The Modern Survival Guide #84
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And if there’s one thing I have to acknowledge, it’s that I’ve been a fairly lucky guy. My life has been heavily impacted by that good fortune, and it’s something I’m grateful for. But it’s also true that luck isn’t responsible for everything. Some things you do have to try to control.
This topic gets a lot of play in the media and social discourse these days, and with people on multiple sides weighing in it’s getting a little blurry. So let’s break it down, shall we: There is such a thing as luck. It does impact you. It does determine some facets of your life. It does not determine all aspects of your life.
So if I’m hedging the bet, why the article title? Well, look… the stuff that luck determines has a massive impact on your life. You probably just don’t realize most of it. Let’s get into that.
The Role of Luck in Your Life
This starts with a simple question — is there such a thing as luck? Absolutely, yes, and it works like this: statistics indicate what should happen to someone eventually; luck is what happens to you. If I’m playing roulette and I bet on black, theoretically I have a pretty good chance of hitting black. But what if I hit red six times in a row? It’s statistically unlikely, but it happens all the time. That’s luck — it’s the randomized outcomes of the universe’s operations. It’s the RNG of the cosmos.
So how does this fit into your life? Well, it’s all the things that happened to you that you didn’t or weren’t able to control. It’s the decisions other people make on your behalf, the operations of physics, the chances that turn into major events.
Now, at this point a lot of people will say that there’s no such thing as luck. There are variations on this theme: “luck is the result of insufficient planning,” “the universe is deterministic in its operations,” “God makes things happen in your life,” etc. And frankly they all functionally fall down at the same point: you cannot control everything. Therefore things happen that you can’t control. Therefore things will happen to you that you did not expect. From a practical point of view, I don’t really care what you call those things — I don’t care if you call that cosmic determinism, God, or a failure of planning, that’s luck.
And let’s get one thing straight — luck is not a Lady. It is not on your side, or anyone’s side. It’s random. It’s chaos. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t, and there is never, ever any way of telling how that’s going to play out. Accepting that central fact is one of the keys to living a relatively peaceful life. Sometimes there’s nothing that you could have done, and nothing you can do to change an outcome. Sometimes luck happens.
The Impact of Luck on Life
Luck litters your life with all kinds of consequences. Let’s talk about four: your birth, your career, your relationships, and your health.
Probably the most severe impact of luck on your life is also the most basic: the circumstances of your birth. Were you born rich or poor? Male or female? Straight, gay, or otherwise? Of the dominant ethnic group in your area or not?
And if you think that doesn’t affect you, I have two words for you: Grow Up.
Who you are born to, where you are born, and the gender to which you identify will dictate certain aspects of your life, and that’s simply all there is to it. If you’re born rich, white, male, Christian, and straight in America then congratulations, you will be playing the game of life on easy mode. You are virtually guaranteed to have a good education (at least on paper), good connections, a good job, positive net worth, a supportive social group, and not a lot of people out to get you just because of who you are.¹ You can still easily screw all that up… but it’s your starting equipment.
Flip that script. What do you think your life looks like if you’re born black, poor, female, gay, and in a ghetto of Moscow? You can still have a life where you have a good education, good connections, a good job, positive net worth, and a supportive social group… but it will be much, much harder to achieve those things. And that’s the key difference. In this case you probably have to achieve those things. They are not handed to you, and you will likely have to fight for them.
A lot of luck in life works like this: you’re born into a situation with either advantages or disadvantages (sometimes both!). And again, this does not guarantee success or failure. But if you’re lucky, it sure does help.
Another big impact of luck in your life is on your business and romantic relationships.
From the business side, do you meet that perfect mentor who guides you up through the company echelons? Do you find that perfect job that was only posted for 30 seconds on Sunday night at 1 AM because you just happened to be looking at that the job site on a break from a WoW raid? Is your degree still relevant when you graduate college?² Do you start your business at the exact same time as a dozen competitors who also saw the market opening, or were you the first person to see the potential?
From the relationship side, are you lucky enough to meet good friends? Are you lucky enough to meet a good romantic partner?³ Are you lucky enough to not put your foot in your mouth with these people at critical moments (if you think luck has nothing to do with that, again: Grow Up)? Are you fortunate enough to avoid the gold diggers, frenemies, and toxic people out there? You can control some of this to some extent, but a lot of it is down to luck.
