On Luck

Dice and Poker Chips

In 1988 an effervescent curly haired Australian pop starlet seared an irrevocable musical brand into our consciousness when she hopefully declared that “She should be so lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky in love.” Twenty six years after that particular spawn of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s (s)hit factory, a concept barely in its infancy as she warbled her poppy prayer, the internet, and more specifically Wikipedia, tells us that unfortunately Ms Minogue has not ultimately been so. But then again, why should she? What does that even mean?

Over the last 24 months, I have frequently heard about how unlucky I have been to find myself suffering from a relatively obscure type of cancer atypical in my demographic, or some sympathetic paraphrase, and while there seems to be some intuitive justice to this perception, as I sit contemplating the subject in my otherwise (some might venture) blessed bubble of comfort, I can’t help feeling this is an ultimately unbalanced conclusion.

First things first. In musing the subject of luck and discussing it with my beer peers, it quickly became apparent that not only do we all have different views on luck, we can’t even semantically agree what the hell it is. For some luck is winning the lottery, for others it is walking away from a car wreck with only a broken arm, for the suburban middle class it might be a hole in one. Therefore for the purpose of this article at least, I have sub defined the word into some terms and definitions I could decide, but I’m sure you have your own:

  • Chance – the probability of any given outcome. Tossing a coin with 50/50 heads or tails.

  • Luck – a specific result for a person that is not dependent on their ability to control it. It could be good or bad luck.

  • Fluke – a specific beneficial result for a person that may be improbable, but may be made more likely by preparation or practice. That hole in one for example.

  • Fortune – a generally beneficial situation brought about by no input by the beneficiary. Paris Hilton’s life of luxury and leisure (although financial wealth notwithstanding, one might question in how many other ways she could be considered fortunate.)

I know, I’m like an Inuit talking about snow now, but before I entrench myself in some dry academic analysis, I should say I am more interested in how we perceive the issue of luck; how we feel a universal (but providence free) power that is not subject to judgement or justice is a player in deciding how our lives play out. Some of us genuinely believe we or others are lucky or unlucky. Why?

Let’s assume that the storm that befell the Spanish Armada was a question of luck rather than some divine intervention on behalf of Protestants, Queens and Gingers, whether it was good or bad luck depends on whether you like Morris dancing or Flamenco. So we can at least agree that luck is a matter of personal interpretation, rather than an external environmental absolute. Using this as an anchor we can start looking at how this psychology is constructed.

The first component we require is a relative reality to compare our luck to. This is called a counterfactual reality and provides us with a context. “I was lucky to walk away from a car wreck.” Really? One might ask how lucky were you to be in an accident at all? An alternative is that we were killed in that accident and let’s face it, that’s always relatively bad.

We then strengthen our perception of luck proportionately with the closeness of a counterfactual proposition. i.e. if the roulette ball stops in the wheel one space away from your chosen number, this will be considered more unlucky than if the ball was on the other side of the wheel, despite the win or loss result being the same.

As a species, we are horribly equipped to understand statistics and probability (another book filling topic in it’s own right). It is an evolutionary necessity to identify patterns quickly to increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction. This leads us to intuitive but often incorrect conclusions. We don’t understand that there are natural clusters of activity in any given range (if I toss a coin a thousand times at some point I will toss 10 heads in a row) and when we see these clusters we either falsely attribute a cause and effect, or bind them up in a nice explanatory bow of luck. Sometimes both at the same time. “If I say heads as I toss the coin it’s more likely to come up.” We also remember clusters of activity because they stand out but never remember the “predictably average” results. These misinterpretations lead on to the classic Gambler’s Fallacy. Should we all move to lucky Romford because they have the highest number of lottery winners per head in the country, or should we all move away because there should now be fewer winners as probability balances? (It doesn’t by the way, you should move away from Romford because it is Romford)

Knowledge is key in peoples formation of a luck hypothesis especially when it concerns others. I may see someone else’s success and think they were lucky, but I won’t know what they may have done to make that positive event more likely. Did they, unwittingly or otherwise, prepare in some way to turn an otherwise insignificant circumstance into an opportunity? And I’m probably too busy stewing in my own envy to appreciate the potential negatives that have been created by this situation. The wealthy neighbour with the big house has been very lucky in his career, but I’m not asking if his success has been at the detriment of his health, or his relationship with his wife and children whom he never sees.

