Saying described verbatim by informant and his wife:
“We use that a lot at work, in surgery, in medicine. And there are there are times when (pause) no matter how good a surgeon you are the result is not what you hope it would be, the patient doesn’t do as well. You can do the same operation the same way, you know, the same way on ten people but you can get you know 3 or 4 different results and so. It’s not to belittle anybody’s effort or ability but sometimes it just matters you know how the cards are dealt. And uh an example, another example would be: we take call at night, you work all night. Some nights a guy will be, won’t have any emergency surgery to do and he’ll be able to sleep all night and there are other nights where the guy is up All night uh through no fault of his own just happened to be a night where a lot of people showed up in the emergency room. So we always look at each other and we say ‘Well, it’s better to be lucky than good’ cuz no matter how good a surgeon you are you’d rather be lucky and not be working all night. You’d rather be the lucky one that gets to sleep.
I don’t think that phrase is unique to surgeons or in the medical world.
(wife’s interjection speaking quickly and emphatically: You’ve been saying that since the day I met you. You didn’t say that as a surgeon. You said that, when I met you you were saying that. Because you said you were good all the time and you had no luck. You used to say that all the time, I’d say like you know “You’re so good,” and he was like “Yeah, well sometimes its better to be lucky than be good.” And I was like, “Well what do you mean by that?” You’re like “You know I have no luck” Kay, not for nothing, you’re a pretty lucky guy, you work really hard but some people work really hard and they don’t get places, but that’s for another day)
(In answer) Well, there’s also the expression that you make your own luck, so. But I don’t, I didn’t realize that I said that so often but I don’t think the phrase is unique to me. I think I heard it from someone else.
(wife: No, of course not. But it obviously spoke to you. Right?)
I always think of my brother P. (P is an name substitute to keep confidentiality) cuz my brother P. was kind of an imp of a boy, always in trouble, but he was always incredibly lucky. I mean he he
(wife speaking as he spoke: The luck of the Irish!)
never got caught by the cops, he uh um he did very well playing cards um always had luck with cards (laughing)
(wife: Always had incredible luck with women)
Yeah well, he was very handsome so he didn’t have to be lucky
(wife disagreeing: Uhhh, I’m sorry)
but but uh certainly, Certainly when I’d look around at how hard I was working at school and he was still pullin good grades uh, usually he was lucky he had a good teacher or he had a good friend.
(wife’s question: Did he get good grades?)
He got okay grades, much better than he deserved (laughing) so.”
Obviously this proverb applies to numerous situations. For my informant, it held truth in both his professional and personal lives. With a high-stress high-stakes job as a general surgeon, the subjective reality of treating patients sometimes can only be justified and understood with the concept of luck. Since their work holds great consequence to people’s lives, when things don’t work as they “are supposed to” it can be a heavy blow to both their conscience and confidence. Being a good surgeon and doing things exactly as they are supposed to isn’t always enough to save someone, and that can understandably be a difficult concept to wrap their heads around. Also, the absurdly difficult “On Call” shift in the Emergency Room overnight takes a lot out of surgeons physically and mentally. Having the luck to sleep through the night is often favorable to performing surgery all night; even though you may be a good surgeon and can help people, there’s luck in the sense that people aren’t sick and don’t need help, which in turn is lucky for surgeons who can then get some sleep. So far as my informant’s personal life, he sees his impish younger brother as having luck in the sense that things easily work in his favor. Naturally, a man who by both his wife’s and his own description is a “good,” hardworking person, it’s easy to view the luck and ease his bad-boy brother always had as both irritating and enviable. Good for him that he can smile and laugh about it. In this manner, the proverb is almost a calming truth; not everything is within your power. That luck is an important concept to my informant whose family is a mix of Italian-American and Irish-American, among other things, isn’t so surprising.