Do we underestimate the role of luck in our lives?

Answer by Thaddeus Howze:

No, I think we overestimate its value.

We attribute to luck, things for which luck has little or nothing to do with and ignore the things for which only luck can account. There are two things you have to consider:

One: You owe your existence to luck, to the randomness of the Universe. All that you are, hidden in your DNA is the random happenstance associated with luck.

  • You are the product of millions of years of evolution, the decisions of thousands of your ancestors have lead to you being where you are today.
  • Your very existence depended on one egg and one sperm out of millions coming together to create YOU.
  • Your existence is nothing more than random happenstance in a universe of randomness. This is the true nature of your existence.
  • The fact that you exist at all is just LUCK.

Two: Luck is poorly defined and we will get into that in a minute but suffice it to say, luck is exactly what we say it is, something that is outside of your ability to control.

  • Despite witticisms that say otherwise, you have no control of what random events take place in your life. They are random.
  • They are part of the natural entropy (and perhaps occasional smattering of randomly-occurring order) which takes place all around you.
  • You have no control over this. You only have control over how you deal with it and how you choose to respond to what has happened to you randomly.
  • The opportunities you have in life have far less to do with luck and far more to do with systemic and systematic processes and protocols which govern who is wealthy, educated, employed, given new opportunities and ultimately benefits from centuries of managed privilege.

So what does this mean?

  • Too many people want to attribute their success to their skill, their brainpower, their network of friends and teachers.
  • Yes, all of these things can contribute to opportunity but the numbers bear this out: Where you start in your life directly affects where you end up.
  • Statistically, most people do not experience much upward mobility in their lives. This is more true today than it has ever been in most of history.

According to Chetty, “Social mobility is low and has been for at least thirty or forty years.” This is most obvious when you look at the prospects of the poor. Seventy per cent of people born into the bottom quintile of income distribution never make it into the middle class, and fewer than ten per cent get into the top quintile. Forty per cent are still poor as adults. What the political scientist Michael Harrington wrote back in 1962 is still true: most people who are poor are poor because “they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents.” The middle class isn’t all that mobile, either: only twenty per cent of people born into the middle quintile ever make it into the top one. And although we think of U.S. society as archetypally open, mobility here is lower than in most European countries. “The Mobility Myth.” The New Yorker. N.p. Web. 3 Aug. 2015. <…>

The part which confuses people is the constant harping on the idea of merit, the illusion of being self-made, the reinforced concept of defying the odds and somehow making a win out of poor circumstances.

  • These things can happen. But if we are willing to be honest, there are forces which aid or hinder the development of every human being who is hoping for a better life.
  • Such systemic and systematic forces can play havoc with opportunity even if a person is fit, capable, trained, educated, motivated, driven and in the right place at the right time.
  • We don’t talk about those forces because we prefer the illusion of merit. We prefer the illusion of privilege and boot-strap uplifting tales of conquest. The truth is a little more disturbing.

Our societies are most often built upon the bones of those we push down to rise up. We stand upon the dead and cry victory.

  • And the richest and most well to do among us are often the most ruthless and monstrous of us all. Does this mean only the ruthless become fantastically wealthy?
  • No. But their merit is often built around using the most people, paying them the least, exploiting those who are least capable of defending themselves and calling it their natural right to wealth through effective application of social forces (e.g. capitalism). And luck (they tell you).

The problem here is simple. We are calling it luck when things work out in our favor. Luck has nothing to do with it.

Just what IS luck?

Let’s talk a bit about how we use luck in our language:

  • With (any) luck, we’ll be home before dark. (British English)
  • With a bit of luck, we’ll finish on time.So far I have had no luck with finding a job.
  • I could hardly believe my luck when he said yes.
  • It was a stroke of luck that we found you.
  • By sheer luck nobody was hurt in the explosion.

Oxford’s English dictionary defines luck:

  1. good things that happen to you by chance, not because of your own efforts or abilities chance;
  2. the force that causes good or bad things to happen to people
  3. synonym: fortuneto have good/bad luck – I put the loss of the money down to pure bad luck.
  4. see also:beginner’s luck

This means luck is something that happens to us (good or bad) and it is out of our personal control or ability to affect the outcome.

Here is the disconnect for me: I read most of the answers hear and I find them filled with the standard viewpoints of luck and opportunity being made from a combination of hard work and preparation.

