What Is the Science of Luck?
Examining how to best prepare for and maximize chances.
Posted Jan 11, 2013
Many moons ago, I moved back to the U.S. after a few years in Argentina. In a way, my timing could not have been worse: I returned at the height of the Great Recession. My friends didn’t tiptoe around the fact that the U.S. was riddled with bad luck. Lost jobs, dated iPhones, and fewer visits to favorite restaurants were not uncommon. On the other hand, some people seemed to be doing just fine.
That’s when I became interested in the idea of luck. What is luck? Why were some people emerging from the recession unscathed, while the lives of others were turned upside down?
Unfortunately, everything I read about luck left me wanting. I’m not a gambler, I don’t play cards, I don’t sell stocks or care deeply about finance, and I wasn’t about to start watching baseball. Those are the infinitely measurable areas of life that we can calculate: the times when absolutely everything stays the same except for one variable. We can know exactly what someone’s batting average is and if he’s having a bad streak, but the trials in daily life aren’t so simple. Because we’re not doing the exact same thing over and over again, we can’t immediately tell if somebody is unlucky, untalented, unskilled, or if an external factor (the economy, the weather) is to blame.
But we still can tell who received a lot of sudden success, unexpected good fortune, or experienced a positive coincidence. Call it “probability interpreted personally.” I call it luck.
Some people say that there’s no way to improve our luck because we can’t predict the future. To me, that’s like saying that you can’t prepare for the weather because you don’t know exactly what those clouds are going to do.
Plenty of discussions about luck focus on the mathematical aspects of randomness—but what about the social and psychological aspects? How can we make ourselves more likely to be on the receiving end of good opportunities and unexpected fortune? In this blog, I’m going to look at patterns of success, how we can best prepare for the unexpected, and understand how we can maximize our opportunities in life.