How Important Luck Is and What We Can Do About It

 

Luck can hardly enjoy a good reputation: most of us have learned not to rely on it. We tend to think of luck as the enemy of hard work and talent. The popular, “the harder I work, the luckier I get,” does little to improve the situation. Surely, exercising hard will increase one’s chances of success in a sport competition. However, the quote, falsely attributed to many politicians and entrepreneurs, cannot explain everything and should certainly not discredit luck as a factor contributing to one’s success.

Luck is related to the concept of chance. The latter, however, is what happens, part of the physical universe. Luck is a judgment value placed on a mathematical idea. Every step we make is interwoven with coincidence and chance: someone has to win, while others have to lose.  We collectively choose to think of those who wins a lottery, as lucky ones.

 

So, what matters is not only hard work and talent, but also the generally accepted notions of what constitutes success and failure. For every winner, there are always one or more losers: people that are potentially equally ambitious and talented, yet are still left behind. But whether we want or not, both outcomes exist as real possibilities.

But can we control our luck?

This much is certain: we can alter our conception of luck. But as good as it sounds, it often does not make any sense. Thinking that being robbed is the best thing that has ever happened to you may work on a psychological level, but the idea hardly holds true as far as objective reality is concerned.

Thus, where psychology does not have anything of substance, one must resort to mathematics. To make outcomes work for you, you need to increase your chances of getting what you want.

One way of doing so is to take advantage of the law of truly large numbers. According to it, the more one takes one’s chances for making something happen, the more chances of it actually happening will be. Going back to winning the lottery, buying the ticket will increase your chances of winning, if you compare it with not buying it at all. It will make your chances one to many millions, which is infinitesimal, but still a bigger chance than doing nothing at all.

Di Coke from Brighton, UK is a case in point. She has won over £300,000 worth of prizes from competitions. Quite envy-inducing – it feels like we never win at anything at all. However, you should feel bad about yourself only if you read the headline of the article: Di Coke won so much by entering over 400 competitions a week.

If entering so many competitions does not sound like a good option to you, simply thinking of yourself as a luckier person may be helpful. Psychologist Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire published a study in 2003, where he asked people to count the pictures in a newspaper. Before distributing the paper, he had written the answer for the task on one of the pages. The result was not surprising, “The unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.” Simply believing in your luckiness can help you become more proactive and attentive to opportunities. Doing so, as the law of truly large numbers hints, also increases your chances of achieving desirable outcomes. It seems as if thinking of yourself as ‘lucky’ is not a bad way to lead a life.

What can be a bad way to go is to deny the immense role of luck on your life. Thinking that all people are where they are because they deserve it leads to less humane and considerate behavior. Robert H. Frank, professor of Economics at Cornell University insists that thinking of luck as a non-contributing factor to personal success makes people less likely to donate money and advocate for social equality.

If hard work and natural talents were as important as difference in our incomes, we would hardly even question distribution of wealth. The 1% would consist only from unquestionable geniuses. Yet, we are more similar to each other than some people tend to think. As unfortunate as it might seem, many things happen, because our world is fueled by chances, and some eventually get ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ ones.

 

Maryam Israyelyan

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