"How much of your success is down to hard work or luck?"
One of my favourite podcasts is "How I Built This" by Guy Raz. This guy (pun not intended) has spent years interviewing some of the most interesting entrepreneurs out there. From Melanie Perkins from Canva, Jack Conte and Sam Yam from Patreon, to Tobias of Shopify and serial entrepreneur Marcia Kilgore of Beautypie. He always asks a variation of this question - "how much of what you've achieved/ of your success is down to hardwork or luck?". The guest in question sometimes will categorically answer that it's all about their hard work.
Throughout the years I have been asking myself this question a lot. And my answer tends to be "it's complicated". There are times when I picture myself in front of a hypothetical weight scale - one of those old ones you imagine the Romans would use to weight silver. And the entire thought experiment always leaves me with a sense of uneasiness. Sometimes I'd weigh x, y, z factors and luck will weigh a bit more heavily. And at other times I'd weigh a, b, c factors and suddenly luck wins no more - now hard work has a slight advantage.
The older I get the more I have learnt to make peace with the fact that my life so far, what I've accomplished, or how I have succeeded (this word requires a whole definition in itself), boils down to a series of lucky breaks and chances that I was able to capture somehow. Sometimes my hardwork may have helped. But sometimes Lady Luck played a huge role. And when you live in countries that constantly talk about meritocracy being a thing, but newsflash: it's a bit of a myth, what happens when you realise that luck is more important than you thought?
I don't have to look too far to remember how insanely lucky I am. My parents? Didn't get a chance to get a formal education. Their parents didn't much care for school - they hadn't gone themselves and they had turned out fine - so they didn't even think about the opportunities that their children may be afforded by going to school. And yet my dad is one of the smartest people I know. He learnt to read and write on his own, he devours books about psychology and personal finance - his latest obsession. And I'm always left wondering what he could have possibly accomplished had his family listened to his plea to send him to school when he was a child.
I am insanely lucky. I managed to win the parents' lottery and got incredibly nurturing individuals. They may struggle to do the hug thing and express how much they love me in words - the results of some pretty strict upbringing, I'm sure - but they've always made me believe that I could do everything I set my mind to. When they first asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, they went on and bought me a microscope and an encyclopaedia about the human body (this was when I was still under the illusion I'd become a doctor one day). When I was struggling with maths (and with Ancient Greek and Latin, let's be honest) they immediately asked around and paid for weekly tutoring sessions to help me get my grades up. When some random family friends who had moved to London told them that we should consider making the move because I'd have more opportunities in the UK, they booked a one week trip to London, checked the place out and my mom and I moved just a few weeks later. My mom spoke zero words in English.
I am lucky that I ended up enrolling at a comprehensive in Hackney for Sixth Form. There I got a series of lucky breaks because I had teachers who were awesome, believed in me, and made me think about Oxford as a possibility. I am lucky I came across a random flyer at school and got in touch with a charity who made me realise there was a whole world out there called "The City" where people worked.
But not all my lucky breaks have been lucky. Sometimes it is failure that turned out to be luck in disguise. That rejection from that magic circle law firm after my vac scheme stung a lot. And so did getting rejected from the WPP program (a 3 year rotational program in marketing communications)- my dream of becoming the next Olivia Pope, running political comms for elections in the US felt completely gone forever. I mean I cried in bed for half a day at least.
But these failures are what got me to board a flight to Seoul for an internship at a startup in 2016. It is also what prompted me to go study a Masters in International Public Management (I still don't know what that really means so don't ask). There, two years in Paris, a sprained ankle later, a trip to the emergency room and an unexpected surgery, I realised that there was no way in hell I was going to work for an International Organisation. But that I'd be working in tech to make the world a better place (a girl can have big dreams).
I am lucky. I have awesome parents - even though sometimes they get on my last nerve. I got an incredibly bourgeois education whilst being working class. Even when we fell on hard times I always had a roof over my head, and we always had plenty of food on the table. I went to one of the best grammar schools in my area in Italy before I moved to London. I had the opportunity to go to some of the best universities in the world. And that luck - whether the result of some hard work or just chance - is also my privilege.
My parents settled in a small town where I had an incredibly idyllic childhood where they sheltered me from the evils of the world. I lived in a bubble, a nice cocoon in my town where racism didn't exist, sexism didn't exist. All was fine and dandy.
