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Generosity: The Lucky Helping Those Less Lucky Than Them

Looking back at our year of profiles of some of the world's most generous people, the common thread is how lucky everyone felt at their success, and how much they felt obliged to help those who had less luck—because that easily could be any of us.

This fall, I spoke at TedxSMU on lessons learned in our work with generous individuals. And for the past year, we’ve celebrated and investigated bold generosity from social media mavens, designers, Wall Street executives, marketers and tech entrepreneurs through our Generosity Series. Inspiring examples of giving come from all walks of life.

So we like all the chatter about giving this week surrounding #GivingTuesday and the holidays. At my company, Catchafire, we’re lucky—giving is a part of our daily lexicon. It’s what we do: we empower professionals to donate their time and talent to causes about which they are passionate.

As for all the people we've profiled in this series, what ties them all together is that they share is a common and unmistakable trait: they truly believe that who they are and what they have is due in large part to luck.

Lucky at Birth

And by luck, I mean the hand they were dealt at birth. The parents they were born to, their country of birth, their family’s socioeconomic status, their race and gender, their health.

Paul English, co-founder of Kayak, shared that giving back was a form of payback to that luck. "It seems crazy that those of us with luck think that people without luck are different than us," English says. "They happened to be born in a different place or circumstances but they’re the same."

Lucky by Chance

Reflecting on the factors that set you up in life—for a successful career, a happy marriage, a good family, can change your perspective on life.

"For my whole life I have been a big believer in luck and that life is not fair," Margo Alexander, former CEO and Chairman of UBS AG Global Asset Management, says. "A lot of people, for no good reason and no fault of their own end up on the short end of the stick and a lot of people become very lucky for sometimes no good reason either."

Being Unlucky is Not a Choice

Because when you realize that luck determined much of your life, you also realize that others (the homeless man on your block, the drug addict, the incarcerated)—they too were dealt a hand that they didn’t choose.

Mark Hovarth, chief evangelistic officer of was once homeless. He knew how lucky he was to get off the streets and wanted to connect others to the down-on-luck circumstances of the homeless populace across the country.

Lucky to Give Hope

Acknowledging that you were born with a basic advantage doesn’t diminish your success but rather gives you the power to empathize with others. As Jeff Skoll, the former president of eBay, said, "If you can find ways to give people hope that they can achieve something or make a difference, then there’s an opportunity for something good to happen."

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire

Lucky to Be Grateful

Across sectors, these leaders feel an obligation to use their positions, talents, and influence to help level the playing fields and offer those less fortunate access to opportunities that their life circumstances may not have offered them.

"There’s a lot of good fortune in the upbringing I had that gave me that balance of both sides, a lot of good fortune that I was given a creative talent, a lot of good fortune that I found a job where I could actually put that in and build a business," David Droga, founder of Droga5, says. "I am grateful for that. I’ve always thought that one side of being grateful is to spread it a little bit."

As Debbie Aung Din and Jim Taylor, founders of Proximity Designs explain, "We were both fortunate to have access to good educations and supportive families. We’re motivated to help in situations where the stakes are high and the problems are big—where we know our unique skills can make a positive difference."

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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  • Elizabeth Lewis

    As a psychologist who has worked with the "unlucky" in the state prisons and other settings where people have ended up in horrible circumstance, I can say with certainty that the conditions into which one is born is the biggest factor I can see that conditions in many cases an unlucky life. People who are born into abusive and profoundly neglectful families pretty much are guaranteed to have a bad life. The mental health, addiction and behavioral problems that result from destitute parenting, conspire to create a life marked by tragedy, loss and multiple repititions of trauma. I believe that in many instances, it is better to not have been born than to suffer so terribly in a life marked by loss and betrayal. That is why it is better to abort unwanted children. If your mother does not want you, you will not fare in this life, almost conclusively. I believe life's like a poker game. Everyone is dealt a hand at birth. Either a really bad one, like a joker and a deuce, or maybe a royal flush. But if no one teaches you how to play, you will lose any great hand and never improve on a bad one. Parents, surrogate parents and mentors teach children how to play the game of life optimally. If you have no tools, you do not thrive, maybe survive or exist only. An unlucky birth can have all the luck in life but will destroy it and him or herself. For example, the lotto winner who goes on a drug and spending spree, loses his wife and shoots himself leaving a black hole of debt.. There are myriad examples. There's no rhyme or reason. It is like asking why do bad things happen to good people and vice versa. And don't tell me its Karma! That's just a new age way of blaming the victim. Unlucky birth is random and simply that, misfortune.

  • Kari Uhlman

    There's no such thing as luck.

