Lucky Successes

Not long ago, I wrote about bragging about one’s accomplishments and that while most of the time, what everyone is doing is nothing out of the ordinary, there are those moments when everyone is entitled to bask in the limelight afforded by social media. This post is an unplanned continuation.

Lucky for me, Evan and I had a chance to carpool to work yesterday. These days, this sort of  a thing happens about once a week or so. We can catch up among ourselves, discuss our respective to-dos and most importantly, take the 2-person minimum HOV route to and fro work. Sometimes, on particularly slow mornings, we listen to one of a million new podcasts Evan has stored up on his phone. And so while driving in yesterday, we listened to an episode of This American Life. If you haven’t heard of the show, you should give it a chance because I think it highlights the extraordinary in the mundaneness of life.

The episode has a few parts, and one caught our ear and precipitated a lively discussion about the attribution of one’s successes. The discussion centered about Emir Kamenica, an up-and-coming economics researcher who has thus far been on the fast-track to great things. The gist of the discussion is as such: he is a Bosnian refugee who immigrated to the US with his mother and sister when he was a young teenager. He started his US schooling in an inner-city Atlanta school but was soon noticed by a substitute teacher who encouraged him to apply for scholarship-based admission to a prestigious private school (Paideia) which enabled him to reach his potential, receive a full-scholarship to Harvard followed by a Ph.D., also at Harvard, and attain a position at the prestigious Booth school at University of Chicago where he is now tenured faculty.

Throughout his interview with Michael Lewis on This American Life, Kamenica maintains that his successes (he’s recently been named one of the select few recipients of the Alfred P. Sloan Grant) are the results of happy circumstances and luck. He maintains his positive luck-based success attitude despite many less than favorable life events. And so the question is this: to what or who do we owe our successes?

It is clear that there were fortunate circumstances that enabled the opening of certain doors for Kamenica, but this did not mean he didn’t study hard, apply himself, and work incredibly hard to achieve certain goals. Turning the focus on myself, I can describe my life two ways:

I can say that I had quite a few happy circumstances that enabled my achievements to date. For example, I was fortunate enough to be born into a highly educated family where my father enabled us with a privileged life (in the USSR) which enabled my parents to look for opportunities to provide my sister and me with the same as we got older. I was fortunate that my parents made the difficult choice to come to America and my aunt welcomed us and hosted us for 3 months while we got our bearings. I was fortunate that my parents were able to find jobs and pay for housing in areas with great schools which enabled me to stay focused and go to Drexel. I was fortunate to have great mentors both at university and at work, fortunate to land a job at my current employer, fortunate to meet and marry a man who shares my outlook on life and fortunate that together we recognize the importance of hard work. Lastly, I am fortunate that together, Evan and I are willing to really commit to make our own dreams (whatever they may be) come true.


I can say that despite not being born in this country, despite surviving immigration (that is the only way I can describe the process even at the tender age of 11), despite being teased because I was not born here, wishing that I could be afforded the chance to do more extra curricular activities, dreaming that I could go to private school because I was bored most of high school, followed by a college education during which I could focus entirely on my studies and that someone would pay for room and board in its entirety instead of taking out loans (which I still pay to this day), despite all that, I have managed to be mostly self-sufficient. Strike that. Better than self sufficient and although I say it a bit louder than Kamenica, I did that, and am where I am because of an indescribable amount of hard work and determination.

I wasn’t born to parents who could afford to send me to private school in America. I did not have connections that enabled me to join any research labs at Drexel University (my alma mater). I still did join a prestigious research lab and got an immense start in computer science research. However, I do owe my success to luck — luck that I was born to a family who raised me to see that being given so many opportunities, doesn’t necessarily teach you to cease them. And now, maybe Sophia will one day say she was lucky to be born to parents who can send her to private school, to pay for her college education, her wedding and her first new car. Maybe. If she works hard and definitely not just because. If she is not selfish, spoiled, conceited, focused only on herself and does something good for those around her. Maybe then I will show her how privileged her life can be and open doors for her.


  1. Anna said:

    Nadya, have you read Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell? The author has very neat perspective on why some people are successful.

    October 15, 2013
    • Nadya said:

      No, not yet. Though it is on my list.:-)

      October 15, 2013

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