I hear it often — "You’re so lucky!"
In itself, "you’re so lucky" is a perfectly innocuous phrase. There are a lot of things in my life that I can attribute to luck; the safe and affluent country in which I was born and raised, the loving family I’m surrounded by, or my happy, healthy children.
Yet, when people call me lucky, they’re rarely talking about those things. They’re talking about my career.
According to research conducted by Remitly, the second most coveted job in the world is being a writer (the first is ‘pilot’ and the third is ‘dancer’).
I am literally living the dream.
Does that make me thankful that I get paid every morning to do the things I love? Yes.
Does that make me lucky? No.
Let me tell you a few things about creativity and luck, and all the things an artist has to actually do to appear "lucky".
Before we start, I’m going to be completely transparent.
Getting a head start
To be a success in the arts you need to be able to sustain yourself.
Everybody knows writing doesn’t pay — at least, not to begin with — so, to be lucky enough to even contemplate a career in the arts, it helps if you already have an income.
The luckiest among us are born into wealth, and the less lucky, like me, have a second job and/or live in a household with more than one income. Nobody would call a person working their day job followed by writing into the early hours of the morning "lucky", but in most cases, that’s what it takes.
Many people refer to the arts as a romantic vocation, but there’s nothing romantic about being poor (plus anxiety isn’t great for creativity). Therefore, if you’re not lucky enough to have someone else financially sustain you as you follow your dreams, then be prepared to work doubly hard.
Beating the odds
Getting lucky in the arts is not like hitting the Vegas strip and hoping for the best.
It takes a long time to become an overnight success. Saying to an author "Wow, you’re so lucky to be a New York Times Bestseller" is probably not the compliment you think it is.
Being a bestseller involves a level of talent (that goes without saying), and a lot of hard work, but the rest is simply good business. Not luck.
Let’s take a look at what it really takes to be a "lucky" bestseller.
Firstly, that author had to start writing their book when they probably didn’t have the time, energy, or money to dedicate to (what is often) a fruitless endeavour. But they did it anyway.
They had to learn the craft, which means there were many failed attempts before this one and a lot of hard knocks. But they didn’t give up.
They then had to FINISH the book (easier said than done).
The odds of finding a literary agent to represent you is 1/1000.
Yet even once you have an agent you may not get a book deal.
Then, if you DO get a book deal (because your book is better/more marketable than the others) you are still up against 600 books published every day in the US, and just over 500 per day in the UK. In fact, the UK publishes more books per capita than any other country!
And if you have been signed by a traditional publisher, you and your team (editor, agent, publicist) need to promote the hell out of that book to generate enough sales.
All the above doesn’t cost you any money, and a lot of your success depends on how powerful your publisher is, but becoming a traditionally published bestseller doesn’t involve luck — it involves hard work and good business acumen.
The iceberg effect
For every artist who looks like they have luck on their side, below the surface you will find a person who never gave up and a rocky path full of mistakes. To be a successful artist you don’t just have to be good at your craft, you have to understand the industry.
By the time I wrote my debut thriller, Good Girls Die Last, I already knew dozens (if not hundreds) of people in the industry. I understood how the writing world works and what agents and editors were looking for (and weren’t), all my friends were writers, and I’d made plenty of mistakes along the way.
I secured one of the best agents in the business in three days. Was I lucky? No. She found me on Twitter (where I’d been growing my following for over six years) via one of my writer friends. I’d spent ten years perfecting my writing. I’d done my research. I knew how to sell my work.
This may all sound very unromantic, everyone loves to read about destiny and luck, but when it comes to creative success most of it is no accident. There’s a big difference between being fortunate (maybe my career would look different had my agent not been online that day), but neither was my book randomly picked from a pile of manuscripts like a fairground lucky dip.
So if most of our luck is made, how can you get luckier?
Change your mindset
The problem with luck and being a writer (or any other profession in the arts) is that it’s far too easy, when the going gets tough, to believe some people are simply luckier than others.
I don’t blame artists for wanting a get-out clause in this game. It can take years, sometimes decades, to catch a break. It hurts a lot less to tell yourself some people are luckier than others and give up than to look at your work and your approach to your craft and admit that you need to do better.
Success in the arts has nothing to do with luck. Neither does it solely have to do with talent. Many people are talented, so unfortunately that is rarely a differentiating factor (the arts are subjective and not a meritocracy).
The "luckiest" people I know that have reached their goals all have one thing in common; the right mindset.
Remember the three Rs.
Be positive, focus on the positive, and exude positivity. Even when you are feeling far from happy on the inside, how you are perceived by others matters a lot.
There are a lot of highs in this industry, but unfortunately, there are even more lows — so be prepared to be someone who always looks on the bright side.
Learn to bounce back and not take things personally. This is easier said than done, but tough skin is crucial in the arts.
As Henry Ford famously said — “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” If something isn’t working, change it. That’s not giving up, it’s changing direction.
If you take the wrong turn does your GPS call you a failure and switch off? No. It recalibrates and shows you a different route.
Successful authors recalibrate all the time. For example, when I was first published I was writing fantasy books. They were good enough to be signed by more than one publisher, but they didn’t sell very well because I needed a good agent and a bigger publisher.
I wrote more fantasy books, but no agent wanted them. It was impossible to not feel hopeless. What was I doing wrong? Then I realised had three choices:
Continue what I was doing and tell myself that other writers were simply luckier than I was. It wasn’t my fault.
Give up writing.
I chose number 3 and started to write a different genre (a thriller) under a new pen name. I was still telling the type of stories I loved, and I still stayed true to myself, but it was a fresh start and a more commercial approach.
By stopping, taking note of where I was and where I was trying to get to, and changing tactics, I not only secured myself a great agent and top publisher but that first thriller of mine, Good Girls Die Last, is now being adapted to TV.
And the best part is that I’m still writing fantasy books, I simply diversified and opened up to new possibilities.
When people tell writers to ‘never give up’, they don’t mean keep doing the thing that isn’t working; they mean never give up hope. Learn, get better, and work hard BUT also work smarter.
In other words... recalibrate.
The luck equation
I’ve worked in the creative field for over twenty-five years (as both a writer and in marketing), and in that time I’ve seen a lot of talent. But I’ve also seen a lot of wasted talent. Not because of bad luck, but because they didn’t recognise opportunity when it was staring them in the face.
A positive mindset means understanding, and accepting, the following equation:
Knowledge + Tenacity + Self-belief + Opportunity = Luck
To be lucky in the creative world you need skill, yes, plus tenacity and self-belief, of course, but you also need to recognise when the universe is giving you your shot. And that’s what differentiates the so-called ‘lucky’ from the ‘unlucky.’
So next time you want to blame luck for your perceived failures, ask yourself if you truly took your shot. Find the strength, confidence, and brazenness to speak to that industry professional, make friends with other creatives, join a club, learn more, communicate more, and put yourself out there.
Chance, serendipity, fate, luck…whatever you want to call it…only happens when you help it happen.
This reminds me of a joke my dad likes to tell.
A man is praying to God: Please, Lord, I’ve been praying to win the lottery for years and you always ignore me. Help me win some money. I beg of you. God: Dude, I’m trying here, but you have to buy a lottery ticket first!
So next time you’re feeling unlucky remember the three Rs and do the maths, and who knows…you may end up being one of the ‘lucky ones’ after all!