Lately, I’ve been thinking a bit about luck.

Over the past two weekends, I’ve traveled with our speech and debate team to tournaments in Fairfax, Virginia and Greensboro, North Carolina. As you might expect, our Cary Academy students performed gracefully — with creativity, intelligence and honor. Inevitably, however, the students were sorted and judged, advancing through rounds and being compared to peers based on the quality of their arguments, the depth of their analysis, and the style of their speaking.

I got to thinking about luck when looking at the ballots from students who, as they advanced through the tournament, were evaluated in a given round by multiple judges. Same students giving the same speeches, with the only variable being the judges. You might expect, then, that there would be some consistency to the feedback students received. As often as not, however, different judges will rank competitors very differently. One judge listens to the debate and judges the CA team the victor. Two other judges, listening to the exact same debate, side with the other team. As a result, the CA team fails to advance.


After the tournament, the teams review the feedback to try and understand what they could have done differently. “Get a different judge next time” is a very popular suggestion.

The story is similar in other competitive endeavors. We wonder what might have been if the referee had not awarded the penalty kick or called the technical. Fly balls get lost in the sun. Your best player gets the flu.

That got me to wondering why some of the debate kids come back, week after week, to submit themselves to the whims of new judges. “Because Mrs. Hamilton told me to” might be a popular suggestion, but I’d venture to guess that more is at work here.

Professor Richard Wiseman, at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, has studied luck and found common traits that help some people to be more lucky than others. Among them is an openness to new opportunities. Lucky people pay attention to their surroundings and extract value from each new situation. They are optimistic and expect good things to happen to them. When things inevitably do go wrong, they work to pull lessons from those setbacks and try to turn them into positive experiences.

This past week, many colleges announced their early decisions. Inevitably, many wonderful students received bad news. We will never really know what separated students who got in from those who did not, but I suspect that given a different set of admissions officers or a different day of the week, many of the decisions might have been different.

There is no way to completely lessen the sting of rejection. We all need time and space to process bad news. For some, the news will be devastating. For others, the news — while hurtful — will be seen as a temporary setback, an opportunity to evaluate and to re-calibrate. Things didn’t go their way this time, but Wiseman would say that these students will be more likely to see future breaks go in their favor.

This might be one of the reasons why I love being involved with the speech and debate students. At each tournament, they open themselves up for judgement and rejection. They may win and they certainly will lose, but each time they evaluate those ballots for feedback that might help them get a bit better. They know that in any given tournament, some luck will be involved. But they also know that they can’t be the recipient of any of that luck if they don’t participate in the first place.