn’t meant as a way of saying you didn’t work for it. As has been mentioned, it’s small talk. It’s just someone saying they are happy for you.

So, you’re upset by you or your wife being said to be lucky…well, everyone starts with the same possibilities, but there are lots of attributes we have or don’t have that make it possible for your success and someone else’s failure. It isn’t false modesty to protest that part of what made you successful was an element of chance.

If you insist on detailing your accomplishments in a social setting, be prepared for folks not to say, “Well, that just proves you are better than most of us in so many ways, I just want to kiss your feet.” Let them smooth things over with their ‘luck’ comments. Who cares? You’ve got the accomplishment, they don’t.

Being hard working can also be framed in terms of “good luck”, though. I have always had laser-like focus. I can sit for hours doing the most monotonous activity and not get bored, and it has enabled me to do some “impressive” things. Lots of people–through no fault of their own–can’t do this.

That said, it is irritating when people go there with the “you’re so lucky!” stuff. But as long as it’s said playfully and infrequently, it doesn’t bug me too much.

Not even remotely. I was born white, in a north-western European democracy with free healthcare and free, good schools. My parents have books about the daddy talking to the mummy’s belly, and they actually did that, and in two languages. My papa stopped smoking the minute my mum was peeing on a stick, and she ate all the things the books told her to eat. I once found my papa’s diary from the year I was born. He was finishing off his research in physics, but all the diary said was baby appointments, and then in January a week after I was born, in all caps: BABY!!!

Before I was even born, I was incredibly lucky.

Quite true. I am probably also lucky in that I really enjoy all the hard work I’ve ever had to do, so it doesn’t seem like hard work to me. Someone else might say that working 24/7 in an orphanage is hard work, but I’d rather do that than watch telly with my feet up. That’s just me. I like things some people call hard work, and that’s also luck.

My mom has a saying, “We make our own luck”. What I think she means by this is by working hard, people accomplish things that look like they happened through good luck, but they aren’t.

In many pursuits, there is a certain threshold for success; you can end up giving up right before you hit this point, and might never know how close you were. When this happens, its easy to shrug and think “It was too hard/outside of my ability/not the right path for me to take”. But accomplish it, and suddenly it looks like it happened due to luck, simply because its hard for people to see exactly how much effort goes into something to make it a success. Since people are prone to comparing themselves to others, if its 4x harder than it was for someone else, they’re either really lucky or we’re really dumb :stuck_out_tongue: .

I think in the case with my wife, its because she grew up (and out of) a lot of poverty and racism that she takes exception to the idea that she did it due to luck. She finds it condescending when someone coming from privleges she never had, who had their undergrad education paid for by their parents and never went to even attempt grad school has the stones to tell my wife that she’s “lucky” for graduating. She’s not lucky, she earned every bit of success she has.

“Too humble is half proud.”

I think the issue is much more insidious than presented in the thread so far.

It’s not that people are denigrating your wife’s accomplishments by saying they’re lucky - they simply don’t believe that you can be successful without luck, and are blaming their own failures on a lack of luck, rather than the lack of hard work that is the actual cause.

On the other side of the coin, I have used “Oh, bad luck” when someone is complaining about some failure - doing poorly on a test, not getting a job, whatever. Usually, I believe it was a fault on that person - they were out partying instead of studying, they didn’t prepare for their interview, whatever. But unless I am extremely close friends with someone, pointing out that it’s their own damn fault never goes well. So “bad luck” is the most sympathetic thing I can say.

That’s what I was kind of getting at. They themselves either didn’t go to college period or they only completed undergrad (had parents pay for everything, tell them what classes they needed to register for, all the ins and outs of college, muddled along getting C’s in most classes). The idea that someone with no help whatsoever could not only figure it all out on their own, but excel, while simultaneously working at jobs/internships 7 days/week for 4 years straight is outside the realm of personal accomplishment to them because they werent able to do it. So it must have been luck.

I find one of the greatest shows of humility is to simply be happy for the success of others. If they say they worked their ass off, give them credit for it rather than acting insecure by dismissing their accomplishments.

I saw a little sign for sale in a truck stop, once. It said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” It sounds like your wife’s been living that sign.

Congratulations to her on the degree and the new job.

I think I need to get my wife that sign :slight_smile: