People encounter winning and losing streaks from time to time. Many successful people inevitably attribute their wins to Hard work. But ironically, the same folks wouldn’t think twice before ascribing their losses to “Luck”, or more squarely put “Bad luck”. Resonates?

I had penned this thought sometime back through a satirical tweet:

When a bloke wins, he gives in to a delusion that it is largely a consequence of the efforts invested by him. He wouldn’t generally account for the “Privileges” that he/she was blessed to have – as a matter of his family status, birthplace, or simply being born in an open society!

Think about it – some are lucky to be born into stable and economically advanced countries such as Australia; while some are born into poor and war-torn countries like Sudan. Even if we look at two individuals within the same geography, some would be lucky enough to be born into wealthy families, while some others would be born into poor families. If we go a bit further, even among people born into the same household – one could be born healthy, while the other could have some form of disability! And so on. There’s probably no cap on the number of permutations possible here.

In each of the above settings, what is the difference between the former and the latter? Who could be held responsible for the “unfair” differences between them? No one has the power to choose the settings in which he/she is born into. Then again, the poorest Australian probably has a higher chance of making it big than the hardest working Sudanese.

Take another instance, what is the difference between a person who gets killed in a bomb blast, and the one who escaped the blast site by 5 mins?

Is it luck? Karma? Or simply Destiny?

Come to think of it – it’s none of the above! The events around us are largely capricious. What we call “luck” is a mere manifestation of an enigma called “Randomness”. Truth is, the entire universe is quietly gushing in vast streams of randomness. And we’ve little to no control over it.

Most people have a very poor concept of randomness. We cannot recognize it when we see it, neither can we produce it when we try (it took scientists decades of work to generate a list of truly random numbers). Even if we know the causes behind the current circumstances, it is impossible to predict which of the many hundreds of possible random events in the future will interact to create a favourable or an unfavourable outcome. We often misjudge the role of chance. We seek ‘reasons’ to create ‘causes’ that never existed, and as a consequence make ‘judgements’ that are not in our best interests.

When things go as expected, many observers tend to assume personal credit for outcomes that are also backed by favorable circumstances (also known as the ‘hot hand’ fallacy). But when things go awry, suddenly life starts seeming hideously unfair! What’s even more astonishing is – most people don’t leave it at that! They attempt to backtrack each outcome to its original cause, and then try to figure out where they went wrong!

The desire to see patterns where none exist is driven by our innate need for control. People may pay lip service to the concept of chance but tend to act as if they have control. This illusion of control is reinforced if the person has developed plans and strategies and worked hard to achieve the ‘planned outcome’. The illusion is reinforced by confirmation bias where we look for and value ‘facts’ that support our view and reject or ignore contravening evidence, and interpret ambiguous evidence to support our preconception! The illusion of control over randomness is indeed very hard to shake. Plans and strategies are useful guides to the outcome we desire, but they do not predict, and certainly cannot ‘control’, the future. It also requires consent of the “underlying randomness”.

All said and done, this is not meant to be a cynical view of how utterly out-of-control we conclusively are! Whilst we cannot possibly control randomness, we can influence them to a certain extent by:

  • Minimizing the influence of innate biases such as confirmation bias and control bias; look at the data without trying to introduce patterns – correlation does not mean causation, and the past does not determine the future.

  • Being adaptive in dealing with trying situations. To paraphrase Eisenhower, “Planning is vital, but the plan is of little value; intuition and reflection are needed to know how much to change in a plan and what to keep as the future unfolds”.

  • Being resilient and persistent! Randomness cuts both ways and the best way to be successful is to keep trying, learn from the failures and hope that a successful streak will emerge, sooner or later.

In summary, given the very significant leverage of uncertainty in life, it helps to remind oneself that – many of the successful and wealthy celebrities owe much of their fortunes to their ‘lucky break’ and many of the not so successful owe much to their ‘unlucky break’; in other words to Randomness.

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