Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Lotteries, Lou Gehrig and life

Q: How much does achieving success rely on luck vs. skill? This week a Western Maryland lumberjack named Darvin Moon won $5 million in the World Series of Poker. He insists he is no more skilled at cards than any recreational player. What do you think?

The only time I've ever gambled was on a layover at the Las Vegas airport when I tried a slot machine. Ten minutes later, I had burned through about five bucks, and that was it! I have no patience with courting Lady Luck; I prefer games of skill where I have at least a chance of winning on my own merits.

My inner skeptic has made me one of the last people in America never to buy a lottery ticket, since luck --- winning the lottery --- befalls only one in hundreds of millions and no amount of skill can change those odds.

Why do so many winners of big pots in state lotteries wind up unhappy and even destitute? Luck brought them their jackpots, but they have no skill in managing their millions.

Sudden, huge wealth does not always foster success; while some may use their winnings for good purposes (a new house for mom, new car for the spouse, a better education for their children), too many lottery winners report tales of ruinous spending sprees, exploitation by shady financial advisers, and hounding by charitable causes looking for a handout. Jack Whittaker of West Virginia won $315 million in the Powerball lottery and wound up regretting the ways in which money and fame destroyed his family, his work and his sense of happiness. He was successful before he got lucky.

Success does not come through luck, although being able to take advantage of coincidental opportunities is a great skill to cultivate. Washington is full of people who spend a great deal of professional and personal time looking for opportunities that often arise by coincidence, which is a form of engineered luck called "networking."

All of those people cruising Congressional receptions and business dinners are seeking the "chance" encounter with someone who has more power, better connections, greater wealth, access to career success. Encountering a top While House official at a reception might be luck; knowing how to follow-up in a way that gets results requires skill.

Lou Gehrig called himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" at precisely the moment of the worst luck in his life, the day he had to retire from the Yankees because of the affliction that would kill him (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS, known as Lou Gehrig's disease).

Gehrig's description of his baseball opportunities as "lucky" belied the talent and discipline that made him one of the most successful professional athletes of all time. Far from being merely lucky, he was remarkably skillful, setting still-unsurpassed records in many categories.

Luck is for lotteries. Skill is required for real success in the game of life.

By Patricia McGuire  |  November 12, 2009; 12:11 PM ET  | Category:  Skill versus Luck Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Breaks and staying power | Next: Hard work, skill and faith

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