A Lesson In Luck

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of attending two graduation ceremonies that have left me feeling inspired and energized, aware that working hard is equally important as being aware of the opportunities that often lay in front of us.

Last Tuesday my second oldest daughter, Ella graduated from 8th grade. Watching her proudly walk among her peers as she participated in a ceremony that often signifies accomplishment and transition to young adulthood was prideful and energizing.  As is true with graduations, they often fill us with promise and hope. Watching Ella’s face and seeing her smile conveyed a sense of accomplishment to members of the audience. She has always worked hard in school and as her parents we know about her dedication to scholarship and creativity, but we are also aware of the social accomplishment that can take place in junior high school. It was that awareness that evoked such a wise look from our eighth grader. Ella knows that she has figured out a lot about herself and she feels great about that. 

In a flurry of pastels, Ella looked confident and eager parading by my husband and me with her friends. These were children whom we have carpooled since they were in nursery school, now stomping by in high heels and grown-up dresses or sport coats and boutonnières. Young adults ready for the next step. 

As many parents know first-hand, these accomplishments take time and energy, and sometimes group effort. Graduations do not “just happen.” They represent personal growth and a family’s attention and support. As we often mention in our household, “…it takes a village.” Raising children, nurturing them and knowing when to hold their hands or let them go is a subtle dance of trust and patience mixed with humor and humility.  There are no rule books and we often figure it out as we go, accumulating experience and perspective over time. 

Following Ella’s graduation, I attended graduation for many of my medical students at the University of Chicago. It was a gorgeous day and the convocation was held in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, a building that inspires awe and strength to many who enter. 

Dr. Janet Rowley, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s 55th mayor and former White House Chief of staff to President Obama, delivered keynote speeches. 

Both spoke in honest and inspiring ways, describing their personal experiences and weaving them into the responsibility and challenges facing these recent doctors. What struck me were Dr. Rowley’s discussion about luck and Emanuel’s description of humility and curiosity during their speeches. For a school of medicine that’s mission is dedicated to “inspiring diverse students of exceptional promise to become leaders and innovators…for the betterment of humanity,” luck and humility may seem a little removed. 

Dr. Rowley considers herself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time and to have made various decisions that propelled her into her life’s work. As one of the most important medical scientists in the country, Dr. Rowley has revolutionized how cancer is understood and treated. She taught the world that cancer is a genetic disease, something that was unknown until her discovery.

Emanuel described personal experiences that have taught him how to live life.  Although not always humble in his public life, Emanuel shared a few personal examples that he said gave his life a sense of purpose and direction. In particular, Emanuel spoke about the lesson in humility he learned after being fire from the White House. Despite the humbling experience, he persevered and found himself with renewed focus.

Along the way, both keynotes raised questions about their life goals. When they were young, neither seemed to know specifically what career path they would choose, but Rowley and Emanuel were very clear about the components it would include. Both keynotes were self-reflective and asked “why” when they hit roadblocks or didn’t like the choices they were given. They persevered. 

It is often said that luck is when opportunity meets preparation. I’d like to think that the takeaway from both graduation ceremonies is simply that. Being in the right place at the right time is only an opportunity if you are prepared for it, or willing to persevere despite all odds.

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