There is a trend towards exaggerating the extent to which we are able to control what happens to us in life and downplaying the role of chance and luck. After all, isn’t success/genius/creativity 90-99 per cent perspiration and 1-10 per cent inspiration?
It is de rigueur for successful people to acknowledge that luck has indeed played a role in their achievements – but how we act is held to be even more crucial for our life chances. It is often claimed that we can create our own luck by working at such things as being open to opportunities, following our hunches (with caution, I would add), developing the ability to persevere with our projects and learning from experience.
Of course we should encourage these attitudes in ourselves. Doing all the right things will give us a bigger chance that at some point circumstances will line up for us and yield the results we want. But are we in danger of underestimating the role of luck?
There will always be unforeseeable events that have the power to upturn our lives, for better or for worse. You turn right and meet the love of your life, or left and a falling flowerpot lands squarely on your head.
We can load the dice in our favour but we can’t eliminate the capricious turns of Fortuna. As Montaigne recognised: “So vain and frivolous a thing is human prudence; and athwart all our plans, counsels, and precautions, Fortune still maintains her grasp on the results.”
Effort is important. But putting too much emphasis on it can obscure the fact that chance has the last word. If we convince ourselves that we are completely in control, then we are liable to take excessive responsibility and blame ourselves for not making more of our lives, opening the door to guilt and regret. Accepting what is not in our control, on the other hand, can help us to make the most of what is.
It takes great illusions of personal potency to deny the role that luck plays at many key junctures in life, and in history. Nonetheless, few look hard enough to see that luck lurks in pretty much every nook and cranny of our existence.
Take the so-called “constitutive luck” – good or bad – of being born with a given set of basic dispositions and abilities. By the time we are self-aware enough to make the best or worst of this inheritance, many of the factors that will determine the course of our lives have already been set. The self-made millionaire, for example, is very likely to point out that she started with no more advantages than others who remained impoverished. But although in one sense she worked for everything she got, the drive or talent that got her there was as much the product of luck as the lazy heir’s inheritance.
Constitutive luck also plays a role in forming our ethical character. But there is another kind of moral luck that is more troubling. Almost every driver, for instance, has at some point got behind the wheel tired, distracted or angry. Most of the time we get away with it. But when our lack of attention leads to a fatal accident, we suddenly become culpable of death by reckless driving. Given the convicted killer was no more careless than those fortunate enough not to have encountered an oncoming vehicle or pedestrian at the wrong time, only luck seems to separate the criminally negligent from the blameless innocent.
Accepting the power of luck does not mean that we have to abandon ideas of culpability. We do not hold people responsible because we think bad people are just different from the good, nor because we think we are in ultimate control of how good we are. We do it because that is the best way of keeping most of us, most of the time, on the right side of the line. Remembering that luck plays a role even in our moral lives should simply encourage us to be compassionate in our judgments, not to refrain from making them at all.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org