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Can you make your own luck?

Luck can depend on where you start from. Photo / Getty Images

The slippery, serpentine nature of luck.

If you Google “How to make your own luck”, you’ll find more than 400 million entries, offering four or seven or 10 (etc) “proven” ways to do so. They all tend to offer the same sort of advice: create opportunities, be on the lookout for luck, take a chance, be an “I-can” sort of person rather than an “I-can’t”.

“You make your own luck” is often said with the best of intentions. Someone I know was talking about a friend in her 80s, recently widowed, who’d fallen in love and was having the time of her life. “See, you make your own luck!” she said, delighted. Why did this bother me? The implication was the 80-year-old had made her own romantic luck by being a lovely and charismatic person – but she’d been a lovely and charismatic person her entire life, even while weathering a long and less-than-perfect marriage.
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Did that mean her previous marriage could be put down to making her own bad luck? I suspect the 80-year-old might have said, “You make your own bed.” Anyway, was she a lovely person out of force of will, or was she lucky to have been born that way?

I’m probably over-thinking things. “You make your own luck” is something people say, like “Good luck with that.” But there are many instances of inherited good luck that most would recognise as giving you a better chance of making more of your own, such as the advantages that come with being born in a certain place (a developed nation), at a certain time (not during war), into a rich and loving family, having access to a good education and so on.

Education was once seen as the great leveller in New Zealand, but as shown by journalist Kirsty Johnston in the New Zealand Herald recently, if it ever was, it isn’t now. Using data sourced from six universities, her investigations showed 60% of the almost 16,000 students accepted into professional law, medicine and engineering in the past five years came from the richest third of homes, and just 6% came from the poorest third.

She quoted University of Auckland sociology professor Alan France: “People think education is a level playing-field but this is showing that’s not the case... It’s money. It’s class. It’s privilege.”

In his book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, Robert Frank argues we need to acknowledge the role of luck, including the profound effects that can come from seemingly random events, particularly in business success. Yet American conservatives, particularly the financially successful, tend to believe luck has nothing to do with it, putting their success down to their own talent and hard work. Frank cites writer E.B. White: “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”

As Joan Didion once wrote, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Some might tell themselves stories in order to live with themselves. If you think you’re entirely responsible for your own good fortune, you don’t need to feel bad about the less fortunate; they could be so lucky if only they tried. But if the financially successful reflected more on the role of luck in their own lives, says Frank, they might be more willing to support social policies that could better share some of that luck around – maybe by paying higher taxes (or at least not avoiding them) to support the social infrastructure (such as education) that helped the lucky get where they got.
Life, metaphorically, is a bit of a soccer game. Photo / Getty Images
Sometimes luck plays out in conspicuous ways, like winning Lotto, as can bad luck, like being in a plane crash. But life mostly evolves as a series of barely noticed steps, and one lucky step (or unlucky misstep) can change everything. This was demonstrated by University of Sydney researchers, who looked at the role of luck in soccer goals, and showed negligible differences in performance gave rise to very different outcomes.

They collected the data from more than 13,000 shots that hit a goal post; in 10,679 cases the ball bounced away, but in 2387 cases it deflected into the goal. Those whose balls deflected into the goal were given a much higher performance rating by sports journalists, and their coach gave them more playing time in their next match, although there were no visible differences in a player’s skill or performance after they scored, or in their next match.

“Basically, a player with a successful goal was overly rewarded relative to a player with a very similar shot that missed by just a few centimetres,” the authors said.

Life, metaphorically, is a bit of a soccer game. “The beauty of this exercise is that it allows us to isolate a situation in which the difference in performance between success and failure is very small,” the authors have written. This could be applied in an economic context too, and something employers should be aware of when recruiting. “Be careful next time you are about to look up to someone for what you see as their success. Was it down to their skill and performance, or just a lucky break? And be careful not to overlook worthy performers who just happened to be unlucky.”

Having a talent valued by others will help you create your own financial luck, as will the ability to work hard, but where do those personal qualities come from? That’s probably a matter of luck, too – a combination of environment and genetic inheritance.

Australian comedian and musician Tim Minchin put it well some years ago when he spoke at a graduation ceremony at his own university. He told the assembled graduates they were lucky to be there, lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family who encouraged them to go to uni.

“Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.”

I’m moving into murky and fatalistic waters here, and questions of free will, which philosophers have grappled with for centuries. Of course, we can make our own luck to a certain extent, but it also depends on forces beyond our control. Understanding this could be construed as self-defeating, but it could also make the lucky more generous-spirited towards those less fortunate, and the unlucky more forgiving of themselves. 

This story was originally published in the December edition of North & South.