    Answer: The American Heritage Dictionary defines “luck” as follows:

    1. The chance happening of fortunate or adverse events. 2. Good fortune or prosperity; gain success or something desirable by chance: “I lucked out in finding that rare book.”

    The main question is, do things happen by chance? If they do, then one can speak of someone being lucky or unlucky. But if they do not happen by chance, then it is inappropriate to use those terms. Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 states, “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.” Much of what Ecclesiastes shares is from the perspective of a person who looks at life on earth without God, or life “under the sun.” From such a perspective—leaving God out of the picture—there seems to be good luck and bad luck.

    A runner in a race may be the swiftest, but because someone in front of him stumbles, he trips over him and falls and does not win the race. How unlucky for him? Or a warrior king may have the strongest army but some “chance” arrow shot up into the air at random by a no-name enemy soldier just happens to pierce his armor in its most vulnerable location (2 Chronicles 18:33) resulting in that king’s death and the loss of the battle. How unlucky for King Ahab? Was it a matter of luck? Reading the whole of 2 Chronicles 18, we find that God had His hand in the matter from the beginning. The soldier who shot the arrow was totally unaware of its trajectory, but God in His sovereignty knew all along it would mean the death of wicked King Ahab.

    A similar “chance” occurrence takes place in the book of Ruth. Ruth, a widow who was caring for her widowed mother-in-law, seeks a field to glean grain to provide for them. “So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech” (Ruth 2:3). Elimelech had been the husband of her mother-in-law, Naomi, so Boaz was a relative of hers and was generous to Ruth. As Ruth returns home with a great deal more grain than Naomi expected, “her mother-in-law asked her, ‘Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!’ Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. ‘The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz,’ she said. ‘The LORD bless him!’ Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. ‘He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.’ She added, ‘That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers.’" (Ruth 2:19-20). So Naomi did not see it as a “chance” occurrence but as the providence of God, as do others later on (Ruth 4:14).

    Proverbs 16:33 states a general principle: “The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the Lord.” This refers to the use of casting lots (similar to the tossing of a coin or the rolling of dice) to settle certain judicial cases. The case involving Achan in Joshua 7 is an example in which the principle of Proverbs 16:33 is used to find the guilty party. Proverbs 18:18 states something similar: “Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart.” Again, the idea is that God’s providence plays the determining role in the results of the casting of lots so that judicial conflicts can be resolved no matter how great the contention. Proverbs 16:33 would indicate that something as random as the rolling of dice or the tossing of a coin is not outside of God’s sovereign control. And, therefore, its results are not merely of chance.

    God’s sovereignty involves two aspects. God’s active will or sovereignty would involve something He causes to happen such as the leading of wicked King Ahab into battle (2 Chronicles 18:18-19). Ahab’s death was not merely the result of a randomly shot arrow, but as 2 Chronicles 18 reveals, God actively directed the events that led Ahab into battle and used that randomly shot arrow to accomplish His intended will for Ahab that day.

    God’s passive will involves Him allowing, rather than causing, something to happen. Chapter1 of the book of Job illustrates this in what God allowed Satan to do in the life of Job. It is also involved in the evil that God allowed Joseph’s brothers to do to Joseph in order to accomplish a greater good, a good not apparent to Joseph until years later (Genesis 50:20).

    Because we do not have the curtains drawn back to see what is taking place in heaven, we cannot always determine whether God’s active or passive will is involved in the events of our lives, but we do know that all things that take place are under the umbrella of His will, whether active or passive, and, therefore, nothing is a matter of mere chance. When a person rolls the dice to play a board game, God may sometimes cause the dice to land a certain way, but more often than not in such inconsequential matters, He may allow the dice to land as His laws of nature would determine without any active involvement. But even when He is not actively involved, how the dice land is still under His sovereignty.

    So it is for any event of life; no matter how small (Matthew 10:29-31) or how large (Daniel 4:35; Proverbs 21:1), God is sovereign over all (Ephesians 1:11; Psalm 115:3; Isaiah 46:9-10), and thus nothing is merely the matter of chance.

    From an earthly perspective, things may seem to happen at random, but throughout the whole of Scripture, it is clear that God is in control of all of His creation and is somehow able to take the random acts of natural law, the free will of both good and evil men, and the wicked intent of demons and combine them all to accomplish His good and perfect will (Genesis 50:20; Job chapters 1 and 42; John 9:1-7). And Christians, specifically, are given the promise that God works all things, whether seemingly good or bad, together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

    Recommended Resources: Balancing the Christian Life by Charles Ryrie and Logos Bible Software.

    While he is not the author of every article on, for citation purposes, you may reference our CEO, S. Michael Houdmann.

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