Luck

It irritates me when people claim to be (un)lucky, as if they have a supernatural gift (or curse) which allows them somehow to circumvent the laws of probability. For despite the ubiquity of this misguided superstition, luck is simply that: applied probability, often with skill and diligence (or the lack of it) lurking not far behind.

Of course there must be the occasional person who enjoys an “incredible” streak betting on the nags, just as a coin will sometimes produce an “amazing” run of nine or more heads in a row. But they are not gifted, at least in any mystical sense – though they may well be deft at analysing form, for instance – merely perched further towards the end of the bell curve.

Indeed, when humans are asked to write down a sequence that represents a realistic series of coin flips, they invariably underestimate the frequency and extent of these runs. For instance they might write HTHHTHTTHHTHTHT whereas something lumpier, such as HHHHTHHHTTTHTTTTT would be more representative of reality.

Similarly, someone killed by a falling durian might be considered dreadfully unlucky (once the inevitable guilty chuckles had stopped) but is simply the victim of a remote probability that they chose to increase significantly by standing under a tree that kills several unfortunates a year. (The Latin name for durian means “smells like a civet cat” by the way. ) Meanwhile someone must win the lottery – no luck in that, it’s eventually a 100% certainty – while every other entrant is taxed on their failure to grasp how pathetically minuscule are the odds of a pre-chosen person winning.

People who consider themselves lucky generally have a more positive outlook on life. Good events are highlighted in their memory while bad events fade. A positive outlook will be reflected in their response to certain circumstances and availability to spot and act upon opportunities; the opposite is true for the “unlucky”. This has a cumulative effect which is bad news for the “unlucky” person because they are likely to become increasingly aware of every bad event and increasingly dismissive of good ones, falling into a vicious spiral of irrational “the fates must really have it in for me” paranoia. This type of person often fails to take responsibility for his own actions, preferring instead the easy cop out of fatalism, or worse, puts their faith in astrology. This doesn’t usually help.

Please note I’m not claiming we aren’t prey to chance. Of course we are, every single day. There are myriad inflection points which no amount of personal governance can alter. For instance, we have no control over the circumstances of our birth and the subsequent privilege (or lack thereof) granted to us by them. As a passenger, we can do nothing about the aeroplane whose engines simultaneously fail, except perhaps choose a seat in which one is statistically more likely to survive. But at no point does chance take the form of a guardian angel.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – Seneca

I note that no fewer than 380 lucky horseshoes were sold on eBay in the last 15 days. Sadly I doubt it was cheaply to meet the needs of 95 barefooted nags.

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