“Must be nice!” - a phrase that instantly sets me on a warpath. I see it (and hear it) all the time on social media, via text, or secondhand through friends and family. It’s never meant to be a genuine compliment. It’s a universal “bless her heart,” or “not that I’m judging.” It’s a way for folks to ruin vacations, nice dinners, or generally any positive experience of another person. It’s a (very clever) way to comment on the good fortune of another while dismissing any risk, sweat, or sacrifice that went into that good fortune.
It’s a problem. Here’s why.
We often see other’s successes as a product of luck or happenstance, while seeing our own as direct results of our own actions. We balk at the idea of privilege or deny having a leg up on the competition.
“I worked for everything I have!”
We cite the early mornings, long drives, and late nights as the stepping stones for our success. At the same time we assume that that new car or long sabbatical of another is a product of wealthy parents or otherwise unseen hands inaccessible to us.
I’ve heard some form of “must be nice” a lot the past few months when chatting about this hike, or its cousins “I could never do that,” and “I mean, does she work?” My mother has started telling people I have a rich boyfriend - which shockingly some folks seem to believe. When the conversation turns down this street, I, like any of you, instantly rattle off the work I’ve put into prior to this adventure, like that I’ve worked a number of jobs to save money. I’ll point out the fact that I’m doing remote work during the trek and argue that I’ve made the financial and personal choices leading up to this excursion that enabled me to take five months to cross the country on foot - again.
Then I stop and realize that I’m also very lucky. I’m lucky to have the health to carry me 2650 miles, lucky to have parents who will send packages and basically serve as my personal assistants, and lucky for a work team of two incredible women who accommodate my schedule. I’m also lucky to have a background and a partner that/who give me financial and emotional security.
But here’s the conclusions from 6k feet - everything is some combination of work and luck. Not only do we have to credit both with any and all successes (our own or others), but we also have to admit that we don’t know how much of either contributes to our current situation. I don’t know how much of this trip is luck or work. When I think of the work put into my PhD (undoubtedly enabling me to secure remote research work) I’m reminded of the early days of my youth spent reading with my mother or grandmother and how those sessions inspired a thirst for learning that has yet to be quenched. If I hadn’t have had those - would I still value education? When I think of the lucky circumstances that led me to my supportive partner, I have to remember the work required to have a happy and healthy relationship. I could have squandered that chance. At the end of the day, I could drive myself crazy trying to figure out the ratio of hubris to humility I should show. What deserves gloating and what deserves gratitude.
So I guess it IS nice. But it’s also work, and until we can figure out an algorithm that assigns a percentage of influence to each, the best we can do is to neither rely too much on luck nor give too much credit to our work, and hope for the best of both.
If you want to think more about luck, check out this TED Radio Hour.