Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Being lucky

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.


Tiruncula said...

That's...strangely inspiring.

And maybe hits a little close to home :)

Escalus said...

People spent years telling me -- before I went back to grad school, now that I think about it -- that I was one of those lucky ones. I was lucky in business and in real estate (it isn't as crass as it sounds) and with my family. I was able to move around the country without any significant slow-down or hassle. Opportunities just seemed to fall into my lap. My brother-in-law kept telling me I had "the midas touch."

No one says that anymore because I'm supporting my family on a grad-school-stipend. Do they think my luck ran out? Perhaps.

I never considered myself luckier than anyone else. But I was aware how frequently (I perceived) people around me screwing themselves out of happiness. I saw my own luck as a refusal to avoid my own success. Rather, what they saw as luck, I saw as un-screwed-up normalcy. Just that everyone else screws themselves up intentionally. (There's something vaguely wrong with that last sentence. One pleasure of blogging anonymously is that I don't have to fix it.)

Anyway: yes, we make our own luck. Or, we make our own luck by not intentionally giving it the luck that everyone already has.

What Now? said...

Such an interesting post. And, as Tiruncula says, kind of an inspiring story.

Here's my question (all about projection of my own inner demons): If Theo hadn't gotten this academic position and had wound up in one of these other careers that you can envision him in, would most folks in your grad program have thought him a failure? That is, is part of his "luck" that he managed to sidestep the prevailing sense (or at least it seemed to prevail in my grad program) that academia is the only valuable professional route?

A guy I knew in grad school was one of these brilliant types who could never settle down to the mundane parts of writing a dissertation and I think wound up leaving without his degree. But I hear that he now writes a wine column for some magazine and has the kind of life he always wanted. I find that story also strangely inspiring.

football u. grad said...

IN the arts, getting a great university FT/TT job seems to come down to: pedigree of your Ph.D.; hipness or interesting-ness of your research; letters of rec by important people (this goes along with pedigree); and your interview. So if Theo's a charmer, then he interviewed really well and got some great letters from well known people. That was his ticket. He made his own luck. THe job hunt is a total crapshoot.

timna said...

maybe the job search is a crapshoot, but Theo applied to that job which means he could envision himself if places other folks might not imagine. I like that part of the story.

kfluff said...

I know a Theo too!! He was interested in technology and literature way back before the rest of us were using email; he went to a grad program that was closed down, and then stumbled on to work at one of the prestigious tech experiments on the East Coast; he did some writing while there that eventually looked enough like a dissertation to land him a job at a big research school.

My Theo is damn smart, but was also totally sure that this field would take off, and just kept pursuing different options in it until it exploded. Much to learn, indeed.

Anonymous said...

f.u.g.: It should be said that Theo, who's an advisor sibling of mine, is charming, but he ain't that charming. He also also called on those who are willing to help him, though, and not just with the letters. I'm sure our mutual Awesome Advisor coached him before he did this interview, but we also had lunch about an hour before The Interview, during which he was pumping me for ideas in areas where his own knowledge base was weak. We probably hadn't talked for a year or so, but he pulled my name out of the mental rolodex and off we went for lunch and some last minute prepping.

WhatNow: I think that most of the people in our program would have regarded Theo as a failure if he'd wound up in another industry. I am ashamed to admit that I'm torn about my own feelings in that hypothetical situation. It should be said, though, to the credit of Awesome Advisor, that he would likely have been all for it. Very few prestigious scholars seem to be so open-minded.


tony grafton said...

Many professors believe that any career outside the academy is for the birds. This idea is bizarre. In the first place, our undergraduates go off in a thousand directions, most of them outside the university, and we all applaud them. No one would suggest that my former students who are now running experimental high schools in NYC, practicing many different kinds of law and medicine, doing cutting-edge software research, or making livings as free-lance writers would somehow be doing more for the world or better for themselves if they were professors. Why should anyone think differently about my former grad students who are making it as free-lance writers, doing a major job at a world-class museums, or running an institute that trains State Department employees who are about to go abroad for the first time in their lives about foreign cultures and customs? They're all living in great places, making fine livings, and--most important--working at creative and demanding jobs. I couldn't do what any of them does, and I'm as proud of every one of them--not that I had much of anything to do with their accomplishments--as I am of my wonderful PhDs who are in the academy.

Bardiac said...

The Theos I knew in grad school were always people from upper class backgrounds, the right private prep school (or equivalent), the right ivy or equivalent.

And then, somehow, things fell into their laps. Little conversations where by coincidence, a prof on the hiring committee went to the same private high school, stuff like that. (Is there a secret handshake they all know?)

Maybe a different sort of luck is involved sometimes, too?

Flavia said...

WN: I'm not sure that I agree with GWB, actually, that most of our peers would have thought Theo a failure if he hadn't stayed in academia--my view, anyway, is yours: that part of his magic is the ability to convince other people that he had a multitude of other brilliant possible futures. (But perhaps this belief is based on my attitude toward non-academic careers, and has nothing to do with my peers'.)

And Bardiac: yes, absolutely--except that there were a lot of people with Theo's advantages in my grad program, but not his personality and not his luck. Some people are more equal than others!