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Friday, December 1, 2023

The Secret to Being Lucky

Alexa’s approach to prediction is a revelation: “Today you can look for sunny weather, with highs in the mid-70s.” Go to town, scan the skies! You might get lucky.

Really, what more can or should be said about the future? Look around and see what happens. You can look for your crypto windfall. You can look for the love of your life. You can look for the queen of hearts. Seek and ye might find. You can even look for a four-leaf clover, though the chances are about 1 in 10,000. But if you find one, the shamrock is no less lucky because you looked for it. In fact, it’s luck itself.

“Diligence is the mother of good luck” and “The harder I work the luckier I get”—these brisk aphorisms get pinned on Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, lest we earnest Americans forget that salvation comes only to individuals who work themselves to dust. In truth, the luck = work axiom does nothing but serve the regime and the bosses, by kindling credulity in a phantom meritocracy instead of admitting that virtually every single advantage we get in the world is one we lucked into—by being born to the right parents who speak the right language in the right zip code. How about we invert the meritocratic fallacy in those aphorisms and create a new aphorism that makes “work” the delusion and “luck” the reality? “The luckier I get, the harder I pretend I’ve worked.” An excellent way to describe the people born on third who believe they hit a triple.

After all, the chances of the precise sperm colliding with the exact egg in the right fallopian tube and convening to make you—or me—are so low as to be undetectable with human mathematics. The meeting that determines only 100 percent of your existence.

If there’s any method of prediction that never fails, it’s luck. You look for your horse—or your candidate—to win, and she wins? What luck. What if she loses? Better luck next time. If Alexa says you can look for rain, and you look and find it—lucky you, you brought an umbrella! Luck is fate and fate is what happens and a prediction of what happens is a perfect prediction.

Sure, for free-will buffs, being told that your sole agency lies in looking for luck, which you may or may not find, can be demoralizing. Perhaps that’s why people tell themselves that luck is actually just hard work. We can do something about work—namely, do it.

But work and diligence can never be the parents of luck, because luck has no mother, no father, no precedent or context. Luck is a spontaneous mutation, signaling improbability; it shows up randomly, hangs around according to whim, and—as every gambler knows—makes an Irish goodbye. Mischievous luck is fun, a shamrock, a “lady.” It’s worlds away from grinding toil.

So where does the “looking for” luck come in? Ah—your agency comes in the almost-passive search for luck. The noticing. In 2018 the philosophy professor Steven Hales, along with one of his colleagues at Bloomsburg University, found that we’re only as lucky as we think we are. We only find luck when we look for it. Better still—for those who like action items—luck begets luck. You look for sunny weather, you’re more likely to find it; you find it, you come to think you’re lucky; you try your luck looking for more sunny weather and you luck out again.

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In Aeon magazine, Hales wrote, “Luck might not be a genuine quality of the world at all.” Fine. But neither is beauty or justice. At the same time, the Bloomsburg researchers discovered “a significant positive correlation” between people’s temperaments and how lucky they thought others were. “One of the things this means is that the more optimistic you are, the more you think others are lucky.” For “optimistic,” I might substitute “happy-go-lucky.”

“Luck is a mere façon de parler, or turn of phrase,” Hales wrote (using the Irish, of course). Of anyone who believes they’re lucky, he went on, “their luck might well be, in a very strict psychological sense, entirely of their own making.”

Of our own making! So you make your own luck by looking for it, but you also make it with lucky turns of phrase and lucky casts of mind. You see a friend who recovered from Covid as lucky for recovering, rather than unlucky for getting sick in the first place. And, if you’re a happy-go-lucky type, you groove luck into your world by saying it, over and over. Wow, you were lucky. Your sister had some stock and made you soup? What luck! Your system rallied? Boy, that’s great genetic luck right there.

Einstein didn’t like the idea of God “playing dice” with the world. Lucky for Einstein, dice, in a world determined by luck, are not thrown by anyone, much less a God who is said to have Yahtzee skills. Instead, the chips fall where they may—and really they just fall, unpredictably, spontaneously. We then look for patterns in them.

For those seeking self-improvement, and who isn’t, I’m not just freestyling here. Living by a doctrine of luck promotes at least five excellent things that have got to be good for your brain.

1. Active skepticism about “meritocracy.”

2. Recognition of the utter contingency of one’s own advantages. An act, if I may, of “checking your privilege.”

3. Appreciation for the spontaneity, serendipity, and unpredictability of the universe. Nicholas Rescher, the illustrious philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh, calls luck “the brilliant randomness of everyday life.”

4. A way to practice “gratitude” without doing calligraphy in $75 journals. All you have you do is say, every time it hits you that life is OK and could be otherwise, “What luck!”

5. A way to make more luck in your life.

Luck really is the best creed. It makes no truth claims, requires no messiahs or gurus. It’s not religious, partisan, or ideological. It doesn’t just allow for surprise; it’s nothing but surprise. It’s charming. It may even be the secular answer to grace, but it comes with laughs rather than piety.

When you get good at luck, you can even find a spot of luck in a heat wave or your team’s defeat. But don’t be a psychopath. Luck is not about looking on the bright side. It’s much more minor. It’s about just being—and observing that, of all the prospective organisms in the broken but intriguing world, you happened, against the odds, to be one.

This article appears in the September issue. Subscribe now.

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