In 2000 the unknown 20-1 outsider Hasim Rahman fought and knocked out the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion of the world Lennox Lewis. After the fight he was interviewed ringside and asked to admit by the commentator that the knockout blow had been “one hell of a lucky punch.” Rahman full of adrenaline and hubris looked incredulous (and paraphrased), “What? You think I just walked in off the street into that ring? I have been training for twenty years to be that lucky! I get up at 5am every morning and run 15 miles to be that lucky!” (Similar to the famous Gary Player quote, “The more I practice the luckier I get!”)

The attribution of success to good luck works in our favour too, and we simply can’t help build up our castle of confirmation bias anymore than we can deny our next heartbeat. If we see a comparable person who is successful in a way we aren’t, instead of giving them them the credit they may deserve for their hard work, intelligence and ability, we attribute it to luck, giving us our escape from personal accountability. The reason we have not been as successful is not that we haven’t applied ourselves, or we are not as capable as them, they have just had more luck than us. Now we don’t have to make any positive changes in our lives, we can just hope that the luck comes our way too. It also gives us a justifiable reason to begrudge them their success. And yet, contradictorily but unsurprisingly, for ourselves we have a 100% baseline where we expect everything to go well for us because we are masters of our own fate, or even better still, we are good people and everyone knows good things happen to good people. When things don’t go our way, well it was outside our control and we have been unlucky, or better still, things happen for a reason.

Watching the aforementioned bombastic boxer, I had a personal epiphany in my interpretation of luck. I decided that my new definition was “Being prepared for your opportunities when they come your way.” For example, the idea of training not for the job I was doing, but the job I wanted to get. (I know, hardly bleeding edge business philosophy, you can see why I got so far in life.)

At the time I was working unhappily for the Benefits Agency in a tedious but comfortable role out of the office. I was the most junior of 17 staff in a team and when the manager of that department left, the role was offered on an acting basis to the most senior member of the team. Why would anyone forgo their easy, unhassled life out of the office away from the prying eyes of their manager and sit in an office all day actually working? The role was turned down by all 16 more senior staff until eventually, and with a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle, my boss offered the job to the departmental dreg that was me. With my new found wisdom I accepted and spent the next year getting the experience and training of a management role. By the time the next management grade recruitment drive (and opportunity for my boss to relieve both of us of our mutual tolerance) came around, I was ready to make the step out of that organisation and into a far more ambitious, energetic, and rewarding environment; the business I am still employed by now.

In the two years since my diagnosis I have been given tremendous support by my employer, far above and beyond that which is required of them by ethics or law (and certainly more so than I would have ever received from the “safe” and “employee friendly” world of a Civil Service job). People have often told me how lucky I am to have this support (see the car wreck example above regarding how lucky I am to have Cancer in the first place!), but I am also frequently reminded that it isn’t luck, it’s a choice by the decision makers of that business, and one that is affected by the relationships I built and performance in the business for over a decade; or at least that’s what I like to think (remember, I am the master of my own fate.)

Overall though when I measure my fortune, and by that I don’t mean the Nazi gold stashed in Zurich, but the holistic audit of my life, the scales are very heavily loaded in the positive. I was born in a country that can afford the arrogance of describing itself as “First World”. I have unlimited access to food (maybe I should start limiting that bit), shelter, education and employment. I am white, male, and part of a new upwardly mobile middle class. Frankly, looking at my relative position on the global socio economic scale, I think we’d all agree it would be a tad greedy to cry foul. The fact I have developed a disease that is the single most common cause of death in the UK really shouldn’t be considered an unlikely occurrence, and let’s face it we all have to die of something don’t we? So this is where I draw my comforting relativity; my counterfactual reality is I wasn’t born a girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo living from hand to mouth, wondering if tonight was the night my village was raided by Joseph Kony’s cronies. I haven’t got much to complain about now have I?

In conclusion then, yes luck does exist, but only inasmuch as it is a personal and relative interpretation of, not an active agent in, the events of our lives (or our lives as a whole.) Ultimately, naming it luck is unhelpful due to the ambiguity of the term, but we each have the power to interpret the results anyway we choose. We can have a positive or negative outlook. Alternatively we can choose to ignore the whole idea completely, and where we have the ability to affect things, give ourselves the maximum opportunity to achieve those that we think are important.  Rather than say I have been lucky or fortunate, I prefer something concise and pithy along the lines of…“I like to take a positive outlook to life and appreciate good things that happen, while accepting other things won’t always go my way, and there is no reason to expect there will be any balance or justice in those things that happen outside of my control.” And if she could fit it in the chorus, I’m sure Kylie would agree.

