The Philosophy of Luck

"Love only that which falls to you and is spun as the thread of your destiny; for what could be better suited to you?" -Marcus Aurelius

How often do we love only that which falls to us? It's far more common that we love that which falls to others. Our genetic makeup, our upbringings, our strengths, and our weaknesses—these are the things that were, as Stoic philosopher and once most-powerful-man-in-the-world Marcus Aurelius put it, spun for us (read: intended for us).

But sometimes we hate what’s spun for us—so much so that we may find the very notion of certain events being meant for or uniquely assigned to us offensive. That heartbreak, that trauma, that undesired physical attribute... It’s rare that we react to such things with contented acceptance. The beauty of this, though, is that if something was meant for us, we don’t have to be broken by it. We’re not somehow less because something just is. We’re simply playing our part and can continue doing so faithfully.

And so begs the question, how do we continue forward faithfully and joyfully in spite of the non-ideal? By understanding that much of life is ruled by two forces: luck and timing. Luck and timing rule the world, and the sooner we realize this, the saner we'll be.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell addresses this very concept in compelling, near-disconcerting detail. The entire book hangs on one idea: that there exists a set of intangible circumstances that often dictate whether or not a person will be “successful." From a co-pilot's cultural frame of reference informing the likelihood of his plane crashing, to a particular parenting style determining whether a child grows up to be assertive, to even your birthday dictating whether you'll be a good hockey player. As he seeks to debunk the myth of "hard work being king," Gladwell shares a number of jarring examples that depict the role of intangibles in our destiny.

Now, before we spiral into a cycle of hopelessness because we've suddenly realized how out-of-control we are, let's frame this rightly. The matter of luck and timing shaping much of our experience doesn't justify a "woe is me" mindset. In fact, what it justifies is exactly the opposite. Acknowledging the roles played by luck and timing doesn’t excuse you from bringing your best to all situations, but frees you to do just that in spite of the outcome. Our effort is no longer predicated on the result. Breathe that.

"Pursue the good ardently. But if your efforts fall short, accept the result and move on." -Epictetus

And here lies the kicker: we must accept (and even expect) that things may not work out, that our efforts may not reap the results we hoped for. You can be your best and still fail. You can be attractive and not get called back. You can be qualified and not get the job (just as you can be unqualified and get the job). Understanding that much of life is out of our control frees us from arrogance when things go rightly, and from total self-deprecation when they don’t.

With this squarely in mind, our question then becomes: in all things, am I pursuing my utmost good, and the utmost good of others? The former, of course, implying the latter. In work, in our relationships, in virtually anything, what matters is the quality of the pursuit—not the quality of the circumstances. In his recent book Ego Is The Enemy, Ryan Holiday references a quote from philosopher and writer Paul Valery that effectively punctuates this idea: "A poet’s function…is not to experience the poetic state: that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others.”

What function have you been assigned, and how will you pivot your luck to perform it well?

Accepting that a significant portion of life is luck and timing shouldn’t lead us to sulking or inaction, but to freedom. Freedom from thinking something’s wrong with us, or from taking drastic action to change something about us we’re uncomfortable with. It grants us freedom from thinking that every unfortunate event or undesired result is on us, or at the very least, affords us the wisdom to know the difference.

Hear this. By now, you know that The Philosophy of Everything is dedicated to individual flourishing as a result of asserting control over one's mind. We are responsible for our thoughts and for the actions that follow. We are responsible for responding to our circumstances in a way that results in the best possible self. Inasmuch as our mental experience is concerned, we are responsible. As Epictetus succinctly puts it, "No one can rob us of our will.” What I want to highlight, though, is the folly of lamenting that which is out of our control—that which luck and timing allotted to us.

Allow me to reference a non-philosopher's deeply philosophical quote for a moment.

