Count your lucky stars
What part does luck play in the success of individuals, enterprises and countries? Think of examples. From politics to careers to finding the love of your life, there has never been more advice available, yet at the end of the game, some people seem to have been lucky and others not. Why is this so? Can you really do much about it?
Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.
In the reading list to these notes is a sad little account I wrote in 2002, Copping it Sweet, about being snookered by the whims of fate, and how one misfortune often seemed to cascade into a series of events. Sometimes it becomes hard not to believe that there is a hidden hand behind the curtain.
The upside of the downside of luck is that we are a story-telling species, and our repertoires would be greatly diminished without tales of misfortune and seemingly rare accounts of actually winning the lottery. Somehow it always seems that some people are luckier than others. Is that actually the case? Anyway, there is no better test of a person’s character than the way they recount or conceal their encounters with Lady Luck.
2. The single chance event that makes you lucky, or unlucky
This is the story of missing a bullet. Your taxi was late and you failed to make the plane which was hijacked. We all have tales like this. In Korea I met a man from a bus crash which had killed 22 passengers, but he walked out unscathed. In the 1960s, as a labourer on a construction site, I was standing bare headed beneath a tower when a welder dropped his chipping hammer from the top. It almost shaved my scalp as it thudded into the dirt. 3cm in another direction and I would have been dead. Events like this, random near misses with death, cannot be sensibly linked to any deliberate agency or anticipated in any useful way. In the same vein, other people in the wrong place at the wrong time simply perish. This is luck or bad luck from pure chance uncontaminated by meddling, or so a person of my type will say. Others will offer prayers of gratitude up to their god.
3. Your good luck is my misfortune
In most contests there is usually one winner – a winning candidate, a winning team, sometimes a winning country. If you happen to be the winner, you might find it polite to say you were lucky, but privately believe that you had some winning quality which was not about luck at all. As a loser, you will be more reluctant to admit inferiority, putting it down to bad luck, though you might find it polite to publicly congratulate the winning side by saying “the better man / team won and I need to work on my game”.
There are times when a zero sum game of luck is anonymous to the contestants. A short while ago I was in a taxi in Bali when my friend got into some altercation with the taxi driver. We piled out amid a milling confusion of motorbikes, and in the rush my wallet must have fallen onto the road. Presumably somebody had a very lucky day in exchange for my $180 loss. I hope he actually needed the money, whoever he was.
4. The long game and the short game
It would be a rare person who has never encountered some adversity like my Bali misadventure. Unless the adversity is actually lethal, depending upon your character, it might actually shape you into a better person, tougher, more wise, hopefully more compassionate – although setbacks can leave others demoralized, fatalistic, bitter or vengeful. As an old idiom says, the important thing is not what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you. (When it comes to luck, there is an idiom for every occasion).
The level of life’s adversity or good fortune is on a cline of course. There are those who are born into rich, stable societies and the billions who are destined to a lifelong struggle in poverty regardless of their characters. There are those who are born wealthy and squander their fortunes, in contrast to those who are born poor and fight their way into a better life situation. There are those burdened with genetic disorders who find the grit to live worthwhile lives, while uncounted millions starting with every advantage of good health, intelligence and education fritter away the decades of their lives, accumulate lifestyle diseases and die a miserable death. Descriptions of luck, good and bad, will flow around extremities of change in life circumstances, but outcomes might also have much to do with what each player does with the game they find themselves in. The bottomless market for lottery tickets could be described as a tax on stupidity, or a slight glimmer of hope for those who describe themselves as amongst the less lucky, life’s losers. On the other hand self-made men and women who have built an enterprise from the ground up are notorious as a group for dismissing luck as a factor in their success, and quick to blame those struggling as less deserving.
5. Fashions in the history of cultures
Sir Roger Casement, hero of Irish independence, was hung in 1916 by a judge who inserted a comma into the Treason Act of 1351 and so changed its meaning. In 1961 the Mariner 1 Venus probe was lost when a programmer left off the overbar on a maths symbol. That's progress? One was malevolent, one was careless. You could say that both had consequences of bad luck in the flux of history, depending upon where your sympathies lie.
