Learn English – the exact meaning of “It’s better to be lucky than good”? How popular is this adage


Today’s (October 29) New York Times carries the article written by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen under the title “What’s luck go to do with it,” It deals with a nine-year research study of some of the most extreme business successes of modern times that they call "10Xers," that they recently completed.

The article begins with the following line.

Better to be lucky than good, the adage goes. And maybe that’s true — if you just want to be merely good, not much better than average. But what if you want to build or do something great? And what if you want to do so in today’s unstable and unpredictable world?”

I guess “Better to be lucky than good “means “to be gifted with good fortune is better than being simply good (at what remains as a question though),” but I’m not sure of its exact meaning.

Although the authors say it’s an adage that I understand should be well-established, popular form of expression, I don’t find this phrase in neither Cambridge nor Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Google Ngram either doesn’t register this phrase.

As a plausible origin of this expression, flightjournal.com says:

“By: Thomas McKelvey Cleaver. "It's better to be lucky than good," says Lamar Gillett, the only P-35 pilot in. World War II to shoot down a Japanese Zero fighter. "I was lucky I was behind the Zero instead of in front of him. I was lucky when I landed back …”

What is the exact meaning of "It's better to be lucky than good,"? What does "good" mean here? Is it really qualified as an adage as the authors claim it?

Best Answer

Unlike most of the answerers so far, I have personally heard this phrase used many times in my life (although I have lived my whole life only 2 hours from NYC, so maybe it is a local thing). Anyway, the statement has always been used in my presence to mean 'skill can only get you so far' and follows the logic that you need a certain amount of luck to be REALLY successful.

A good place to look for this is pop music stars. From the perspective of technical skill/trained ability, many of them are amateurs at best, but they are still IMMENSELY popular. In many cases, their popularity is based mostly on looks and being in the right place at the right time. Meanwhile there are musicians who can perform the most difficult pieces ever written while wearing a blindfold, but no one will ever hear their names because they did not have the luck to be "discovered". It is better to be lucky than good.