Until you turn around and realise that most people who look like you or come from a similar working class background weren't so lucky. They weren't afforded the same opportunities. Social mobility? Nothing but a fanciful dream. They finished school at 16 or at 18 and are now trying to get by. My primary school reunion in 2019? A massive reality check. At least two-thirds of my classmates hadn't gone to university. Some of them were getting married. One of them had a kid.
And how do you deal with that reality check? How do you confront your own privilege?
You take refuge. You look at that weight scale again and start asking yourself....but it can't possibly just be privilege/luck that got me here. It can't be just luck, right? Because if that is the case, what's the point? Why have we been lying to ourselves about meritocracy and equality of opportunity? Will we ever even achieve a truly meritocratic society with equality of opportunity as its basis? And if it can never be achieved, what is there to say about the foundation of much of what I believe in? Why isn't the world fair?
So you start to look at the a, b, c factors. And you ask yourself: 'where has my hard work played a role in my achievements and success?'
When I express my gratitude to my parents for all the sacrifices they have made for me and how lucky I have to have them as my family, they always stress how proud they are of how hard I worked, how I didn't waste any of the opportunities they afforded me. How I consistently "seized the day". And they are not wrong either.
When we moved to London, I would spend almost every single evening once the school library closed at the British Library. You could find me there during the weekend too. I would be studying, reading, doing past papers. I was doing it because I love learning but I was also working hard because I had no intention of my parents regretting making all those sacrifices for me. When I was at uni and my chronic pain kept getting worse and worse as days went by I considered going on medical leave but I just couldn't. I owed it to myself, to my parents, to my grandparents and to everyone else to work hard, get my degree and maximise the chances and opportunities I had been given.
Did this hard work pay off? It did. I didn't drop out. I managed to graduate in spite of the pain, and a bout of depression that left me lying in bed for days and needing to get help at some point. I worked like there was no tomorrow at almost every single job I got (hello late nights at the office consistently). I broke into the VC industry a year and a half after graduating from my masters because I hustled to build a network, to put my thoughts out there, to do work on top of my full time job for others so they could vouch for me. I worked hard to get what I achieved. Because I had something to prove to myself, to my family, to others: that despite the fact that the world can sometimes be so unfair, you can look at a lucky break, take it, and run with it. You can seize that opportunity (even when you feel like your health is failing you).
I can't lie and say that this type of behaviour, this hard work (AKA what my parents call "working like crazy") with little to no rest, with me biting off more than I can chew hasn't had consequences. I've burnt out three times in the past 4 years. The chronic pain that had massively improved and was barely perceptible for nearly a year is now back with a vengeance and flares up when I neglect to take care of myself.
But it feels like I can't stop. That I'm on a treadmill, in a constant competition with myself to do better, to be better, and to show to myself and my parents that their sacrifices and that my lucky breaks haven't been in vain.
But I digress. The point of this whole thing was a discussion of hardwork and luck and how one might matter more than the other in someone's success. And somehow it has turned into how hard work or hustle culture comes at a cost.
So what now? What could be some take aways from all this?
The person I am today is way more aware that hard works does pay off but luck has played a big role in where I am right now. Teenage me was naive, spent time reading High School Musical Fanfiction in her spare time. She felt like a fish out of water at her comprehensive sixth form because she was confronted with how clueless she was about the struggles and challenges other kids who look like herself faced every single day. And she was also incredibly privileged and blind to her privilege.
Thank God I have grown out of that phase. And Thank God I can say that I am privileged in some ways, and not privileged in others. I have been lucky in some ways, and not so lucky in others. I am too much of a workaholic too. And what I've done so far in my life (if we look at the conventional way we think of success and achievement) has been the result of a good dose of luck and a decent dose of hard work.
And it is the luck and privilege part that makes me think about what I can do in my life to pay it forward to someone else. How I could be that lucky break for someone. How I could use my time that I employ working hard to do my bit to make the world suck a little bit less. In the past that has meant volunteering, coaching and mentoring young students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it has also meant trying to build a edtech startup (that failed) to help students get access to mentors who could help them get in.
So if you've stuck around and read all my musings/ reflections and slightly muddled thoughts...I'd love for you to ask yourself: "How much of your success is down to hardwork or luck?" And when you realise that luck played a bit of a part, ask yourself what you plan to do to make sure that you can be that luck for someone else.