On Luck and Compassion

Updated: May 27, 2020

The Roman philosopher Seneca once said “luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” This is a rather logical explanation for luck, and has made its rounds in the corporate world. To me, this means to say that luck isn’t something that just happens, we create it for ourselves, meeting opportunity with preparation. Applying for a new job opportunity, taking advantage of a scholarship to return to school for a degree or certification. In these cases, the opportunity is the job or scholarship, and our preparation is what helps us earn it.

But what about when you don’t have the job opportunity because you lack the professional network that might share it with you. What if your financial responsibilities are so strained, that you cannot take time off of work to study? The opportunities that we have access to are not the same because the circumstances in which we live vary wildly.

According to the UK’s Child Poverty Action Group, 45% of all children born into minority ethnic families are living in poverty; 47% of children in lone-parent families are in poverty; and 70% of poor children are in poverty. Surely the circumstances these children must overcome to attend good schools, university and ultimately get well-paid jobs are different from those born into more privileged families. The opportunities these children have based on the families they were born into will be fewer and far between.

So what? I bring this up not to proclaim that life is not fair, but rather to emphasize the role of luck in the paths our lives take based on the opportunities we are given. In the corporate and entrepreneurial world, we like to think of our success as earned single-handedly based on our drive within a meritocratic system. Few in this world like to attribute success to luck, because luck cannot be counted.

But I have a hunch that recognizing the role of luck in our workplaces can help us be more compassionate and open to our employees and colleagues. If we assume that the pay we earn, the promotions we’re given and the jobs we land are given purely based on our independent merit, then we assume that all for whom these opportunities have eluded simply didn’t work as hard.

Vox’s David Roberts asked “How much credit do we deserve for who, and where, we end up?” He suggests that the way in which we answer reveals a lot about our moral worldviews. The more credit/responsibility we give to ourselves and others, the more likely you are to believe “people get what they deserve,” ignoring the circumstances into which they were born, including wealth, ethnicity, sex and ability. The less credit we believe we are due, being shaped by outside forces, the more compassionate we can be towards ourselves and others. It is this compassion that can help us build empathy for others.

Understanding intersections of circumstances that are not our own requires effort, empathy and motivation to want to include others. This kind of understanding is crucial in the knowledge economy because of the collaboration needed in our shared workplaces. This understanding helps us to remove barriers shaped by bias, and the unhelpful presumption that “we get what we deserve.” When we show up to work with the compassion for the diverse circumstances of our colleagues, the parent who was late dropping their child off at school, the colleague who was harassed on her way into the office, the new-hire who had a 90-minute commute, we move towards better workplaces of compassion.

Frank Starling is Founder and MD of Variety Pack

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