When I was last in Quaint Smallish City, George Washington Boyfriend and I got into a conversation about Theo, a grad school friend who just started a job at Very Important U. We were having that conversation that we sometimes have about people whose work we don't really know, which is to say, the "okay--so is he really that smart, or is he just full of shit?" conversation (which is second in popularity only to the "so, who do we know who's next going to explode into professional flames, and how are they going to do it?" conversation).
Because the thing is that we both like Theo, and we're convinced that he's damn smart . . . but the job he got is a little unexpected. His Ph.D. is in English, but his job is in an entirely different department, in a discipline where he has no meaningful background or experience (but where GWB does). As an analogy: imagine a grad student in medieval literature whose dissertation concerned texts written in Latin--but who got hired by a Classics department. Sure, that individual might know Latin, but she's not trained as a Classicist, doesn't know the history or literature of the field completely, and certainly isn't up on the scholarship.
So, aside from Theo's smarts, his degrees and fellowships, and the fact that his dissertation does, sorta, just barely, qualify him for a position in this particular department--how did he get it? Yes, he's absolutely charming and supremely self-confident. . . but as we kept talking, it struck me: Theo's just lucky.
And what I mean isn't that he was in the right place at the right time with the right hiring committee (although that's surely true), or even that he was lucky enough to have certain gifts--an infectious laugh, an extremely nimble brain--that helped him to this job; rather, he's one of those people who strike one as constitutionally lucky, as always falling ass-backwards into good fortune.
But "luck" can be as much a matter of personality and outlook as it is of the gods choosing to smile upon one. What it is, I think, is being open to so many different opportunities that you're never fully tied to any one future--a future that might, after all, fail to arrive.
Theo, for example, was pretty happy in grad school, but he wasn't committed to staying in academia; he had a lot of friends, he knew how to have a good time, and he always said that he'd never take a professorial job in a remote location just to have a job; he had other interests. While living in the big city he started writing genre fiction on a lark and wound up with an agent who loved his stuff; last I heard, she was shopping it around to publishing houses. (Theo also, I suspect, had another, marginally legal job on the side.) Had he not gotten this position--which was his only offer in two years on the market--I wouldn't have been at all surprised to have heard that he'd wound up in Hollywood, or as a party promoter, or writing travel articles for some glossy, five-dollar magazine.
Maybe that's romanticizing Theo too much, but what I'm trying to convey is that he's someone who appears never to fail simply because he's got so much going on that you scarcely notice when something falls through for him. With some people this is mostly an act--a calculated performance of brilliance and vivacity and indifference to misfortune--but that's not how Theo is; he gets glum, he gets disappointed. But through it all there's a sense of possibility about him, of constant motion. He also, I think, knows himself extremely well. Academia? Appealing, and something he's good at--but not something he'd sacrifice all other aspects of his life for. What would he do instead? Something. Anything.
I've always understood the expression "creating your own luck" to mean, simply, not believing in luck--in going out and making things happen for yourself. But I think that people like Theo do create their own luck by keeping themselves open to other possibilities even while diligently pursuing one or two primary paths; by not restricting themselves to a single possible future or defining success too narrowly.
Can we all create our own luck? I'm not so sure. Some people have lots of talents and interests, and some direct all their passion into just one or two. Life circumstances--financial, familial, or otherwise--can also severely restrict a person's ability to pursue such lucky chances as may arise.
All the same, there are lessons here, I think.