Life: What’s Luck Got to Do With It?

Closeup of four leaf clover

Professor of psychology and author Richard Wiseman:

Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives. For example, one person described how he thought of a colour before arriving at a party and then introduced himself to people wearing that colour. This kind of behaviour boosts the likelihood of chance opportunities by introducing variety.

Herbert Lui, writing at 3/27/15:

[A]t the crux of [luck] lies a fundamental ingredient: Exposure to different ideas and experiences. Expose yourself to new things (and remember them). Follow your hunches and explore your personal quirks (like your hobbies).

Probability determines luck. If you don’t play, you’ll never win. Author Frans Johansson likens luck to betting in his book The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World. He suggests placing small, purposeful, bets to experience the positive outcome known as good luck.

We gravitate towards our routines and habits. And there’s no doubt that they can improve your productivity. However, to become lucky, it helps to break your routines every so often. Getting out of your routine means new experiences. You may find that you need to break out of your comfort zone to get lucky.

“Luck” is a human construct. It refers to something objective. The objective fact is that we do not control everything. In fact, none of us controls most things.

People react to this fact in two basic ways.

One way is to evade it. This leads to an unrealistic (and unnecessary) desire to control all things. Emotionally, this creates problems such as anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsiveness and all the rest. Behaviorally, this leads to “control freakism.” A control freak is someone who expects to control more than he realistically can or should, and yet persists in the illusion he can (making him highly annoying and difficult for others around him.)

The other way to cope with the fact you cannot control everything is to give up. Or become more passive and helpless than reality requires of us. Emotionally, this manifests in the syndrome of depression, whose proper definition (in psychology) is “learned helplessness.” Behaviorally, it leads to lethargy, inactivity and underachievement/underfulfillment.

Another way to react to the fact that we do not and cannot control everything? Rationally. In practice, this means ignoring and minimizing the fact you cannot control most things, and instead focusing on what you can control.

“Ignoring and minimizing” are not the same as evading or denying. Evading or denying means proceeding as if you can control everything. Minimizing means accepting that there are things you cannot change, but proceeding to zero in — intensely and ruthlessly, for sure — on things actually subject to your mastery and control.

Human beings, at their best, are masters of their own destinies. It’s the reason why the vast majority of us (political correctness aside) admire the best achievers in sports, science, business, literature or history. Those who achieve show us how important areas of life are, in fact, under our control and mastery. Their achievement gives us hope and inspiration that we may do some equivalent of the same (grand scale or not) in our own lives. They give us actual hope, and are living proof that it’s possible.

If you accept what you cannot change and nevertheless remain confident about all that you might alter for the benefit of your survival and overall happiness, then “luck” is a largely irrelevant or unimportant concept. When someone talks of “luck,” your reaction simply becomes, “Oh, that’s right. I can’t control everything. How fortunate I was in the right place at the right time. How smart that I used that opportunity to my benefit.”

This is how confident people think and feel. To a confident person, there is no such thing as luck. This does not mean the confident person controls everything. It does not mean that nothing ever happens due to chance or external factors. But to the confident and rational person, there is no temptation or need to attach any mystical, romantic or arbitrary connections to this fact. “Oh, sure. I did not control that. It’s unfortunate. But I’m still alive. Move on.” That’s how heroes operate; and that’s how all of us operate, at our best. It’s a sign of serenity, rationality, confidence and adjustment.

Read (or watch) the biographies of people you consider accomplished and successful in some area. If you read enough of those biographies, you will discover a wide range of “luck” or chance occurrences. Some accomplished people start with nothing; some start with everything. Some live lives filled with frustration, disappointment, and even despair; the accomplishment for which you know them was their only high point, and they might not even have viewed it that way. Others lived lives full of success stories with happiness and accomplishment as the norm, not the exception.

Confidence is possible for all of us, provided we train ourselves to think that way.

The point is that success and accomplishment are not primarily a result of chance occurrence. In fact, they are not a result of chance at all — not if you objectively and accurately (without magical thinking) define chance as nothing more than a recognition of the fact you cannot (and need not) control most things.

Timing, some claim, is everything. But the right time means nothing without an intelligent and competent, acting individual to make the most use of that good timing. Timing is not everything; it’s not even the most important thing.

People who accomplish great things and attribute it all to luck reveal their own inner guilt and shame. Do not let their psychological issues detract from your own determination to be all you can be; and do not let their neuroses cloud your own admiration for their hard fought achievement.

Successful and happy people are those who (among other things) recognize that the reasonable thinking mind, combined with persistent and intelligent action in some context over time, can and likely will lead to some kind of positive and desirable result.

They’re at peace with the fact that this is not guaranteed, and they look forward to the prospect of making it so. Defeats are temporary and unimportant stepping stones to an expected and ultimate triumph in some area. Whether they reach their goals or not, the expectation is that they can — and in a sense, by enjoying this attitude, they have already attained something.

Luck, to a happy person, is the furthest thing from one’s mind. At root, what matters is your evaluation of what’s most important.

What’s most important about life, and existence? The fact we cannot control most things? Or the fact that in significant ways we can?

Your answer to this question determines your attitude about luck, as well as the kind of life you will live.



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