On Luck



On Luck

One of the few things I often think about is just how lucky I have been in my life. Routinely when people ask me how my day is I give them the same answer – “Every day is a great day.” When I utter this statement people frequently look at me perplexed. No doubt the first thing they think is that I must be lying or exaggerating. I can confidently say I am not. My reasoning is simple – I quite literally have no problems in my life and am not apprehensive to state that any potential “problems” that I can state I have experienced are not meaningfully significant.

The following is just a short list of some of the things I have never had to deal with or endure in my entire life: a physical or intellectual disability, lasting hunger, 2 police brutality, leaded water, any disease or infection of any significance, homelessness, poor education, any sort of direct racial bias/racism, abusive parents, gun or drug violence, lengthy periods without access to a computer, internet, or informational database, political instability, any sort of environmental disaster, or financial instability of any kind.

What may not be obvious to the average reader is that my inexperience with almost all of these circumstances comes down to pure luck. Yes, some of these events can be received from my work ethic, but luck is certainly the dominant factor. I cannot control the weather. I did not choose my parents. I did not choose the color of my skin. I did not choose my genetic composition. I did not choose where I was born or grew up. I did not choose the school system I attended. The easiest example I can conjure that can explain this point succinctly is leaded water and hunger. The severe and irreparable adverse effects of leaded water and hunger are well documented. 3 I could for a second believe that I am smart, that I work harder than most people, it is because of my sheer effort that I am as successful as I am, and I deserve it. However, this is simply not true. Here is the proof. All I have to ask myself is the following – would I still be as successful as I am today, would I still be as hard of a worker, and would I still be as smart as I am today if I had 10% more lead in the water I drank when I was a child? How about if I had 10% fewer calories? What about 20%? The answer is simple – I would not. If everything I have ever worked for, and everything that has supposedly been a result of the work I have done in my life can all be erased with just either of these two variables – did I really work harder than most people or it is luck. Staying true to my framework for choosing ideas 4 and general notions of logic, the likelihood of each event must be weighed against each other – luck is the most likely variable that has determined most of my success.

I believe there are several points to take away from this conclusion that are worth elaborating on. First, those who have never faced any of the above problems, they should be thankful to the individuals that were capable of providing them the privilege they take advantage of and the luck they experienced. More importantly, individuals should understand that when they see struggling individuals remind themselves of the advantages that they had that they did not take any part in determining and the privileges absent from the other person’s life. Unfortunately, there is still a pervasive belief that people can simply get ahead by working harder. 5 For those that believe this, consider for a moment how different your life would be if any of the aforementioned factors changed even slightly. Moreover, I plead with those who still believe this principle to ask exactly how much harder do we want people to work. 6 I implore those to determine for me how does a teacher work harder? How about a coal miner, a waitress, or a truck driver? Move faster or work longer? Such modest acts could have an impact, but I am near certain they will not radically or even moderately change one’s overall situation. The fact is there are innumerable jobs where working even 10% longer will most likely not change the current situation, decrease one’s overall happiness, or worse endanger their life and the lives of others. Would we want a truck driver driving two or three hours longer? Do we want teachers devoting even more hours in the day to their students? 7 Should coal miners extract even more coal in some of the abysmal working conditions at the expense of their physical health and well-being? I do not think it is radical that the answer to all of these questions is no and I am not sure of how anyone could justify such as position.

Lastly, I believe people should recognize, given the dispositive impact luck has on life’s outcomes, encouraging people to reflect on the role luck plays can be a method to garner support for a redistributive society. If much of one’s success can be attributed to luck – a fundamental contradiction to a meritocracy – should we want a society that rewards luck and not compensate those with the most unfortunate of circumstances. The ideological divide between those that desire a redistributive society or not is undoubtedly a fundamental division between liberals and conservatives, and a recognition of the determinative impact luck has is necessary to critically evaluate how our political, economic, and social systems are currently constructed and how they should be designed.


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