For a couple of years I taught in a university in Papua New Guinea where I found that the expectations of cause and effect held by people around me were radically different to my own. PNG is a country of 1000 tribes, not long removed from a stone age subsistence culture. In PNG nobody just breaks an arm by accident, or suffers any other misfortune by the whim of chance. Everything is caused by the influence of hidden forces, magic, and typically that magic is believed to be wielded by another human agent bent on malevolence. This leads of cycles of tragedy and revenge, typically victimizing parties who are unaware of the original “wrong” they are accused of committing.
From the outside we can dismiss this sort of thing as primitive nonsense, but rarely pause to examine the real roles of chance Vs manipulation in our own societies. My students in PNG were no less intelligent than my students anywhere else. Their framework of presuppositions was different. In modern secular societies, many of us have come to assign a greater role to luck, used with the meaning of chance events, and a smaller role to magic, god(s), spirits, and guardian angels.
It is not a distant journey into European cultures to come across accounts of “witches” being burnt at the stake, or of the exorcisms and inquisitions of Catholic Christianity, or of the Puritan Salem witch trials, all of which in their essence were no different from what I found in PNG. The susceptibility of large parts of populations everywhere to political mass hysteria is strongly reminiscent of similar psychological surrenders to magical explanation, abandoning rational premises and the role of chance (Germany’s 3rd Reich, China’s Cultural Revolution 1966-76, elements of the Donald Trump political candidacy in USA, and countless other examples).
In all of these cases, the possibility of events being due to chance, or actions with innocent intentions but bad outcomes, is discounted. Where religion plays a part, in the name of “faith” in a god, malevolent and benevolent intentions by the god or its agents are held to be the cause of outcomes. Where the fountainhead of the faith is secular (communism, ideological capitalism, fascism etc), then failure will be attributed with deepening paranoia to proliferating conspiracies, rather than luck qua chance (not that there cannot be actual conspiracies anywhere).
The scientific revolution of the last several centuries, by exploring cause and effect as objectively as possible, has greatly reduced the space assigned to magical intervention, made reliable predictions possible, recognized the role of chance in complex systems, and given us fair reason to treat other people, even those we don’t like, with less paranoia.
Unfortunately more sophisticated views on magic and chance have penetrated general populations very unevenly. We can still be lynched by an unthinking mob in some latitudes, blaming us for being black, white or wearing spectacles, or be fingered by the agents of some government for being in the wrong place at the wrong time purely by chance. More commonly, we can be socially and career-wise assassinated in workplaces where predators stalk the hallways. That is, we can be “unlucky” at the hands of others who assert that luck has nothing to do with it. The only way to forestall this kind of mischance with certainty is to live under a rock where nobody can find you, pretend to be a vegetable, or above all avoid being born in places where it’s the custom to solve problems with violence.
6. A chance within bounds
On my wrist as a constant companion is a thing called a Fitbit Charge HR (no, they don’t pay me a sponsorship fee). The Fitbit, when I sync it with a computer each night, yields up the data for a pretty graph showing heart rate variations over the previous 24 hours. The heart rate fluctuates constantly from as low as 47 BPM (sleeping) to a high (since I run 8km a day) sometimes touching 179 BPM, but more often in the 120s-130s running. As a man born in 1945, both of those extremes are said to be “out of range” by doctors obsessed with population averages, but that’s doctor foolishness. Blood pressure is equally variable, and only sometimes correlates with heart rate. That hit and miss number you get in some doctor’s office can be wildly off the mark. A couple of nights ago, at 10:30pm, I took 10 measurements in succession and watched them drop. The highest was 144/84 @ 66BPM heart rate, and the lowest 107/67 @ 59 BPM heart rate, when I closed my eyes and recalled a seagull hovering off the stern of a ferry on a windy day. So no, I don’t need medication, just a quiet mind. Here is the important bit: every heartbeat is a bit different in frequency, in blood pressure, in heart muscle contraction, and so on. The exact metrics for any given heartbeat are unpredictable. That is, the heartbeats vary unpredictably within a range. If every beat were precisely the same like a simple mechanical pump, I would have died in infancy from the repetitive stress on one spot.
