On Luck and Chance

Chance is like change – it is written into the DNA of life. It is the kind of change that cannot be foreseen or explained.

The human race has taken great strides to dominate Chance: the studies of probability and statistics, and our tendency to refer to “the odds,” whether in sports or in everyday life. But we forget that the essence of chance is that it cannot be predicted or completely understood, and that it is always present – not simply a study which begins and ends with a textbook.

Analyzing Luck

Book cover 300It is easy to be cynical about luck. When we see others being lucky, we forget that luck is random. We take luck very personally, and often give it human characteristics, attributing it with being responsible for our situation.

While luck is indeed completely random, this also does not mean that it is distributed evenly. Probability would say that over an infinite period of time, everyone would have the same amount of good luck and bad luck; but over limited periods, as in a casino, one can have almost purely one kind of luck. This implies that there are people in life who are lucky over and over again, and whom luck seems to “favor.” Some may call it Destiny, some may explain it as random chance being predisposed in their favor.

Nevertheless, I have never heard of anyone who became successful simply by being lucky. Some intelligence is needed to get there. An actor or athlete on the rise, regardless of luck, can destroy his career by making racist comments or an act of extreme violence. Even lottery winners have the courage, or the imagination, to go buy a ticket.

Likewise, there are instances of good luck that seem favored by Nature from the beginning. Some people are lucky to know from an early age what to do with their lives. Some people are born rich. Some people are born with very athletic genes. We can ponder this till we drive ourselves mad, or we can pay attention to our own lives. We can focus on what we can control.

It is easy to attribute another’s success to luck, because it frees us from self-blame. Since luck cannot be controlled, it is easy to say to ourselves that the only difference between us and that “lucky” person is a stroke of fortune. I disagree with this. Sure, there is an element of luck in the circumstances surrounding one’s birth. This may be debatable, but I would argue that it is better to be born to a financially comfortable family than a poor one. It is certainly better to be born healthy than not. And, when we are fetuses, we have no control whatsoever over the conditions in which we are born. So yes, some people are luckier than others right from the outset. There are also issues of intelligence and IQ, physical stature, and aesthetics.

Nevertheless, none of these “lucky” circumstances are absolute requirements in order to reach peace of mind and happiness. You do not need to be born rich, or with an IQ of 170, or with genes that will make you a shoo-in for a basketball career. This book was inspired by the fact that I was born with anxiety issues and depressive tendencies, and I have proven to myself that these are not obstacles to a happy and fulfilling life.

 “Preparing” for Luck

This brings me to a perspective which I have held for some time, that Luck is something we can prepare for, but not expect. While we cannot predict whether we will be lucky – or unlucky – we can make sure that we have built ourselves up to be ready for it.

Many people will talk about a successful person’s “lucky break,” not considering the state that person was in when the break arrived. I’ve known several businessmen over the years who seemed lucky: someone came to them with an opportunity at the right time, they stumbled (or even fell) into an industry that became “hot,” they were in the right country or region that started developing. When you look deeper, you see that luck was only able to play its role because these people were prepared for it.

As an example, I offer a businessman I know personally. In the early 1990s, the U.S. was affected with the “cigar craze,” as cigars once again became popular among a mass audience. It matched the strong economy at the time. Entrepreneurs began opening tobacco shops, and my friend, who already had a shop, began to make some very substantial profits. Customers and onlookers would say, “Wow, how lucky for him that there is this cigar craze – he’s really in the right place at the right time.”

Few knew, however, that he had started that shop with his wife in 1980 and given it the utmost attention over the years, while earning a very modest profit. During that period, he treated that shop with the attention of a father, investing countless hours in making sure that it was in excellent condition. Cigars need to be humidified at a certain rate and temperature, and he invested in a state-of-the-art system to make sure this was done right. Hence, when the cigar craze came, he was 100% ready. When patrons would tell him he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, he would smile and say, “Yes, we had 14 years until our ‘overnight’ success.”

The same is true of many of my friends who became successful in China over the past decade. While many expatriates treated their China experience as a long vacation, others spent the time investing in themselves – learning the language and the culture, and studying the economy. They even took the chance of starting businesses. When good luck arrived, they were prepared for it.

In a similar vein, the year of my life where I had the most luck and financial success was the year where I had the most positive attitude, as well as the most self-discipline and work ethic. True, I was in the right industry at the right time — which was lucky — but I would have made nothing out of this luck if I had not been prepared.

These are examples of professional luck, but the same carries over into our personal lives. For us to be lucky to meet the right partner, we need to have invested in ourselves to some degree. Generally we need to be gainfully employed and relatively healthy, and with a positive perspective on life. To hear about a good deal on a house or car, we need to have friends and connections who could share such information, and the financial soundness to understand this information.

Preparing for bad luck follows the same formula. We prepare for losing a job or other financial adversity by making sure we save some of our salary each month. We prepare for catching a cold by taking care of our health, such that the effect of the germ is minimized. So much in life can be handled with relative smoothness, if we just acknowledge that good and bad luck will happen unpredictably, and that while we cannot be totally prepared, we can at least have the best foundation possible to deal with it.

We are all dealt different hands in life. We can sit around cursing our bad luck, and questioning until we make ourselves confused as well as unhappy, or we can resolve to be as prepared as possible for what may happen to us. Being prepared for whether Fortune smiles or frowns upon you follows essentially the same guidelines:

  • Spend as much time as possible with your loved ones
  • Have savings, and do your best to be re-employable, like learning more
  • Maintain your health – a little self-denial now is better than a lot of regret later – and have insurance
  • Keep a positive attitude, such that you do not repel opportunities

As you see, these preparations are extremely simple. I am often asked, “What if we prepare and nothing lucky follows?” Then at least you have improved yourself mentally and physically. Nothing wrong with that, right?

 We’re Luckier than We Think

Have you ever tried flipping the concept of luck upside down, and thinking about how unlucky you could be? From the moment we wake up in the morning, can you imagine the things that could go wrong, but don’t? It is perhaps not a comforting thought at first, but ultimately it helps us to see the improbability of bad luck and the fact that things usually go the way we want them to. Don’t forget to include this in your feelings of gratitude. There’s nothing strange about being thankful for a day in which nothing went wrong.

The Law of Attraction

Much has been said over the last fifteen years about the Law of Attraction and the use of the subconscious in determining what happens in one’s life. This was popularized by the film called The Secret, which I have watched several times.

I have mixed feelings over what is expressed in The Secret and in the Law of Attraction literature that has been proliferated as a result. The main fault that I find is the total disregard that the Law has for the presence of randomness in the universe. This law states that anything that happens to us is a direct result of our thinking, or of our subconscious. Such a notion is absurd, especially when one considers natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes. No one brings these upon themselves, no matter what they may be thinking about. The same applies to someone who is hit by a speeding drunk driver. There is nothing you can do to “attract” something like that. It simply occurs as a result of the free will of someone who acts irresponsibly.

As for the power of the subconscious, the books on the topic tend to give vague descriptions of how to use this power to bring about greater success. There is no tangible path, nor are there any precise methods. According to these writings on the subconscious, thinking about something repeatedly, to make it happen, seems as equally helpful as not thinking about it and just letting it “be” in your mind. The messages are contradictory.

The only consistent message of the Law of Attraction, and the notion of the subconscious, is that it is important to be positive, and that generally good things happen to positive people. The more you clear your mind of negativity, the more favorable things can happen. We still cannot control the effects of the universe’s randomness, or most of the actions of others. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that an avalanche is your fault.

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