With no disrespect to Seneca, I am going to call a humbug on this statement at the fundamental level, because while this makes for good sound bites and fortune cookies, it fails to address just how random the universe is and how much of our luck comes from who we are, where we’re born and whom we are born from.

The journalist, Thom Hartmann calls it: The Lucky Sperm Club – those individuals who are born to wealth, affluence, influence and opportunity by virtue of being born to the right family at the right time. See: Paris Hilton

Before you get to talk about how much work you’ve done to get “lucky” you have to acknowledge your first break. Who your parents were…

  • Were you born White?
  • Were you born a male or a female?
  • Were you born to a family who wanted you?
  • Were you born to a family who could take care of you economically?
  • Are you heterosexual?
  • Were you born in a modern country with at least an industrial age economy?
  • Were you born in the United States or Europe?

If you can answer four out of six of these in the affirmative, then you were born fabulously lucky in our modern age, particularly in the United States.

Being a White, cisgendered male means you have, statistically speaking:

  • the best education money can buy, more often than not. And if you don’t, there are few systemic, systematic social forces keeping you from achieving your educational goals.
  • the lowest unemployment rate, and the highest standard of living. Most Americans don’t come close to your median standard of living.
  • You are the most economically advantaged member of most modern societies where being White and having access to (whether you use it or not, recognize it or not, accept it or not) White privilege gives you an advantage over anyone who is not.
  • The advantage of being born in the United States is not to be underestimated. Despite its recent governmental policy issues and failure to plan for the future, it is still better than being born in a repressive government like North Korea, any government in turmoil such as the Middle East, economically depressed nations such as Russia or some parts of Europe, nations struggling to pull their act together such as parts of continental Africa and South America.

Let’s break this out a little further. You will find you are not just lucky but fabulously lucky.

  • Did you wake up to a house?
  • Did you wake up to electricity?
  • Did you wake up to running water?
  • Did you wake up with a refrigerator stocked with food?
  • Does your house have food stored within, so you might not have to go to the store for a week?

Then you were fabulously lucky.

  • Half a million people in the United States alone are homeless or nearly so. This means they have no access to food except through limited charitable donations.

On a single night in January 2014, 578,424 people were experiencing homelessness—meaning they were sleeping outside or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program.

  • From 2013 to 2014, a period of ongoing recovery from the Great Recession, overall homelessness decreased by 2.3 percent and homelessness decreased among every major subpopulation: unsheltered persons (10 percent), families (2.7 percent), chronically homeless individuals (2.5 percent), and veterans (10.5 percent).
  • Despite improvements in employment, the number of people in poverty (4.8 million) and the poverty rate (15.8 percent) remained relatively steady. 26 states saw an increase in the number of people in poverty; 25 saw a decrease. The State of Homelessness in America 2015
  • Electricity in the First World is almost a given, except for those places which have poor infrastructure development.
  • Electricity adds light to your day giving you better options for use of your time, better options for education, better options for entertainment, and opportunities for a richer family life.
  • Food insecurity is a major issue all around the world: The latest FAO estimates indicate that global hunger reduction continues: about 795 million people are estimated to be chronically undernourished in 2012–14, down more than 100 million over the last decade, and 209 million lower than in 1990–92. While it is getting better slowly, there are still far too many people going without food for days at a time.
  • A billion people on Earth suffer from water insecurity: meaning they must travel 2 to 10 miles to get water each day, and/or their water is unsafe to drink, causing or spreading disease, or simply unavailable at all due to recent variations in climate.

10 Ways Clean Water can Change the World

Employment, educational access, and the technological sophistication of your nation may also play a great deal into the opportunities a person may have in their future. Work, the ability to get work, be educated for work, and having the opportunity to work and earn money for yourself is also another event which despite your efforts, you may have no control over how or if you can work.

  1. Nearly half the world’s population, 2.8 billion people, survive on less than $2 a day.
  2. About 20 percent of the world’s population, 1.2 billion people, live on less than $1 a day.
  • Since you asked this question you had access to a computer. Was it your own?
  • Do you own a car?
  • Do you have a job?
  • Do you, in this current work climate in the United States, have a job which affords you the capacity to live without a second job?
  • Having access to viable working technology is by no means a guarantee. Depending on where you live on Earth, you could have a powerful computer but no network to plug it into, the United States in the Mid-West is a perfect example.
  • Local governments are being forced to establish their own internet connections because large corporations can’t be bothered to wire towns or small cities there.