Hearts are not unique in the way they exhibit unpredictability within a range. The same is true of thunderstorm frequency, the stock market, the position of your car on the road, and probably your social relationships. In other words most complex systems allow degrees of freedom, and within those degrees of freedom, variation is essentially unpredictable in any given instance. In the social sphere, where such unpredictable variation at a particular time leads to a congruence of events we favour, then we thank our lucky stars, sacrifice a baby goat, shout the bar free drinks, or offer whatever libation our particular god favours. If our politics are progressively inclined, we might favour experimenting to find the maximum degree of freedom that our culture will tolerate, and if we are incipient dictators, we will wish to restrict degrees of unpredictable free variation in the human jungle to secure our own insecure status.
7. Cheating fate and making luck
Although you cannot choose when and where you were born, Wiseman’s argument is that once you are consciously dealing with the world around you, in the largest number of cases you can influence outcomes in your favour, especially over time. If you are short, perhaps you can move to a country where everyone is shorter and be admired. If you fail, you can consider it a learning opportunity. If you are observant and bold, you can seize opportunities that others miss. If you are persistent, you will make it to the end of the course while others find a “bad luck” reason to drop out.
Some of Wiseman’s observations are quite practical. He found for example that people who considered themselves unlucky tended to be more tense than those who thought themselves generally lucky. It is well known (and he showed it experimentally) that people who are tense are much less likely to notice anomalies in the environment, and so either encounter misfortune or miss opportunities. Example: on my recent luck-afflicted trip to Bali, problems began right in the airport arrival hall. Well, stepping off an aeroplane in a new country, nearly everyone is a little more tense than usual. To lay hands on some local funny-money, I naturally headed straight for an ATM. Much later I noticed that my stored value Visa card was missing, and had it stopped immediately (a serious nuisance). What had happened? Well, ATM machines in Australia won’t give you the money until you remove the card. It took me a few days to properly realize that Indonesian machines are not so clever. You actually have to request the return of your card. Lesson learned: impaired alertness to anomaly comes at a cost.
There may be certain weaknesses in the “making luck” proposition. Some events are unarguably a misfortune for most people, but a fair slice of life tends to be judged according to what you value and what you want. When it comes to major, enduring matters like a career vast numbers of people are rather hazy about what they want, so their judgments about where luck has fallen are also inclined to be somewhat unstable. This happened to me during the endless (for me) process of obtaining an exceptionally useless qualification called a PhD.
Let me describe this sample of foolishness/bad luck purely as a cautionary tale. Starting from a low horizon of expectations, ten years of mind-bendingly dull jobs after leaving school set me off on the journey, supposedly, of “making an original contribution to human knowledge” (a typical definition for the Doctor of Philosophy degree). That is, I knew what I didn’t want (a boring job), but not specifically what to seek, except it needed to be something interesting valued by interested people. It seemed lucky being accepted for a PhD candidature, but it turned out that those paid academic mentors I happened to encounter were at best vaguely pleasant. They actually seemed to have little genuine interest in discussing new ideas, let alone signing off on them in a formal role (a threat to their lifestyle or status?). They were more comfortable talking about the weather. Perhaps it was a matter of me being “unlucky” in particular human encounters, or lacking the social skill to turn those encounters into lucky opportunities. After walking away from two of these PhD processes in disgust, far too late in the game to be useful in any career, I dashed off one of the usual never-to-be-read-again innocuous dissertations on a different topic within 6 months and was duly accorded the laurel. Everyone’s reputation was safe. Was that lucky, or just a dumb waste of precious years?
