In Defense of Bad Luck
Post from September 6, 2017 (↻ June 3, 2021), filed under Philosophy.
Luck had never been on my radar. I rarely did anything that required luck (viz., that was chance-based) and never got hooked on anything like that, either (like gambling). During my philosophical studies I picked up one book about luck (Gunther’s The Luck Factor) but, while interesting, it didn’t teach me much tangible.
Yet the topic came up again, in the context of bad luck. One evening I was sitting at home over a big A3 notepad brainstorming (you know), feeling pensive, occasionally staring at the whiteboard at the wall where I had thrown some thoughts, too, when I wondered, what if in the situations that bothered me, I had simply had bad luck? For I was miserably upset, and—the irony—I was mostly upset because I don’t believe that there’s any reason in life to be upset. Like, literally none: All my philosophical research centers around that idea that everything is in our thinking, and so if something bothers us, it’s not that thing bothering us, it’s our thinking that’s not helpful.
That is, perhaps, why I at first thought to refuse the idea of bad luck. But I forced myself not to discard it immediately, and to think about it instead. What did it mean not to believe in bad luck?
And I realized that my own world view didn’t even permit any luck. My world view said, you’re making your own reality, your experience originates in your thinking, and hence, if something negative happens to you, you yourself brought it up. (Simplified.) Voilà, no bad luck.
Such view is disastrous.
When we take up the idea that everything is on us, then clearly also the negative we experience is on us. But as long as we don’t understand how events are brought into the world—and there are models that suggest everything has its roots in the psychical—, this is brutal. This is brutal for it clashes with our potential mission—to learn, to learn to be responsible with our power and creativity.
I’m throwing this at you and it may not immediately make much sense, for you’d need to subscribe to, at least be sympathetic to this thinking—the thinking that our world is not just physical, and that everything has its causes in the psychical. If you don’t, you’re subscribing to no less brutal of a world view, for you’re then a chance product, and your life has no or only temporary meaning *.
These kinds of thoughts led me to consider that perhaps we need some conception of chance—a limited conception, however, one that offers some kind of “vent” but doesn’t get to dominate our entire world view. Luck, and bad luck, seem to provide that, and the consideration of both seems to have some quite positive effects:
Bad luck takes responsibility off of us, and it can help us not to unnecessarily make ourselves a target or victim by blaming ourselves for each negative event we experience.
Luck, in turn, can humble us, for we won’t attribute every single positive experience to our talents or powers or such, either.
To me, and I can’t help mixing general and personal thoughts here, this both immediately looked more helpful and healthy than this metaphysically dogmatic view that we controlled everything, and the scientifically dogmatic view of us controlling nothing.
What we may attribute to luck and bad luck, now, I’m not sure—there may not be a set boundary, much like what may be the case for the psychical and the physical. But the point I want to make, no matter how slightly, is that there may well be luck, and bad luck, and explicitly in a magical, not a statistic way, and playing with the idea seems useful and constructive. For the one who has always operated on luck, chance, fate, destiny, this may be no news, but they may want to consider their own powers. And for the one who never considered the option of luck—and bad luck—, the idea may prove liberating.
Update (December 17, 2019)
More than two years later I’m a little unsure (and also a little indifferent) about this post and our conceptions of luck and bad luck. What I find more interesting at this point is the apparent contradiction between mentioned responsibility for nothing, and responsibility for everything. I feel reminded of Kant’s antinomies, I think of the idea that contradictions seem to be a problem in logic, but not of reality, and that therefore perhaps both could be true.
* The prevailing scientific world view is destructive, and although many scientists seem actually aware of the problems of their assumptions—from nothing can be proven to sugar pills aiding up to a probability of 80%, which, think about it, are crazy to dogmatically build knowledge on and evangelize an entire planet for—, this destructiveness may be at the center of many our problems.
I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
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Perhaps my most interesting book: 100 Things I Learned as an Everyday Adventurer (2013). During my time in the States I started trying everything. Everything. Then I noticed that wasn’t only fun, it was also useful. Available at Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, Google Play Books, and Leanpub.