ILLUSTRATION BY ELLEN WEINSTEIN
Nature makes chance, humans make luck.
Or would you say you are unlucky? You missed the key job interview because you caught the flu, or missed that train because it was cancelled?
Or perhaps you don’t believe in luck, thinking that people make their own good—or bad—fortune, and that success in life is down to hard work and persistence. Of course, even if you believe that, it can’t be a complete explanation—no matter how hard you worked, you could not make that cancelled train appear. There are always things beyond your control.
Luck is obviously closely related to the concept of chance, but it’s not quite the same. Chance describes an aspect of the physical universe: It’s what happens out there. The coin coming up heads rather than tails, the die falling to show a six, and even a particular one of the 45,057,474 possible tickets in the United Kingdom National Lottery being drawn. In contrast, luck attaches a value to the outcome of chance. Luck is chance viewed through the spectacles of good or bad fortune. It’s really good news, at least for you, if you win the lottery, and it’s really bad news if you’re one of the passengers on the plane when it crashes.
Chance, then, is the objective reality of random outcomes in the real world, while luck is a consequence of the subjective value you place on those random outcomes. Luck, we might say, is chance with a human face. Understanding this gives us a clearer view of reality, and a clearer view of reality means we can choose better courses of action.
Good luck is something to be desired—having good luck means that the chance events you experienced had positive outcomes. And bad luck is something you hope you don’t get. Which naturally leads to the question: Is there anything we can do to make ourselves luckier?
We could try do this by changing what we regard as a good outcome, but that seems unreasonable. Slipping on ice and breaking your leg seems unlucky however you look at it, whereas it’s hard to see winning the lottery as unlucky. So perhaps instead we should look for ways to alter the chance, the probability, that different outcomes will occur.
And the world is full of beliefs that we can change our chances, and hence our luck.
Superstitions are examples: baseball pitcher Turk Wendell drawing three crosses in the dirt before pitching; Manchester United soccer player Phil Jones putting his left sock on first when the team played at home, but his right sock on first when the team played away; you taking your favorite pen into the examination room. Unfortunately, there’s precious little evidence that any such things increase the chance of a favorable outcome.
By increasing the chance of a favorable outcome, you can make your own luck.
On the other hand, there’s an old saying, attributed in various forms to Thomas Jefferson, Stephen Leacock, Sam Goldwyn, and others: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” It’s certainly true that if you train hard you are more likely to win a sporting event, but it clearly does not explain everything. Your hard work does not reduce the chance of being kept awake by noisy neighbors the night before, or slipping on a wet patch as you run during the race. And people seem to win lotteries regardless of how dissolute a life they lead.
Louis Pasteur said something similar: “Chance favors the prepared mind”—making sure you are able to recognize and grasp opportunities when they arise.
One kind of preparation is to take advantage of what’s called the law of truly large numbers.1 This is not the same as the statistician’s law of large numbers, which describes how averages get closer and closer to a fixed value the more numbers you put into the average. It’s something quite different.
Let’s begin with the truism that, while you have a tiny chance of winning the lottery if you buy a ticket, you can guarantee that you won’t win if you don’t buy one. So that’s quite a big difference between two chances, from nothing to something, even if that something is still very small. But we can then take this idea further. Obviously, the more (differently numbered) tickets you buy, the greater your chance of winning. Buy 1,000 tickets instead of just one, and your chance of winning is 1,000 times greater. Buy 1 million—a truly large number—and your chance is even greater. I should comment parenthetically that I am not encouraging you to buy lottery tickets. With the U.K. National Lottery a single ticket has a 1 in 45 million chance of winning the jackpot. If you buy 1,000 tickets you still have only a 1 in 45,000 chance of winning. That’s less likely than getting 15 heads in a row tossing a fair coin. Is that something you’d want to bet on?…