Nathanael Garrett Novosel, December 9 2020

Luck vs. Choice

How much of life is controllable vs. uncontrollable?  50/50?  75/25?  There are a multitude of articles and videos analyzing the degree with which luck factors in to success or not.  Some of my favorites are:

The role of luck vs. skill in sports

"Coin flipping" (aka luck) vs. skill in stock market picks

The role of luck vs. skill in success in business, sports, and investing

The truth of the matter is that there will always be things within your control, such as your actions and behaviors, and things outside your control, such as the weather on any given day or whether a random coin flip will land heads or tails.  The question of how much of your life is free will or determined by some other means is a fascinating question, but fortunately it's not entirely necessary to know or care about the answer.  Instead, what is more important is to differentiate between what's controllable vs. uncontrollable, maximize what's within your control, and then do the most to influence what is within your control.

Take an example where you like a sport.  You can't control your genetics, other players, the weather conditions, etc.  You can, however, control your work ethic, the equipment you use, the strategy you employ, and how you work with others.  Those are all within your control.  So if you want to maximize your potential, you need to do what you can and not worry about what you can't control.  Let's go through the steps to determining that: 1. Identify the factors that you can influence: we just did that above.  2. Maximize what's within your control: you might not be able to control the weather on any given day, but you can move to a more optimal climate, schedule an indoor match to eliminate weather concerns, or schedule during a better time of year to increase the odds of good weather.  There are many other things you can do, like pick good teammates, encourage them to practice, etc.  3. Do the most to influence what's within your control: you can practice more, learn to control your emotions through adversity, improve your communication, etc.  There are many things that are within your control that can minimize the risk and impact of things outside your control.

You can do this with anything:

What's amazing about this insight is that by understanding the uncontrollable and planning for it, you are effectively controlling the uncontrollable by minimizing its risk and impact.  Insurance doesn't control tragedies, but it reduces their impact.  Having a strategy doesn't guarantee that it will work, but it reduces the influence of random luck on whether it does.  In essence, you can do what's within your control to make luck a negligible factor in anything you do.

What's beautiful about this mindset is that, in the long term, you can effectively control anything.  If you get passed over for a promotion because your manager just happened to see good things your colleagues did and the few mistakes you made, you can apply for and get another job.  If you're worried about the risk of weather issues, you can move and effectively "control the weather".  You can smooth out the bumps in the road and reach your full potential despite any bouts of bad fortune.

The importance of having this attitude can only be appreciated if you think about the consequences of having the opposite mentality.  The truth is that all success requires effort and choices that can’t just happen by chance, and if you think that luck is the main determining factor in your success, you won't make the right choices.  In essence, you'll create a self-fulfilling prophecy of seeing the bad luck you're expecting by making bad choices, and you will use the negative results to validate them.  Thus, you'll guarantee failure and disappointment and blame luck the whole way...even though your choices could've smoothed out those spurts of bad luck over the long term like the stock market and insurance examples.

What's most interesting about the difference between thinking you control the outcome and succeeding vs. thinking it's all luck and not is that even if it is almost complete luck, by sticking with it, you'll be giving yourself more opportunities to be lucky.  As the saying goes, success is simply trying one more time than the number of times you failed.  Many successful people are just regular people who kept trying until "luck" kicked in for them.  The key ingredients in trying until you succeed are desire and belief.  You have to want the outcome and believe you can attain it, or you will give up.  Keep trying, and you will eventually get lucky.

(Note: this does not mean that you should gamble—casino games' odds are intentionally rigged against you over the long term and, therefore, are not the same as working hard toward a successful outcome in life)

So how much of life is choice vs. luck?  Well, it's kind of an unanswerable question, but the closest you'll get is that you can't control your initial life circumstances, other people's behavior, or random acts of nature, but you can control yourself.  As you take responsibility over your life and do as much as you can to succeed, you'll see that your controllable factors in that success will seem much higher than the uncontrollable factors.  It's well known in studies of success that successful people attribute their success to their ability and people who fail attribute their failure to luck.  Correlation doesn't equal causation, so most cynics just point out that it's mostly luck and the success stories overemphasize their part in it...and optimists tend to point out how much you do have control over and note that the "learned helpless" choose not to try because they think it's useless.

Who is right?  Well, the truth is that I don't know and that it doesn't matter, anyway, because you're guaranteed not to succeed if you give up and will find a way to succeed via improvement, a new approach, or a completely new path if you keep trying.  And, since you define success in your life (note: don't let anyone else do that for you), you can define success as continuously improving and moving forward.  So you'll always be successful as long as you make deliberate choices to grow and improve every day and choose to see that as success.  So account for luck and then focus on what you can do.  The ratio is a fascinating thought experiment but a trivial one in practice since, over the long term, you can mitigate the risk and impact of bad luck in whatever you choose to do.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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