8. Estimating the odds, taking a chance on luck
Some individuals have a capacity to sum up risk quickly with almost mathematical precision, a mixture of calculation, intuition and experience. It may be a physical risk, it may be a business decision. For them, who dares wins. They are “born lucky”. There are others who seem oblivious to even clear warnings. Their risk taking is a blind experiment, and their risk avoidance a process of confused prevarication. They are prone to being “unlucky”.
Here is an example of the second kind. Letter to a friend: “It was high tide, the pitch of the beach was very steep, big dumper waves with the water running back fast. I took one look and knew it was vicious, with a rapid, deep rip running along the beach to the rocks, then out to sea past the headland. I explained all that carefully to my surf naive acquaintance, looked away, then turned to see him trundling straight into the water, dressed in long baggy floral shorts and a long-sleeved bright blue skivvy, a true home-grown middle aged Korean man who only knew how to backstroke. He had never been in a surf in his life. Of course the fast current picked him up and swept him, oblivious with his silly backstroke, straight out on course for the headland where he would have been smashed to a pulp. Somewhere out there he panicked, started waving his arms, and luckily a board rider was sharp enough to see was happening and did a pickup just in time”. So was this guy unlucky to nearly perish, or lucky to be saved? It depends, I suppose, on who is telling the story.
9. Coincidence and Synchronicity
“Chance. Stupid, dumb, blind chance. Just a part of the strange mechanism of the world, with its fits and coughs and starts and random collisions.” ― Lauren Oliver
Earlier in these notes, the phenomenon of infinite variation within degrees of freedom was raised. I suggested that no two heartbeats are ever quite the same. That might not quite be true for everyone, always. There is a mathematical proof, the Poincaré recurrence theorem, which deals with something like this (see the Wikipedia entry). In mathematics, the Poincaré recurrence theorem states that certain systems will, after a sufficiently long but finite time, return to a state very close to the initial state. The Poincaré recurrence time is the length of time elapsed until the recurrence (this time may vary greatly depending on the exact initial state and required degree of closeness).
Poincaré seems to have been dealing with far simpler and more restrained systems than the mind-bending multiplicity of complex systems which intersect our lives. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is space in the universe of things, way beyond any possibility of our anticipation, for synchronicities of events and other coincidences to startle us with recognized patterns.
Sometimes those patterns may indeed reflect credible possibilities from physics and mathematics. Sometimes they may be ‘false friends’, a recognition of patterns that aren’t really the patterns we believe them to be. The software of our brains is a remarkable pattern-recognizing (and sometimes pattern creating) mechanism which begins with the selective signal enhancement found in even primitive nervous systems (Graziano 2016), and builds models to match the perceived environment. The mental model-building is selective about creating its hierarchies, not only of sensual forms, but preconceptions and prejudices. We couldn’t survive without these economies. But a price sometimes paid is to see a ‘human face’ in a Rorschach blot, or the moon, or the Turin shroud.
All this talk of mathematical possibility and complex systems is unsatisfying in ordinary life when the extraordinary seems to occur. As the fairytale goes, purely by chance on a lucky day you see the soulmate of your dreams across a crowded room, or perhaps bump into each other on a busy street. Just by coincidence he/she happens to .... well you know how it ends... That’s truly luck, isn’t it?