 

 

This article was put together as a result of reading stuff written by other people, arguing under the influence with other people, and mashing it up in the unfettered mind of a terminally ill twat.

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14 Comments. Leave new

I enjoyed that article, just wanted to point out the irony that Kylie did indeed have breast cancer ! was she lucky ?

She certainly has lived a very successful life, but i suspect her career has not brought her true happiness

(She is on my allowed list – not sure I am on hers !)

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I did contemplate bringing her cancer experience into the article. I am sure she has a deeply considered outlook on her “fortune” herself after that experience.

And don’t be so sure Mike, after her previous romantic experiences maybe she’s ready for…er…something different?:-

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Notskidsanymore
January 17, 2014 8:44 AM

For me, luck is just a fuzzy way of looking at statistical probability. “That was lucky” simply means “that was statistically unlikely” but I suspect that in most cases it’s not as unlikely as you think.

I suspect that the proportion of people that play the lottery in Romford is higher than most other towns and I suspect that the demographic of people that tend to play the lottery matches Romford’s demographic quite well. Looked at like that, the lottery figures for Romford will make sense and “luck” doesn’t come into it.

There was a thing in the paper this morning about a family where all 4 siblings share the same birthday and the Metro said that the chances of that happening are something like 133,000 to 1. But it struck me that if you attempt to conceive at the same time of the year each time and you take into account planned Caesarians, induced labour and the sheer willpower of a mother to determine the moment of her own child’s birth the probability can be reduced drastically and that 133,000 to 1 figure becomes meaningless .

To put too much emphasis on luck is just lazy thinking but it becomes dangerous when it’s overlaid with notions of fate or destiny because if you convince yourself that luck is a gift bestowed by an external force or presence it reduces your incentive to influence those statistics and “make your own luck”.

Here’s my favourite example of the nonsense of language and statistics: in Denmark, as it is everywhere else in the world, the vast majority of the population have 2 eyes. However, a tiny proportion have just 1 and some have none. That means that, statistically, the average or mean number of eyes that Danes have is a fraction under 2. That means that most Danes have an above average number of eyes.

They’re such lucky bastards them Danes.

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Absolutely agree and probably should have made more of an effort to stress the odds aspect, but I didn’t want to get too caught up in numbers. That said, according to the Office for National Statistics there are 18.2 million families in the uk. If all of them decided to have 4 children and the Metro’s Cambridge educated statisticians have considered all relevant data (they aren’t and they haven’t) then there would be 136 families in the UK where 4 siblings (none of which are multiple births) shared the same birthday.

As for Romford, you are no doubt correct. Some areas have a higher take up of gambling, notably poorer areas (cause and effect or symptomatic?), and this information, unsurprisingly not pushed by the National Lottery, leaves a knowledge void that gets filled with superstition or white stilettos.

Lastly, in your Danish example, how conjoined do you need to be to count as 1 person with 4 eyes?

Eamonn

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Very interesting stuff. I have often wondered whether the perception that some people are luckier then others is just that – a perception – or whether there is something in it.

It’s certainly the case that I am a very rare (never say never) winner if I buy a raffle ticket or something of that sort, but then again the odds are massively stacked to that outcome. It seems that there are people who are much more likely to win, but does it just look that way?

There are certainly people who constantly win competitions from magazines and the like, but then they spend inordinate amounts of time entering the things.

Leaving aside the definition of luck (different things to different people, as you say) it would be interesting to consider whether some are luckier than others in general.

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David,

Well, if we are ignoring the semantics of the word and limiting the assessment to a specific measurable set of random criteria (e.g. dice rolls where you get paid a tenner each time you get a 6), then yes some people will experience a positive result more frequently than others. However, the greater the sample size and number of experiences the closer to the mean you will get. But you really don’t want to get me started on statistics (apart from the fact I am a complete novice and would get it wrong.)

Eamonn

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For me, I usually use the word ‘lucky’ to empathise with someone. It is a lazy way of expressing my empathy without going into the (often obvious) detail of an event that may have happened – good or bad. Sometimes people just want an agreement of astonishment or a vocal cuddle!
Thank you Eamonn, for analysing the concept of ‘luck’ for me – I enjoyed and agree with your thoughts on the subject. By the way, I found it particularly well proof-read ;-) Bravo! Bring on the one about God…..

