Minimalist Monday: Why Calling Someone "Lucky" Can Be Insulting

Posted by:Lindsay S. Nixon Category: Minimalist

A few months ago I read the Matched series. (If anyone wants to cry with me over book 3, I'm available by email).

The story takes place in a future society that… umm... has its flaws.

Anyway, the idea of "luck" had been totally eradicated in this new world.

From Matched:

"I answer, "That we are very lucky," and I mean it... The hostess corrects me gently. "Not lucky, Cassia. There is no luck in the Society." Of course. I should know better than to use such an archaic, inaccurate term. There's only probability now. How likely something is to occur, or how unlikely."

And then another mention of it in the second book, Reached:

"You think that boy was lucky?" I ask Vick. "Lucky," Vick says as he doesn't know what the word means. And maybe he doesn't. Luck is not a word the Society encourages.... "The Society doesn't believe in luck," Eli says."

(*Note: this is not a core part of the story line. Actually, it doesn't even matter in the story. The leading lady only mentions the nonexistence of "luck" in passing twice. Chances are if you read the series, you don't even remember these two moments. I'm a little batty about the word "luck" (as you'll soon find out!) that both of these instances stayed with me.)

Now a confession: I don't like the word "lucky" or being called lucky. Well, unless I am actually lucky. Like the one and only time I put some money in a slot machine and more than tripled that money in less than a minute. (I cashed out immediately. My momma didn't raise no fool!).

Anyway, I fussed, munched on my nails, and walked around in circles (literally! behind my desk!) for days debating whether or not I wanted to admit this (and admit it so publicly) and if I wanted to write this blog post... but then something happened and I knew I had to be honest.

A friend of mine has been pounding the pavement trying to be an actress for years. YEARS. We're talking almost two decades. I have absolutely no hesitation when I say she has worked her butt off and I would have given up eons ago if it were me. I really don't know how she kept going. Really, I'm in awe of her.

Nevertheless, her dedication and persistence paid off when she landed an INCREDIBLE role on a really hot TV show. She's going to be a big, big celebrity. All sorts of opportunities are going to open up to her and many already have.

I couldn't be more happy or thrilled for her and when the news broke, I was eager to take her out to celebrate.

There we were at dinner, just a bunch of us girls, when one of our mutual friends lifted her glass and said, "Tabitha* you are soooooo lucky!"

I watched Tabitha deflate like a balloon. Her smile slipped away. Her glass started to lower. Her entire body expression -- head, shoulders, face, eyes, ears -- went from "overjoyed" to "depressed," but always an actress, she recovered quickly. As our friend's toast continued, Tabitha smiled a fake smile, raised her glass back up and said "gee thanks!" I don't think anyone else caught what I did.

But I knew what happened.

I knew how Tabitha felt.

And as the night wore on, I heard at least three other people say "Wow! LUCKY!" or some variation to her.

If you look up the definition of "luck" or "lucky" you'll get some variation of this:

“Success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.”

Maybe now you see why being called "lucky" can make me batty. Or why it hurt Tabitha's feelings.

It's like they were writing off the fact that Tabitha spent nearly 20 years going on auditions (probably close to 1,000 total -- and dealing with an equal amount of rejection), networking, taking classes, taking unpaid jobs for experience, etc.

Of course I know these thoughts and feelings are not what anyone means or intends when they say "you're so lucky" but that's the chilling effect this saying has.

Sort of like the nasty chilling effect of saying anything other than "thank you" when you give someone a compliment. (p.s. that post is a MUST read).

Point is, calling someone "lucky" can really hurt.

And calling someone lucky, that actually isn’t, is like telling that same person, "You don’t deserve the happiness or success you have, because you didn’t earn it."

After the Tabitha event, I witnessed another instance of "lucky" gone wrong.

A different friend posted about her promotion on Facebook. Or, well, she posted a picture of her brand spankin' new car on Facebook.

One of the first comments to the picture was "lucky duck" and my friend's response was that she wasn't lucky. That she'd worked really hard to get her promotion. That she deserved it. That she made huge sacrifices to be able to afford this car. That she'd earned her new car. That no one just gave it to her. That she didn't win it on the Price Is Right, in which then, and only then, would she be "lucky." *

Then when I was writing this post, (seriously AS I was writing it!), this comment from Leah (below) popped up on an old post, Beneath Every Body is an Untold Story. In that post I retell two stories, one about my friend Liz* who had lost 45lbs. Anyway, Liz went to a party where most of the attendees did not know her 45lbs ago. During the party, another person grabbed her waist and said "Gosh I wish I was naturally skinny like you!" and then went on to call my friend lucky. How "lucky" she was to be so thin and so on.

Liz was hurt. She felt as though the woman's comment (which was a compliment!) negated or belittled all her hard work. All those calories she counted. All those mornings she got out of bed at 5am to go to the gym before her three kids woke up. All the times she dug deep and avoided her weakness for cookies, cakes, champagne, and chocolate, etc.

To Liz, it felt like a back handed compliment.

Meanwhile the commenter, Leah, wrote in response, "I totally empathize how it feels to have people make these comments about you. It feels like they are delegitimizing the work many healthy people put into being healthy. I was getting dressed before a friend's wedding with the bridesmaids, and one of them turned to me and said "Oh skinny people like you just make me sick!". I was so offended. I didn't say anything. Not only is that not a nice comment, but it negated the fact that I've been eating healthy for years and am an athlete. It negated any of my personal choices that make me who I am, choices that I am proud of making."

I agree the off handed comment was mean, and yes, she didn't call Leah "lucky", but I think the situations are related.