Aczel, Amir (September 4, 2013) "On the Persistence of Bad Luck (and Good)". Discover Magazine online @ http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2013/09/04/on-the-persistence-of-bad-luck-and-good/#.V00Q777wnv8
Arthur, Rob (May 26, 2016) "Who’s Hitting The Ball Harder This Year, And Who’s Just Getting Lucky?". FiveThirtyEight website online @ http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/whos-hitting-the-ball-harder-this-year-and-whos-just-getting-lucky/
Asia One Daily Horoscope @ http://web.asiaone.com/service/daily-horoscope.php?d=now
Begley, Sharon (December 16, 2015) "Most cancers due to ‘bad luck’? Not so fast, says study". STAT website online @ https://www.statnews.com/2015/12/16/cancers-bad-luck/
Bright, Jim (August 22, 2015) "Your life is ruled by chance, whether you like it or not - The value of long-term planning is vastly overstated". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/business/workplace-relations/your-life-is-ruled-by-chance-whether-you-like-it-or-not-20150815-gizyf7.html
Burkeman, Oliver (Saturday 7 May 2016) "Don’t think you’re lucky? Think again - You probably think you got where you are today through willpower and elbow grease. But what about chance, asks Oliver Burkeman. ‘It’s genuinely difficult to perceive the ways you’re privileged.’ The Guardian online @ http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/06/dont-think-youre-lucky-think-again
Frank, Robert H. (May 2016 Issue) "Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think - When people see themselves as self-made, they tend to be less generous and public-spirited". The Atlantic online @ http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/05/why-luck-matters-more-than-you-might-think/476394/?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits
Graziano, Michael (Jun 6, 2016) "A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved - A neuroscientist on how we came to be aware of ourselves". The Atlantic online @ http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/06/how-consciousness-evolved/485558/?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits
Holt, Jim (November 25, 2011) "Two Brains Running - a review of Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking, Fast and Slow'". New York Times online @ http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/books/review/thinking-fast-and-slow-by-daniel-kahneman-book-review.html?_r=0
May, Thor (18 January 2005) "Copping It Sweet*" [*'Copping It Sweet' is Aussie lingo for accepting bad luck gracefully] Thor's Korea Diary online @ http://thormay.net/koreadiary/coppingitsweet.htm
Metcalfe, Luke (January 20, 2016) "Master reverse Feng Shui to nab a bargain in competitive housing market". Canberra Times online @ http://www.canberratimes.com.au/money/saving/master-reverse-feng-shui-to-nab-a-bargain-in-competitive-housing-market-20160113-gm4qgj.html
Pedersen-McKinnon, Nicole (June 5 2016) "Be warned: we're hard-wired for a financial fall ". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/money/investing/be-warned-were-hardwired-for-a-financial-fall-20160601-gp98ev.html
Ritholtz, Barry (May 6 2016) "Nobody knows nuthin', so count on your luck ". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/business/workplace-relations/nobody-knows-nuthin-so-count-on-your-luck-20160506-gonuwp.html
Wikihow (2016) "How to Get Rid of Bad Luck". Wikihow online @ http://www.wikihow.com/Get-Rid-of-Bad-Luck
Wikipedia (2016) "Belief in Luck". Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belief_in_luck
Wikipedia (2016) "Black Cat". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_cat
Wikipedia (2016) "Curse". Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse
Wikipedia (2016) "Faux pas derived from Chinese pronunciation". Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faux_pas_derived_from_Chinese_pronunciation
Wikipedia (2016) "List of lucky symbols". Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lucky_symbols
Wikipedia (2016) "List of unlucky symbols". Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_unlucky_symbols
Wikipedia (2016) "Luck". Wikipedia online @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luck
Wikipedia (2016) "Roger Casement". [Hero of Irish independence hung in 1916 when a British crown court reinterpreted the Treason Act 1351 by "reading a comma into the text"] Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
Wikipedia (2016) "Mariner 1". [Venus probe lost for want of an overbar math hyphen]. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mariner_1
Wikipedia (2016) "Synchronicity". Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synchronicity
Wikipedia (2016) "Coincidence". Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coincidence
Wikiquote (n.d.) "Luck - quotations". Wikiquote online @ https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Luck
Wiseman, Richard ( 09 Jan 2003) "Be lucky - it's an easy skill to learn. Those who think they're unlucky should change their outlook and discover how to generate good fortune, says Richard Wiseman". Telegraph (UK) online @ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/3304496/Be-lucky-its-an-easy-skill-to-learn.html
Wiseman, Richard (2004) "The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind". pub. Arrow books. Available on Amazon @ https://www.amazon.co.uk/Luck-Factor-Scientific-Study-Lucky/dp/0099443244
Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).
Count your lucky stars ©Thor May May 2016