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Always remember that you make your own luck: Susannah Gal

Posted 3/20/18

The “luck of the Irish” is a phrase often heard around St. Patrick’s Day.

What does that mean and what do you do if you’re not Irish?

According to Edward T. …

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Always remember that you make your own luck: Susannah Gal


The “luck of the Irish” is a phrase often heard around St. Patrick’s Day.

What does that mean and what do you do if you’re not Irish?

According to Edward T. O’Donnell, an associate professor of history at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, the idea of “Irish luck” originated during the gold and silver rush era when there were a number of successful miners of Irish origin.

However, to be successful, do we need to be “lucky”? While some aspects of serendipity can play a part in success, I don’t think that’s all of what you need.

I’ve been fortunate to have a good job and be able to support my family comfortably, but when I was growing up there were times that were tough financially. My father had worked for his in-laws as a salesperson until that job fell through and he was having a hard time reinventing himself. My younger brother vividly remembers our parents dragging us out of school so that we could clear our bank accounts and pay the electric bill at our house. My father eventually found a new career selling real estate and was very successful.

I remember having to make some hard choices about my own expenses, putting off buying something I wanted until I’d worked enough to earn the money to pay for it. I also remember getting word at one point in graduate school that my pay could be cut significantly. Before waiting for the “ax to fall” so to speak, I went out and got a waitressing job to protect my ability to cover my expenses. That was practical for me as I was in a metropolitan area and I had flexibility to set my own schedule for the research I was doing at the National Institutes of Health. So while some might say I was unlucky, I took advantage of that time to explore an option for additional part-time work that would help me get through.

My point is I think we can make our own luck if we’re ready for it and jump when we need to.

I was fortunate to listen to a recent interview on WITF Radio’s Smart Talk program during which the host was interviewing Janice Kaplan, co-author of a book “How Luck Happens.” You can find this online if you want to follow up.

In her mind, luck is only part of being successful. The other two parts are talent and hard work. Her point, made using several very nice examples, is that people who are “lucky” put themselves in good places to meet people that can help them in their career. Like a budding actor who wanted to make it in New York, working at a restaurant which caters to actors, producers and directors. Or an innovator who hangs out at a maker space absorbing the ideas and conversations about different technologies that are needed by people. Putting yourself in the right place is part of making your own luck.

Another way to make our own luck is to participate in opportunities to connect with others and take advantage of the things we have around us. One such opportunity came last week when Steven Johnson, author of many books including “How We Got Here,” about the history of innovation, spoke on the Penn State Harrisburg campus. He had some great stories about successful innovation and ones where the inventor had a blind spot that prevented him from realizing the success of their ideas. This event was open to the pubic, as are many events on the campus. If you’d taken advantage of this event, you might have gained some of those insights.

Scientist Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” At the event, Johnson twisted this slightly by saying, “Chance favors the connected mind.” I think by that he was referring to the value of networking and connecting with people. In many ways, those connections are much easier to make now with the Internet and social media.

Another way that people are making their own luck is through the Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Development Institute that happens every spring in Harrisburg. The people in that program are spending several Fridays over five months learning about leadership and their own strengths, as well as meeting community leaders and developing ideas for how to improve our region. It takes guts to do this kind of thing. The participants in the program had to reach out to grab that opportunity for themselves.

Carol Burnett had a useful quote here: “Only I can change my life. No one can do it for me.”

My father had a joke about taking charge of your life. It was about a man who wanted some funds to support his daughter’s wedding and he kept reaching out to God to help him get the money by winning the lottery. The man repeatedly chastised God when he didn’t win, saying God should help him as the funds weren’t for him, only his daughter. Finally, the voice of God comes down to the man and says “Meet me halfway! Buy a lottery ticket!”

I love that joke as it relates to how someone can make their own luck by putting forth the effort to be successful. You have to attend these types of events and network with people who might be helpful in your career or personal life.

If you are hoping to meet some more people and get some exercise as part of “making your own luck,” there’s a contra dance at The Event Place in Middletown, on the last two Fridays in March. The event starts at 7:30 p.m. and goes until 11 p.m. Come join us.

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at