So often we don't see the chilling effect our words have.

Even if Liz had been super sweet and polite, saying, "Well actually, it's not luck. I work really hard to look this way. I lost 45lbs. but I appreciate your generous compliment!" -- that just doesn't work socially. At least, not in my experience. No one likes to be "corrected". And remember that chilling effect about not saying thanks? And trying to "win"?sigh.

And what could Leah have said?

I could ramble off another two dozen stories or instances like these.

I have tried to be mindful of my use of the word "luck" because when someone calls me lucky with respect to my blog, or books, or Happy Herbivore, or my nomadic lifestyle -- it often feels like they are saying all my hard work didn't count.That I didn't earn this.

That all those ginormous sacrifices I made --- that my family made, didn't really matter. That all that planning and hard work was actually pointless.

Now don't get me wrong. I still do feel lucky in many ways, but I've also come to appreciate that it's not all luck.I've worked non-stop, 60-80 hour weeks for six years straight to grow my business and seize my dream.

Where does that effort fit into the definition of luck?

Of course, I know when someone says, "You're so lucky", they don't mean what I feel. I know that's my own pride and ego that's bruising.

And maybe that's something to be ashamed about -- I don't know. I only hope to bring to light the chilling effect calling someone "lucky" can have. As a minimalist, I seek mindfulness, more awareness, and this is part of that.

Has someone ever said "you're so lucky" to you and it bummed you out?

Going back to Tabitha, perhaps she was lucky that she found a good agent, and that her agent was paying enough attention to find this audition for her, and that her car didn't break down on the way to the audition (these things are all out of Tabitha's control). But the rest falls on Tabitha, no? Was it really just luck that she got this role?

It all just gets soo sticky!

Even people who appear to be lucky (in terms of success), I find when you look behind the curtain, there is so much more than luck at play.

For example, think about those singers on shows like American Idol or The Voice. It's a great opportunity to be "discovered" (no denying that) and every year one of them is discovered and that person "made a star." They were so lucky to have the opportunity, right?

Yet it's still not allluck. They had to audition and compete, and for most of the "winners," you hear stories about how they were singing at church, school and any place they could for years before their audition. Effectively, they were perfecting their voice and their practice so when the opportunity to be "discovered" as an artist came along, they were ready and prepared for it. They could seize their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity... and they did.

And I can say the same for a lot of my once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I have seized all the opportunities I could, but a lot of them wouldn't have come along at all if I hadn't first done the legwork. Even those that just bubbled up without my prior involvement -- I was just plain ol' lucky to have the opportunity -- I wouldn't have been able to take them had I not first done the legwork. (Clearly, it's all in the legwork as Tabitha's story attests!).

Or what about one of my favorite comedy actors, Ashton Kutcher? If you don't know his personal bio, he was, straight-up, "discovered" in a bar while in college. He was recruited for a modeling competition, won, and signed a huge modeling contract with an agency in New York .

Sure he was lucky to be in the bar at the right time. Maybe you can even say he was lucky to be born so good looking, but his success and his career today is more than just luck. He's had to work for it, too. It hasn't all been handouts (and as I've learned in my business, handouts often don't matter.)

Maybe A.K. had a little bit of luck, or a lot of luck, but what's important is what he did with that luck, right? It hasn't been all luck. Ashton's huge success today wasn't completely "brought by chance rather than through his own actions." It was his actions after a little bit of luck?

sticky. sticky. sticky.

Another confession: I find when I call someone "lucky" it's usually because I am jealous of them.

It was my becoming a minimalist that finally made me come to this realization.


I once told a friend he was "lucky" he didn't have these same school loans I did (that drown me alive). But he's not really lucky. He didn't win the lotto. No one handed him $150,000 and said "go to school." He worked a full-time job and moved home with his parents so he could pay for tuition while in law school. Perhaps he was lucky to have the option to live with his parents? I don't know.

This lucky thing starts to get confusing with too many fine lines.

Of course,I can't deny that certain aspects of my life are, and have been, filled with luck.Like being born in America and free from devastating hardships millions of people around the world still face. Or being adopted by two parents who love me and had the means to provide me everything I needed (and having a birth parent brave enough and generous enough to put me up for adoption). I'm also incredibly lucky to have survived a vicious car crash that almost claimed my life when I was 19, and so on. I had no control over these things. I was lucky. I am lucky.

Perhaps it's only applying "lucky" to someone's success that bugs me.

Then again, everything is connected.

When first writing this post, I tried to think about my own luck. College came to mind first and I thought, "I'm not "lucky" that I got into college. I worked my butt off!" Which is true, but I was also lucky to live in a place where I had access to a good, public education, and I was lucky my family provided me with an environment that allowed me to flourish, go to school, etc.

Perhaps there is a little bit of luck in everything.Perhaps that explains why not everyone who works hard is successful (like me failing the bar exam the first time, even though I studied hard, or the last 18 years of Tabitha's acting career).

Maybe you need a little bit of luck to have the right opportunity or the right moment or the right pair of shoes. I really don't know.

BUT my point is:it's not ALL luck.

And if someone isn't truly lucky -- like win the lotto lucky -- to have whatever it is that they have perhaps use a different expression ;)

And if you are jealous, I've found envy is a sneaky, sneaky monstah.

(*I have permission from the people in these stories to publish them on my blog with names changed and a few skewed details for the sake of privacy).

(**I came across this post some years ago. I've echoed and paraphrased some of the authors statements and ideas here. I also love the insight many of the commentators give in their comments.)

Subscribe to the blog!

Or go grab our RSS feed!