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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?

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I'm not sure when the quote in the article on flightjournal.com was spoken (if 1941, would be one of the earliest recorded), but Lefty Gomez "often remarked, "I'd rather be lucky than good."" in 1942. –  rockerest Oct 30 '11 at 7:33
    
It's also said, when filling a vacant post, Napoleon preferred lucky generals over good generals. –  Hugo Oct 30 '11 at 10:54
    
This instance from 1927 is unlikely to be the first time such a trite observation was committed to print. Here's more lucky than good in 1845 (admittedly without "born"). –  FumbleFingers Oct 30 '11 at 17:11
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9 Answers

I think jimreed (10/30/11) captures an important element of this usage, which is that when this phrase is directed at one's own accomplishments, it's intended to be self-effacing: "I pulled this off because I was lucky rather than because I am skilled, talented, wise, etc." I sometimes hear (and use) this expression to mean "It's better to be lucky than good, because if we're depending on how good I am, we're screwed."

Of course, when this phrase is directed at someone else's actions, it might intend (either playfully or derisively) to minimize that person's contributions: "Don't get full of yourself; you were just lucky."

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I'd look as "good" as a moral category, and imperative, as in, e.g. Be good!

The analogous equivalent here would be, Be lucky!

Of course, luck cannot be willed or controlled, but if a choice could be made, it would be better to be lucky than to be good. For, the good die young, while the lucky live long and happy lives.

Yes, I'll take luck over good any day.

For, being good "can" result in being unlucky. But being lucky is always good.

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I read it as a shorter (but considerably less well-known and less eloquent) way of expressing the sentiment of Ecclesiastes 9:11 The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong ... but time and chance happeneth to them all.

In both cases (depending on whether you're a glass half full or half empty type of person), you can interpret the "chance" element as referring to having good luck, or avoiding bad luck. A top international sportsman might need the former to become World Champion; a WW2 tail gunner needed the latter to stay alive.

As is so often the case with such dictums, there are others with pretty much the opposite meaning. I would contrast this one with Thomas Edison's Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

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The Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite quotations. –  Barrie England Oct 30 '11 at 14:35
    
Me too. At first I was going to say it was more inspirational than OP's version. But I decided that didn't sit so well with the somewhat pessimistic meaning, and eloquent was the best I could come up with. –  FumbleFingers Oct 30 '11 at 14:50
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The way I heard it was "It's smarter to be lucky than it's lucky to be smart." From a song in the musical Pippin.

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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.

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I agree overall, but in the case of pop stars, for example, although being good at looking good could arguably be partly "luck" (and partly a matter of caring about your appearance), you could equally well say that having a musical ear, dextrous playing fingers, rich-toned vocal chords, etc., are all to some extent matters of chance. It's only the optimistic wannabes who think it's all a matter of chance. –  FumbleFingers Oct 30 '11 at 16:58
    
Not a perfect analogy, but I think it gets the point across. –  Lee Quarella Oct 30 '11 at 18:49
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I have used that phrase in situations where things work out well due more to a fortunate turn of events rather than due to my own skill.

For example, I'm a programmer and we spend a lot of time testing the software that we write. Yet there are always more bugs to be discovered and fixed. When we stumble across a new but serious bug shortly before releasing a new version, it is almost always due to "luck" rather than "skill". Hence, I'd rather be lucky than good.

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I think it's a stretch to call "better to be lucky than good" an adage, since it's not that common itself.

The sentiment of the phrase is well known, but there are many variations.

Google Ngrams picks up "lucky than good" only as far back as 1927:

Or else it proves that the De Havilland firm are very lucky,- which is also a point in their favour, if it be true that it is better to be born lucky than good.

Excerpt link

Another way of phrasing it: "I'd rather be lucky than good" can be found in The New Yorker from 1947:

"The breaks," George said. "I'd rather be lucky than good."

Excerpt link

Here "the breaks" refer to the breaks people get into something, e.g. show business. Meaning that good fortune has put them where they want to be.

The generalised concept that it's better to be lucky than [X] I have found at the end of the 18th century in this Google Ngram:

I think what I have long thought, that it is better to be lucky than wise.

Excerpt link

The phrase, as you say, means that having good luck when attempting something is better than being good at the thing you're attempting (whether that is true is another matter). So good in this sense means good at something.

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The Google search for "Better to be lucky than good" returns 408,000 results, while removing the quotes nets 121 million results. Anecdotally, I have heard this phrase at least once in my short life. These two points (Google results combined with my own experience) lead me to believe that it's "popularity" is somewhat lower than "popular" and somewhat above "not at all popular."

As for it's meaning, it can be roughly interpreted as:

I would rather have many good things happen to me by no skill of my own than be very skilled at something and be responsible for my own good fortune, therefore making my successes and failures a direct result of my own actions.

One of the earliest mentions of this phrase that I could "reliably" find was Lefty Gomez who is purported to have often stated this phrase in or before 1943.

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“Ability is of little account without opportunity.” ― Napoleon –  NickNo Mar 12 at 15:42
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From the context, it sounds as if good has more to do with ability than morals here. Adage is, more or less, a synonym of proverb and proverbs are not usually mere quotations. The only proverb I can find like it is It is better to be born lucky than rich. It rather looks to me as if the writers have been careless both in their use of the quotation and of the term adage.

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protected by RegDwigнt Dec 16 '12 at 20:57

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