"It doesn't seem fair, because it's random. But that's why it's fair. You get me? It's fair like the lottery's fair." -Nic Pizzolatto

Luck and timing, timing and luck. The forces that so often plague us are precisely the things that should both strip us of entitlement and release us from comparison. We'll often compare ourselves to someone who's path was uniquely designed for them, or find ourselves jealous of an attribute that was completely out of their control. We then think that we're somehow less because we don't have something that was never meant for us. If we seek to achieve peace of mind, we can only react to “want" in one of two ways: 1). It wasn't meant for me, or 2). It wasn't meant for me yet

Our "lot" does not make us less. And let's flip it for a second. The lot of others does not make them less (or more)—for you could've had theirs just as much as they could've had yours. How radically different would our daily perceptions be if we actively thought this way? Consciously aware of the role that chance has played in who and where we are. 

We tend to dislike the idea of luck. Unsurprisingly so, as it places a certain occurrence or achievement outside of our direct control. We want to be responsible for our success! We want the credit! We don't want to give it to our parents, our upbringing, or the opportunities conveniently placed in our paths. That would make us less significant! As such, "lucky" is an attack on our raw ability. And just oppositely, those to whom opportunities weren't served on a silver platter look at the aforementioned group and, with a tone of frustrated condescension, attribute their lives to "luck."

Both interpretations of the word are flawed. In the first case, the privileged individual is offended at the idea that luck and timing may have actually played a larger role in their success than their own pure work ethic. In the second case, the individual with less provisions laments their lack of opportunity and thus frames the other person as undeserving of their success. The problem in both perspectives is the perception of luck as "bad." The Stoics took issue with forming such judgements. Of course the self-made journey tends to be the more admirable one, but only if it's true. 

“Cast out the judgement, and then you are saved." -Marcus Aurelius

Opportunity is everything, and we are products of our paths. The right phone call, the right teacher who offered just the right encouragement, the right event where you meet the person who opens the door to everything... These little things are responsible for the big things. But if we’re honest, it’s harder to say, “You know what, I’ve been lucky to have some amazing opportunities and a pair of supportive parents who encouraged me every step of the way,” than it is to exaggerate your own sheer grit because you think that’s a better story.

The best story is the authentic one. Every time. Always.

The authentic narrative allows others to frame their own experiences more accurately. The most capable, talented individual in the world will amount to nothing without opportunity. There are Einsteins and Mozarts in ghettos and slums whose potential may never see the light of day, and it’s to no fault of their own. Any instinct to refute this is an example of luck at work—you were given an experience that led you to believe that if you put your mind to it, anything is possible. Isolate that experience. Think of where you were, who you were around, what led you there, what time period it was in.

That’s what opportunity is. Can we transcend our misfortunes? Absolutely. But ignoring the necessity of opportunity, the effects of luck and timing, is denial.

“Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes and it takes.” -Lin-Manuel Miranda

At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, a right understanding of this concept boils down to the following: anything can happen to anyone. Again for emphasis. Anything can happen to anyone. Malice and misfortune choose their victims blindly. The moment you realize that the chances of you being born in a slum in India or in an upper-middle class home in America are equal is the moment you realize what "luck" really is. We struggle to accept the fact that nothing is owed to us, and that our positions in life are essentially assigned at random. 

And so, how do we respond? What is our call to action as we submit to the realities formed by luck and timing?

We exploit ourselves for the best possible purposes.

We exploit our giftings, our circumstances, our passions and our skills. We reframe the oft-negative connotation of this word, flip it on its head and use it in a way that brings out the highest quality versions of ourselves. Whatever your uniquely assigned lot is, from your childhood, to your present situation, to your talents and your turmoils, exploit it in such a way that you and everyone around you is made better by it. Exploit your lot. Utilize your story. Love whatever luck and timing have given to you.

The philosophy of luck, or perhaps even the philosophy of self, is that which seeks nothing other than precisely what has been assigned, wholly recognizing the grandeur and gift that is uniqueness. Your placement might have been random, but it wasn't wrong.

“You are not an isolated entity, but a unique, irreplaceable part of the cosmos. Don’t forget this. You are an essential piece of the puzzle of humanity.” -Epictetus