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What it means to be lucky

“When it comes to luck you make your own” - Bruce Springteen

“Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” - Seneca

“I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work the more I have of it” - Thomas Jefferson

Introduction

I’ve noticed that no one seems to agree on a concrete definition for what we term “luck.” Colloquially, luck has been adopted to mean many different things in many different contexts. I would like to arrive at some concrete understanding of what it is and to do so, let’s look at how it’s used in some different contexts

Anecdotes

1. The Epic Goal

Jimmy is a terrible soccer player. During tryouts, Jimmy (by some stroke of success) scores one of the most amazing goals the coach has ever seen. Jimmy makes the team. Later, his friends ask - “how did you score such an epic goal?” Jimmy replies with “I have no idea, I must have gotten lucky!”

2. Déjà Vu

Alice is preparing for a technical interview at a big tech company. She has two weeks before her final round and she commits to studying really hard - she follows a strict study schedule for 8 hours a day, focusing on improving her problem solving abilities. Come interview day, she’s nervous but she feels ready. After the brief introductions, she’s given her first problem - given a Linked List, reverse it. “Aha!” she thinks, “I’ve seen this problem I know how to do it!” She codes up a perfect solution. At the same time, her other friend Matt is also interviewing, and he’s given a different problem which he messes up. Alice gets the job, Matt doesn’t. Alice decides that she must have “gotten lucky”

3. The Cold Email

Grace is a researcher and an avid blogger who loves to write about physics. Over the past year, she’s garnered a bit of a following and people regularly stumble across her blog when trying to understand different Physics concepts. One day, she gets an email titled “Possible Opportunity for Physics Research” - it’s from a Professor at her dream lab who wants to meet for a possible collaboration! One week and meeting later, she’s secured an awesome collaboration working on her dream project, Grace thinks “Wow, what are the odds that someone from [dream lab] comes across my work and reaches out?”

4. The I’m So Lucky To Be Alive

Damon drives his two sons to school every morning at 7am. He always takes the same route and has pretty much memorized the exact surroundings along the path. One Monday morning, he’s driving past a traffic light when out of nowhere a truck comes up and crashes into the side of the car. The ambulance quickly arrives and everybody is rushed to the hospital. Luckily, the truck hit the back of the car and so nobody was seriously injured. “Wow”, Damon thinks, “I’m not sure if I believe in miracles, but we are incredibly lucky to be alive”

In all four of these different stories, the idea of luck is involved in some capacity. I chose four radically different stories to illustrate just some of the different ways people think about luck. Let’s use the anecdotes to dissect, what I think are, three dimensions that are integral to building a mental model of luck .

Dimension One: Random Good Fortune

The first core idea that encompasses luck is the idea of what I will term random good fortune. To be lucky is to have hit the jackpot on a (fair, unbiased) slot machine. Combinatorially, we can think of actions as the result of different states of input. When we get lucky, we land on a state that yields this action or result. Since there are few states that yield (massively) net positive actions over negative (compared to all the other states), we term this phenomenon luck.

What about hard work, skills, and abilities? Where do these three fit into the picture?

Dimension Two: Luck as a Function

We all have friends who we’d describe as very lucky. Maybe they always score epic goals in soccer matches, maybe they’re always getting questions they’ve seen before in interviews. Why are they so lucky? Probabilistically, it may just happen that they land on these states more often than other people.

This may be true, but it’s unlikely. It turns out that there are other variables in our control that seem to be correlated with luck! Let’s refine our definition of luck. Instead of purely being a list of states that give us a positive result, let’s think of luck as a function that maps to states. This is a function of many variables like hard work, skills, abilities, and talent to name a few. The harder you work, or the more skilled you are, or the more talented you are, then the greater number of states your function can map to.

Jefferson says that “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” This seems to agree with our definition here. The harder you work, the more skills you have, the more states you can “access” that yield results which are positive. If you’re a good soccer player, you’re probably more likely to smash an absolute banger (a British phrase for scoring a great goal) than someone who’s never touched a soccer ball. You have experience, muscle memory, and developed skills that increase the likelihood of you “being in the right place at the right time.”

By a similar thread, if you’ve done an extensive amount of interview prep, you’ve widened your surface area of previous questions seen. Given a question, you’re able to draw on a large sum of experiences and concepts. You might still be asked a super difficult question. Or an easy one. But you’ve set yourself up to be able to access more states in which you produce a working solution than someone who’s never prepped at all.

Dimension Three: Luck as a Serendipity Vehicle

Many of us agree that some of our best experiences happened unexpectedly. Someone reached out with an opportunity, a friend of a friend introduced themselves, and so forth. The concept has been written before and it’s called serendipity. The idea is that it is a skill which can be developed and there are things that you that can do to maximize it, like starting a blog or joining Twitter. In our third anecdote, Grace thinks she got lucky because someone randomly reached out with an opportunity. Is there some element of random to this? Of course. But keeping a blog increased the likelihood of this. It maximized the surface area for luck or serendipity to “hit her” because anyone, anywhere could stumble on her blog.

This complements our definition of luck from dimension two. Luck is indeed a function of many variables. Some of those variables can be developed as the result of working hard. Some of these variables are the result of decisions that happened a long time ago (starting a website, sending an email). And some of the variables are the result of decisions that happen in the moment.

Closing Thoughts

Many of us cringe when we hear quotes about luck, like those by Springteen, Seneca, and Jefferson. And sometimes, we have the right to do so.

But these quotes are useful for building a mental model of luck. The most important takeaway is that luck is not purely random nor is it uniform. It’s a weighted sum of many variables including some random component that is out of our control. We can’t change that random component. But we can increase the likelihood of being lucky in other ways. Randy Pausch said in his last lecture that “we cannot change the cards we’re dealt, only how we play the hand.” Maybe a helpful amendment would be “we cannot change the cards we’re dealt, but there are many other variables in our control that can change how well we play the hand.” It turns out that ancient wisdom was right again. There are no shortcuts to success.