Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Do You Suffer from “Luck of the Draw” Syndrome?

Life may have dealt us a bad hand, but there are many ways to prevail.

Key points

  • People may have been dealt a mediocre hand at birth, but they can overcome obstacles to achieve their potential.
  • Although people can't control the cards they are dealt in life, there are many ways to improve their prospects.
  • It can be helpful to ask oneself how to play one's cards as favorably as possible, while remaining flexible.
Photographer's name not given/Wikipedia Commons
Source: Photographer's name not given/Wikipedia Commons

The title of this post would seem to be about chance. But it’s much more about overcoming obstacles to achieving one’s potential when, at birth, you were dealt a mediocre or poor hand. In comparing yourself to select others, you may have concluded you were simply born unlucky. And not having the advantages, or being afforded the opportunities, that others more fortunate were given, you feel eternally hamstrung in achieving the success you desire.

Born Unlucky?

Unquestionably, the family and environment you’re born into can constrain you in various ways. It could be your race, your parents’ difficult financial situation or inferior social status, your gender, religion, physical appearance, or even the particular culture you must, to whatever degree, adapt to.

By comparison, people originally dealt a “straight flush” (if not a “royal flush”) would seem to have it made, not needing to surmount any odds operating against them. They could take for granted what you were “fated” to struggle with.

As an example, these favored others, without putting forth any special effort, may have been placed in advanced classes in your high school and become valedictorian—whereas you, every bit as scholastically inclined as they, may have had to work considerably harder yet graduate only in the top half of your class.

So, ask yourself—have you ever...:

  • Felt the need to lower your ambitions because it felt you just couldn’t compete with others in your field?
  • Experienced resentment that you were born on the wrong side of the tracks?
  • Felt hostility or envy toward those who, fortuitously, were “blessed” with a high IQ, charisma, a highly educated or wealthy family, an environment cordial to their predilections, etc.?
  • Experienced jealousy toward those who were unusually attractive and effortlessly drew others toward them?
  • Struggled with accepting limits that others never had to contend with?

In a literal, concrete sense, the world can hardly be judged equitable. If you’re like most of us, the cards you initially drew weren’t ones you’d ever choose on your own. And that just seems reflective of the unalterable framework of human existence.

Making Your Life More Fair

Going with our poker-playing analogy, what might be stressed here is that a professional card player—even though over time (unless they’ve been cheating) will be dealt cards no better than anyone else’s—still wins pots (or jackpots) much more often than we do. Why? Simply because they control how they play their cards more discriminately.

Below are some quotations all of which converge around the idea of humans possessing relative control:

"We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the game." —Randy Pausch

"Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well." —Jack London

"Just because Fate doesn't deal you the right cards, it doesn't mean you should give up. It just means you have to play the cards you get to their maximum potential." —Les Brown

When luck joins the game, cleverness scores double. –Yiddish Proverb

"Has fortune dealt you some bad cards? Then let wisdom make you a good gamester." —Francis Quarles

"Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her; but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game." —Voltaire

"Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will." —Jawaharlal Nehru

Ultimately, the message here, so often repeated that it’s become a truism, is that “you make your own luck.” And that’s unusually paradoxical in that luck literally refers to that over which you have no control. But it’s also true that there are many ways to prevail over a bad hand. So the actions taken to “rectify” what you were dealt can lessen, or even nullify, what you involuntarily started out with.

Like virtually everyone else, you possess the awesome power to make things turn out much more positively than they ever could on their own. That’s why taking “agency” of your existence (cf. developing a greater internal locus of control) is so crucial—instead of acquiescing to the presumable unfairness of life. What so many of the aforementioned sayings imply is that you can reverse life’s inevitable inequities if you consciously choose not to passively accept them. For if you don’t believe you can defeat the odds of failing, the chances that you’ll even try are minuscule.

How to Beat Luck at Its Own Game

So the essential question to ask yourself is whether you’ve been playing your “life cards” as favorably as possible.

Obviously, you don’t want to “overplay your hand.” You need to acknowledge personal limits that aren’t transcendable. Being overly optimistic about what’s doable for you and going for it rashly or thoughtlessly isn’t going to lead to the outcome you’re wanting. You’ll just overextend yourself in refusing to recognize that in some instances “the cards are stacked against you.” You may lack the intellectual brilliance, athleticism, attractiveness, etc. to succeed in areas not representing your “strong suit.” And this is when it’s wise to adjust your goals accordingly.

But before doing so, make sure that’s really the case. For long ago you may have been afflicted by inner voices telling you that you couldn’t do something when in fact you weren’t old enough to do them or too afraid to try.

What may be called for is judiciously reassessing your present resources and upgrading your motivation to make the most of them. Moreover, you want to remain organized and flexible. So if the first thing you attempt doesn’t pass muster, you’re left with tenable alternatives. (And poker players might call this “having an ace up your sleeve.”)

Originally this stealthily concealed card alluded to playing the game deceptively, but currently it’s linked to strategically planning to change course if your initial scheme doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped. It’s something you keep to yourself (like “an ace in the hole”) and implement only if the occasion renders it necessary to employ.

Finally, the remedy to seeing yourself as the victim of a bad hand is:

  • Develop your willpower, self-control, or discipline so that you stay focused on what you want to achieve—whether personal or professional—without getting sidetracked by emotions such as anger, anxiety, or depression; and (closely related to this),
  • Delay pursuits that offer you small but immediate pleasure and gratification (e.g., engaging in various compulsive/addictive behaviors, activities, and relationships) and grow your patience and perseverance, so in putting off such pleasures you can obtain what, ultimately, matters most to you.

This is where the idea of becoming your “personal best” comes in. And the ideal formula for accomplishing your goals is to take control of that which, till now, you may have viewed as controlling you. That’s how you win the game called life.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.