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Nicola Bumpus
January 19, 2014 7:43 AM

Since reading this, I’ve the song “if luck be a lady tonight…” going around my head. Not so lucky I feel!
Life is what you make it but there are certain elements that you have no control or influence over. Humans like to categorise them so call them ‘luck’ or various synonyms. Some call it ‘fate’ as though it is predestined but that’s also kinda harsh when the bad things happen. The best line is, “things happen for a reason.” when looking for the positives or justifying negatives. Just a suggestion but you could write your next blog on this – could be titled: half empty or half full!

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Funny you should say that Nicola, I am planning to write something about Happiness or glass half full/empty. I don’t know if it is just the same as this article though, which has already been summed up as concisely and musically as possible by Eric Idle in “Always look on the bright side of life!”

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Now that song is stuck in my head!!!
Got to say, every time I start the sentence, “Lucky…”, I am now thinking further into what I am saying. Was I really lucky? What’s the other side of the coin? And so on…
Very thought provoking blogs that I am considering one myself on everything I’ve been through in the last 6 years.
Thank you for the inspiration.
x

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Do it! Start today! It’s really easy to do if you want. Just go to Google Blogger, or Tumblr, or WordPress or anything like that and start. It’s free and easy to do. No excuses!

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Luck seems very personal, relative to your perspective. And a little extra perspective on choosing what to focus on makes us realise how lucky we are (or aren’t) – your globo economic social scale comparison is classic example for most of us. I also appreciate the statistical improbability angle even if it’s not a very alluring(?) way to try to explain life’s twist’s and turns (both of ourselves and others). Your attitude to what cards Lady Luck has dealt you can be crucial for your mental well-being…a glass half full mindset helps me focus on what’s next and makes me far less cranky/conceited (which is good for those around me). I personally haven’t had a cancer-esque event, although people close to me have (and at scarily young ages) and their respective attitudes (natural or developed coping strategy) have had a significant effect on their quality of life as well as being an inspiration to others.
Two quotes:
“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” – Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
“You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocketship underpants don’t help.” -– Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes

Big congrats on getting the website set up Eamonn…and am still smiling at the Danish eyes example!

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I’m a universe will provide kind of guy. Nice things happen to nice people. Pay it forward. All that malarkey. Luck? Think you make your own luck mostly, like the golfer (different stories attribute that one to different golfers btw), practice long enough and you make your own luck.

Doing some work for Disney at the moment, that’s lucky, incredibly lucky but I had the balls to get to know the guy, create a relationship and from there it turns out he works for Disney and I could provide something he can use. Luck or engineered circumstance?

Was speaking to someone today who said I was extremely successful at what I was doing, getting business, staying in business during a huge recession etc I didn’t actually realise that’s what I’d done to be perfectly honest, then you look back at all the networking sessions I’d been too the endless drudge of turning up to a random hall, hotel etc churning out the same stuff over and over about what you do, who you do it for etc until eventually you click with 2 or 3 people and some work comes. Yeah successful but bloody hard work getting there.

There I said it I work hard, damn you Eamonn :D

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I have on many an occasion described myself as the luckiest person in the world. Not lottery winning scale but the little things. The bus always turns up seconds after I reach the stop, I always seem to get the great parking space or I get a green wave on the drive home.

I am logical enough to know random chance is the deciding factor in these experiences, as a factor of how many busses there are a minute on the Uxbridge road for example. My view is that luck for me is a state of mind. I came to the conclusion long ago observing negative people. They notice the time spent at a red light but have no awareness of passing a green light. It simply doesn’t register. I decided I’d be much happier if I had a positive attitude so I looked out for the instances where it worked out for me. It turns out that happens quite a lot. It wasn’t long before I remembered the “lucky” instances and forgot about the times I parked I the last row of spaces at the supermarket.

I agree you can influence your own luck massively, preparing for the opportunities that come your way. Even something as simple as learning what lane to be in when approaching a junction is a factor. Maybe I’m better at this than most, maybe not. I truly believe it’s how I think about it that counts. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve listened to someone’s woes in the pub, mostly things like what a bitch their boss is because they have been asked to stop mucking around posting on their mates website and get on with some work. Everyone has problems and whatever it is however trivial becomes their reference point to their own happiness.

I suppose the shorter conclusion is if you think of yourself as unlucky, you will be.

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