If luck in career success is ubiquitous but also systematically unevenly distributed, then luck may be contributing to or creating systematic social inequality. We need to think more deeply about luck and what can be done to level the playing field.
Spotting opportunities is critical to being in a position to take advantage of lucky breaks. Clearly providing opportunities is an important component of addressing this problem. However, it may be that structural inequalities in society serve to inhibit opportunity awareness in disadvantaged populations. There is a social justice argument to be made that we must do more than try to boost an individual’s awareness of opportunity, we need structural changes in society to remove inhibitions to opportunity awareness (as well as providing opportunities of course).
With my colleague Robert Pryor, we have developed an instrument used in coaching and research called the Luck Readiness Index. It measures people’s opportunity awareness across seven dimensions: flexibility, optimism, risk, curiosity, persistence, strategy, efficacy and luckiness.
It seems very likely that economic or cultural disadvantage are likely to depress levels of self-efficacy (self-belief or confidence), optimism and self-perceptions of being lucky (thinking you are lucky can be a self-fulfilling prophecy). Appropriate risk-taking, or being exposed to appropriate risk taking or strategising, is also likely to be less prevalent in disadvantaged groups.
A large US study by Julia Boehm and her colleagues found that optimism was not evenly distributed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, optimistic people tended to be white, educated, middle-class, with an educated parent, in higher occupational classes and earning higher incomes.
Addressing social inequality in careers requires more than providing opportunities. The lack of serious consideration of the role of luck and opportunity awareness is itself a missed opportunity to intervene both with individuals and also with communities, with programs aimed specifically at boosting the facets of opportunity awareness.
However, until the structural inequalities are addressed, social disadvantage will continue to ensure that the privileged get most of the lucky breaks. We need to take a more critical look at luck if we are serious about addressing inequality in career opportunity.