Luck and life

I’m a very lucky man, having (at 70) health, wealth, love, and wisdom.

WAMC radio’s Joe Donahue interviewed Janice Kaplan about her book, How Luck Happens: Using the Science of Luck to Transform Work, Love, and Life. The word “luck” connotes randomness, what the ancients called “fate,” which many believed governs one’s life. Many still do; some cultures actually promote a philosophy of fatalism. It’s captured by the saying, “Man plans and God laughs.” In other words, don’t even bother.

Kaplan’s message is the opposite. While she recognizes the obvious, that random factors affect us — like accidents, illness, etc. — what we do, and our choices, are more important in how our lives go.

In short, we make our luck. In the main, good and bad things don’t just happen, they are consequences of our actions, which in turn are largely within our control. Kaplan discussed various ways in which how we act shapes our “luck.” One big factor is, plain and simple, hard work.

To be sure, virtue is not always rewarded, and crime often pays. Justice is not one of the principles governing the Universe. But still, our actions have consequences, for good or ill, and a lot of what happens to us does happen for reasons.

Lotteries epitomize the fatalist paradigm. Here people pin future hopes on literal randomness. Kaplan takes a dim view. And not just because of the astronomical odds against winning.* It’s even worse than that: most lottery “winners” wind up no happier, and often less happy, than before. Better to invest in productive efforts than lottery tickets.

Hearing Kaplan, naturally I reflected on my own life. Her thesis applies to all my “luck.” Meeting my wife illustrates this perfectly. It was supremely lucky our paths crossed on May 2, 1988, at SUNY Alumni House. But why was I there? Because, not content to just wait for luck, I was assiduously seeking it. That quest dragged me out of a sickbed to attend that singles event.

Having (what I think is) wisdom didn’t just happen either. One day my wife had casually suggested I write for our daughter everything I wanted her to know. Well, the project grew into an active exploration of everything I wanted myself to understand (and resulted in two books).

All the foregoing may sound self-congratulatory. I do feel I’ve earned my blessings through my efforts, and a character and personality that propelled those efforts. Yet whence came that character and personality? Did I create them myself out of some primordial personal virtue?

I’ve written before about the philosopher John Rawls and his book, A Theory of Justice. The essence of justice would seem to be people getting what they deserve. But the word “deserve” can be tricky. Regarding how one fares in life — mainly wealth versus poverty — Rawls doubts that that results from deservingness in any true sense, as opposed to luck. Even if someone gains wealth through perspicacity and hard work, aren’t those attributable to character traits they are lucky to possess? Handed to them by the great cosmic lottery rather than, again, created themselves out of some pre-existing virtue?

I am very cognizant that all my fortunate characteristics, which have been rewarded, were indeed handed to me by luck. I am the product of having been born into the circumstances I was born into, and feel grateful. Of course, many people born in favorable circumstances squander them through fecklessness. However, isn’t that very fecklessness itself part of their inheritance? So they really weren’t handed a golden chalice after all?

Yet I am no Rawlsian — no fatalist. The essence of my rational optimism is the belief that we can use our rationality to improve and advance ourselves. How we fare in the game of life does depend greatly on the cards we’re dealt — but how we play them matters too.

This begs the issue of free will, which I’ve written about as well. In a nutshell, yes, we are creatures of determinism, to a considerable extent; and the idea that there is a unitary “self” that controls the thoughts we have and the decisions and choices we make is very problematical. Yet our conscious minds are not nonexistent fictions. We not only have thoughts, we can think about our thoughts. We have impulses, deterministically instantiated, but can control them; we do it constantly. Nothing is more deterministic than a smoker’s impulse to light up. Yet smokers quit.

Kaplan was asked specifically about the notion of “lucky in love.” Her response was interesting, and wholly consistent with her basic theme that it’s always up to us and how we run our lives. People think “lucky in love” means finding the right partner. But Kaplan insisted that that actually isn’t so important. What matters more is the investment one makes in a relationship (not financial, of course, but psychic and emotional). Too many people are imbued with the romance of romance, expecting it to be magical. But “magic” is an illusion.

In line with this, the Chinese government — whose former one-child policy has created a worker shortage — now urges people to be less picky about marriage partners, and to settle for someone “more or less OK.” I myself — when single at forty — would have thusly settled. But I was lucky to find the perfect partner.

I also thought about the decade I spent investing with a previous partner, trying to make that relationship work. But that gal was meanwhile engaged in a different effort: escape. She ultimately succeeded.

Lucky for us both.

* It’s been said a lottery is a tax on those who don’t understand math.

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2 Responses to “Luck and life”

  1. Barry Milstein Says:

    Frank,
    When I first started in the business I read a book called telephone sales in the 80’s. One quote that has always stuck in my mind for the past 33 years is “ There is no such thing as luck but the harder you work the luckier you get !” Really enjoyed your post.
    Regards,
    Barry

    Barry Milstein

    Executive Vice President

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    100 Passaic Avenue

    973-396-1065 Direct

    Fairfield, NJ 07004

    866-537-6388 Fax

    800-362-9876 x1258

    bmilstein@financialnortheastern.com

    [cid:image002.jpg@01D40F83.73506CD0]
    http://www.financialnortheastern.com

  2. Lee Says:

    The cards that you are dealt and the how you play the cards are both important. Unfortunately, “the cards that you are dealt” includes more than character traits such as ambition. It also includes the wealth, religion, skin color, education level, citizenship, sexual orientation, etc. of the family you grow up in. There are too many people with all the drive, smarts, ambition, etc. and self-generated luck sufficient to be superstars who nonetheless end up far short of superstar status.

    If you see someone who falls into many privilege categories (male, good wealth, majority religion and skin color, US citizenship, etc.) who is falling short, then feel free to urge more ambition. If the person’s cards don’t show so much privilege then chances are that they don’t need lessons in character development, they need a better playing field.

    Yes, with enough luck, pretty much any hand of cards can be overcome, but one has to have much, much more luck to do so if not born of privilege.

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