And finally, let’s not forget the impact that luck has on your health. Were you born healthy? Do you have a healthy genetic predisposition? Do you manage to avoid all of those little things that can so easily cripple us — accidents, falls, sports injuries, stepping in front of a bus while drunk, etc.? When you get sick, is your doctor any good? Is the ER you go to filled with competent people? Do you get a medical office front desk representative who is more concerned with your health or the business’s bottom line? Are you bankrupted by your medical bills, or are you in a position where you have just the right amount of insurance and savings? Again, you can control some of this to some extent, but a lot of it is out of your hands.
So much of our life is totally out of our control, and whatever we can’t control eventually comes down to luck.
How Luck Impacts Your Success
There is a concept I call “prepper porn.” This is the philosophy that everything in life can be controlled if you just prepare sufficiently in advance. And it’s a crock of bullshit. There will be things you simply cannot control, because you’re not God: you don’t have omniscience, omnipotence, or omnipresence, and a lot of stuff is simply out of your hands.
Accordingly luck will determine, in some form or fashion, some degree of your success. Extremely successful people are generally those who have the right education, the right training, the right connections, the right character, and most critically the right idea with the right amount of willpower behind it at the right time. Get any of those components wrong, and success isn’t possible — you’re looking at survival in that case, not success.
The wrong training and the wrong timing will doom any venture. The wrong connections will make it very hard for you to advance in the workplace, and keeping in the good graces of the right connections is as much a matter of luck as skill. Not every personality fits every job or every enterprise. Pushing too hard, too slow, or too fast will end a business venture before it begins. And you will not know all of these variables going in.
Now, with that being said, I don’t want you to take away the idea that success is totally out of your hands. It is not, and preparation is always important. Luck will affect some things, all the time, sometimes in very significant ways. But the major difference between a lot of successful people and a lot of other people is that the successful people found ways out of bad luck situations, and took actions to increase their odds of encountering good luck situations.
In case you were wondering, that’s the point of college and trade schools. They don’t guarantee success. They just give you a shot at a lot of educational options, put you in the vicinity of a lot of potential contacts who may be able to help you someday, and insert you into an institution with a vested interest in finding you a profitable career. They raise your odds.
Most activities you can take towards a “successful” life work like this. They don’t guarantee good things, they just increase your odds. Internet dating sites increase your odds of finding a romantic partner, as do virtually any activities that get you out of the house and around other people. Job fairs increase your odds of finding a job. Volunteer work increases your odds of finding satisfaction in life, and so on and so forth. Luck will hit your odds of success from either side, at random, but your odds drop to zero if you don’t do anything at all. You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket, as they say.
None of which is to say success is going to happen. You can do everything “right” and still fail.
You’re Not Getting Away From Luck
Luck has a huge impact on your life. It’s not for nothing that most award acceptance speeches start with some variation on “I’m so fortunate to be here.” Never, ever, take luck for granted. Never, ever, get so high and mighty that you forget how much luck it took for you to get where you are. If you have success in life, you were fortunate. You also almost certainly did a lot of things to become successful and prepare your path. You were still fortunate. That doesn’t mean you were blessed, or even necessarily special in any way. It just means the random number generator of the universe threw you double sixes, and you were able to capitalize on that.
At the same time, never, ever let luck have the last laugh. Just because you’ve been rolling ones doesn’t mean you can’t drop a six. Most people fail before they succeed… and luck isn’t on anyone’s side. You’ve got to keep playing in order to win. So go out there and do stuff that raises your odds. Start that business. Look for that dream partner. Take that class. Talk to those people.
You might just get lucky.
¹For the folks who feel attacked by the feminists, atheists, gay pride parades, and the Black Lives Matter movement — you are not under attack, and you need to grow up too. Other people trying to achieve the same rights and level of acceptance that you enjoy is not an attack on you, it is an attempt at justice for them. For example, gay people trying to create a world where they aren’t being lynched for being gay doesn’t affect you, because you were never in danger of being lynched. See how that works?
²For example, a lot of lawyers ate it over this one in the past fifteen years. Right about when I graduated college the job market suddenly experienced a surge of lawyers, leading to much lower salaries for people with law degrees and a LOT more competition. Suddenly those folks who took out $250,000 to go to law school were in a lot of trouble.
³I constantly tell my wife that I’m a lucky man. And I am. The odds of us meeting were a few million to one. She’s from Nepal, got a diversity visa to the US, and lived in a different state than I did when we met. So many things had to come together for us to meet, and the only reason we ever found each other was an internet dating site. I got lucky. She’s a wonderful woman.