Question 26: What part does luck play in your life?
We tend to assume that our present situation – be it good or bad – is mainly the product of our own decisions and effort, and to some extent that is true. As Existentialists point out, we shape ourselves by the choices we make. We also like our stories to have shape, and progress to be both predictable and deserved, so that, if a novelist relies too often on chance meetings and random events, we suspect him or her of playing rather loose with the plot and of getting out of difficulties the easy way. We have a deep tendency to look for reasons, causes, patterns that determine what will happen. Indeed, our ability to do so is essential for science and for the basic requirements of staying alive. As Kant pointed out, our minds impose the idea of causality upon our experience; we assume that everything has a cause. But beneath the myth of orderliness we experience another phenomenon: luck.
Most of what causes us to be who we are is down to luck and the fortuitous coming together of random events. Consider what had to happen to bring about your birth. Chance meetings and sexual attraction, generation after generation, have forged your particular genetic make-up. And those chance meetings will themselves depend on an almost infinite number of other events, both social and personal. Why did those two people meet? At least one of their children was lucky enough to avoid a fatal illness long enough to survive and breed. And what of the next generation? World events, throwing more chance events in the path of individuals, will have contributed in some way, as will everything since the universe first came into being. Indeed, if the fundamental features of the universe were any different from what they are, galaxies might never have formed. You may argue that a chain of cause and effect makes everything inevitable, but the other side of that coin is that your existence as a unique individual, like everything else, is almost infinitely unlikely.
And within our own experience, it is the chance occurrence, more often than not, that sends life off in a new direction. If you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, your life can suddenly be ended through no fault of your own. Trying to get your first job in a time of recession, or being born in an area blighted by the failure of a traditional industry, or in a shanty town in a third world country are factors over which you, as an individual, has little or no control. Equally, if you happen to have been born just after the Second World War, there is a good chance that you had the benefit of fee-free university education, all the joys of 1960s liberation, the opportunity to have bought a first home just before house price inflation enhanced your capital investment, and to be retiring at the age you expected. Not fair, is it! But that’s the way it is with luck.
How we see luck depends largely on how lucky we’ve been. We may desperately need luck to enable us to forgive ourselves for what we have not planned and achieved. Bad luck feels like an honest excuse for failure. Yet few acknowledge luck in those things in which they succeed – then it’s all down to hard work, intuition, careful planning or whatever. As Nietzsche said (in The Gay Science, Part III, section 258), ‘No victor believes in chance.’
Life is a balanced combination of chance and necessity. Some events may appear random, but further investigation will show that they, like everything else, have antecedent causes. But they still feel random to us, because we can have no way of predicting the many causes that combine to bring them about. The falling of lottery balls is not random – since the turning of the drum, the releasing of the balls etc all obey basic laws of physics – but it appears, to all intents and purposes, to be so. We try our ‘luck’ and hope to win.
Of course, you can influence your chances. Smoke heavily and your chance of getting lung cancer increases. That does not mean that everyone who smokes heavily will automatically get the disease, but you weight the chances of it happening. And the same applies to every situation of chance. Buy twice the number of lottery tickets and you double your chance of a win.
A cliché, but valid all the same, is the fact that what counts is not necessarily the luck you have, but what you make of it. You may feel like hitting the person who tells you that every setback is a learning opportunity, but there may be some truth in it. Whether it is in the marketplace, the sports field, or the arts, your opponent is likely to be the person who provides you with the best opportunity to learn and improve. That’s not down to luck, but to your ability to thrive under pressure or adversity - except, of course, that whether or not you are a person who can come out on top in those circumstances may be down to luck in terms of your genetic disposition, early experiences, background and training.
When John Rawls tried to fit the rules governing the distribution of wealth in society (see above, question 19) he deliberately make his hypothetical bunch of legislators forget who they were (putting them behind a ‘veil of ignorance’) in order that the luck of their birth and circumstance should not be taken in to account. In life, as opposed to thought experiments, that is never possible; we cannot take a completely detached view, because we know the hand that luck has dealt us. We arrive in life (or are ‘thrown’ into life, to use Heidegger’s expression) in a particular set of circumstances.
However, we cannot effectively bracket out who we are. Even if we tried to ignore the circumstances of our birth, or if we were all given an equal share of resources, capitalists might well argue that it merely gives you a starting point, to actualise your luck (or otherwise) you need to use imagination, energy and so on. You have a situation and need to capitalise on it if you are to be successful. Not altogether luck, then; he who dares, wins.
But our circumstances throw up another problem. To understand anything fully (if that were indeed our aim in a well-ordered life that did not depend on chance or luck) we would need to understand everything, simply because everything is related to everything else. So, to take a decision that is completely luck-free, we would need to take absolutely everything into account, but that’s obviously impossible. We hit what Heidegger called the ‘infinite background’ problem, we can never have enough information to make up our minds. At some point we have to jump; to take a chance. Life, as any insurance company will tell you, cannot be risk-free. My fate may be partly predictable – the insurance premium will be based on certain assumptions depending on my age, sex and medical history – but that is only a matter of statistical probability, never certainty.
Does luck therefore let me off the hook? Can I disclaim ultimate responsibility for my decisions, on the grounds that an infinite background of facts has rendered my apparently free choices inevitable, or that the random scattering of events and chances means that my life will always depend on luck rather than effort? Is fatalism the only sane option in a world where chance rules? Or where the rules determining the chances are beyond our ability to know? Perhaps only partly. There is a much-quoted maxim ‘chance favours the prepared mind’ – used by, among others, Ansel Adams, for making the most of the opportunity to get a good photograph – which may illustrate the benefit of a bit of existential philosophy here. After all, part of our ‘beach’ exploration in thought has been to consider what we are looking for in life, what we value, what matters most to us, what ambitions we have set ourselves. If we have reflected on all those things, we are prepared to see opportunities to fulfil them once they arise. Not to be sure it’s something you want is a sure-fire way to fail to grasp what is offered. So your taking a ‘beach’ moment of reflection may enhance a sense of direction and prepare you to recognise the value of such opportunities as present themselves.
Nobody succeeds without luck, but no amount of luck guarantees success. The aim is to be alert to what life throws up, to see its potential, and have the courage to go for it. But, for all we may commend ourselves for having made the most of our opportunities, or blame ourselves for having let them slip from our grasp, we may generally console ourselves with the thought that mostly it’s down to luck.
So what part has luck played in your life?
Me? Offer advice on what you should do to maximise your chances? You’ll be lucky!