A Map of Who’s Got the Best (And Worst) Internet Connections in America

If you are located in Asia, you would be glad to know that’s where the fastest Internet speeds are. Based on Web services provider Akamai Technologies’ latest report, Hong Kong comes in first at an average peak Internet speed of 65.4Mbps, followed closely by South Korea at 63.6Mbps, Japan at 52Mbps, and Singapore at 50.1Mbps.

The top four countries have average peak speeds of at least three times the global average of 17.0Mbps. Other countries that made the top 10 list include Israel, Taiwan, and Belgium. The U.S. and Britain ranked 13th and 16th place, respectively, with average peak speeds at almost half that of Hong Kong. –Reference:

  • Other nations don’t have the infrastructure to establish useful internet connections at all, barely have modern computerize technology and depend entirely upon the mobile telephone network and infrastructure.
  • Many of the nations of Africa, as well as parts of India and China are still developing their localized technological infrastructure but they are still years behind more sophisticated nations such as Singapore or Japan.

No matter what your humble beginnings, you can depend on:

  • Persistence – nothing beats sheer determination for a driver of success. You don’t quit. You never quit. You get up earlier, you stay up later. Persistence is the engine of success. Without it, your first defeat is your last. Fall down, get up. Repeat as needed until successful.
  • Focus – The ability to concentrate. Our society’s recent infatuation with social media has had a major affect on our ability to focus, but you can train your ability to concentrate on a single task by working with a clock/timer and reducing distractions while you work. Refuse to multitask, it has been refuted as a means of improving focus. Getting done is the most effective focus booster of all.
  • Attention to Detail – Look around the room you’re in. Absorb as many details as you can. Without looking up again, write them down on a piece of paper as best you can remember. Include time on clocks, clothes of the people around you, eye color of the person you’re sitting with, absorb everything you can. Practice this ability until you can see and understand everything around you. This is a difficult ability to learn, but over time, it will stand you in good stead, as you become used to tracking information you’ll discover your mind’s ability to bring this attention to whatever you’re working on as well.
  • Plan and Measure – That which is measured, gets done. Track your work, track your successes and your failure. Keep a log of who you interact with, what your experimentations results were, how long you have been engaged in a project. Measurement of your results, good or bad, will help you understand what possible steps could be used to reach your goal. Planning is nothing without measurement of the results. Make a plan, measure what it took to be successful.
  • Mobility – If you live in a part of the country or the world that will not allow you to aspire to your dreams, MOVE; you are not a tree. If you want to be a great public speaker but your country does not allow women to engage in public speech, do what it takes to move somewhere you CAN. Life is too short to allow outdated norms to keep you from pursuing those things that mean something to you.
  • Critical Analysis – One of the hardest things you will ever do. Learning to critically think and address a subject, a concept, a discussion, is rarely taught in school these days. If you find someplace offering Critical Thinking or Rhetoric or even Debate, take it. This skill has no equal in cutting through a world filled with lies, deceits, misconceptions and fallacies. If you cannot learn to see past these obfuscations, nothing you do will amount to much. You’ll spend the bulk of your energies empowering someone else’s dreams.

The future of work is evolving with technology slowly displacing a greater number of people from the workforce every year. Between ever-increasing automation and the development of intelligent algorithms, being employed and having opportunities will continue to be a race to make the right choices based on the information you have at hand.

While we are quick to tell people: “You make your own luck” or “you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps” it is easy to forget with the sense of entitlement so common to people born in nations whose foresight afford their citizens greater opportunities just by the merit of being born there, and the capability of seeing what the future might look like.

Where we were born, who we were born to, what opportunities they may have had will directly affect the quality of our choices. Do we underestimate the role of luck in our lives? No. It is likely to be the number one determinate of just how far we can go and it is completely out of our control.

However, having a clear vision of where your opportunities can lie, understanding the landscape of your choices, however limited they may be, not accepting conditions within your control or being willing to make the change means you can utilize what you have to get what you need.

Depending on luck will not get you where you need to go. It is by definition, not dependable or reliable. You are better served by recognizing what my military experience dubbed: The Five P’s – Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. The goal of the Five P’s is to enhance your ability to succeed by removing a reliance on luck in any way.

Luck should be a seasoning, not the meal.

Do we underestimate the role of luck in our lives?