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.