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Luck is usually considered to be random, inconstant and, well…lucky, something other people seem to have more of. “Success or failure,” the dictionary says, “apparently brought on by chance rather than through one’s own actions.”

But that definition obscures the true meaning of luck, which might be more accurately said to be good fortune brought on by hard work, preparation and the foresight and insight to take advantage of favorable opportunities.

In other words, we make our own luck. Unfortunately, most people don’t believe that – or make enough effort to make it happen.

Take a man considered so lucky it became part of his name. Charles Lindbergh was known as “Lucky Lindy” because he survived a number of accidents, including a midair collision, that might have killed a lesser pilot. (His other nickname was “Daredevil Lindbergh.”) A lot of people in 1927 thought flying solo across the Atlantic was a suicide mission. But he made it and became the most famous person of his time, because he had put in years of preparation and had the knowledge and confidence to pull it off.

So from Lindy’s experience we can adduce the first lesson of luck: do the work. As they say, luck favors the prepared.

The second lesson is another truism: Plan for the worst. This too takes thoughtful preparation. It requires one to identify and assess the likeliest risks.

If one puts in the work upfront and plans for the worst, good things – so-called “lucky breaks”—can happen.

But what if no lucky breaks show up? Despite hard work and preparation, despite the planning and calibration, despite the best efforts a person can make, bad luck can haunt anyone.

There again, however, bad luck often leads to good. As the saying goes, experience is a harsh teacher. There are lessons in every disaster, windows that open up when doors slam shut. It just takes the proper attitude, insight and intuition to learn from mistakes and hardships.

When I was 19, I began to flounder in college. I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois downstate and had signed up for some difficult courses, for which I was too lazy and ill-prepared to do the work. And I was tired of the Champaign-Urbana campus. So I dropped out before I flunked out.

Three favorable outcomes ensued. I took a job at a large accounting firm downtown, where I learned valuable lessons about commerce and a good work ethic. I enrolled at University of Illinois at Chicago, then known as “Circle” campus – and loved it. And perhaps most important, I took the time off before I went back to school to start taking violin lessons, which led to a decades-long love of playing classical music.

Dropping out produced the most wondrous results. Call it good luck, but it was only because I was willing to take advantage of the opportunities life happily afforded me.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...