What’s luck got to do with it? | GUEST OPINION

I’m no big fan of the state lottery, but I’d like to use it to illustrate a point. In our society, “winning the lottery” has become a common euphemism for being lucky. Why?  Because the lottery is not something that takes an enormous amount of skill or hard work. It is ruled by chance, and the likelihood of hitting any particular jackpot is astronomically small.

But people do win the lottery all the time, and the fact is that every single winner did something that made it possible for them to win — they bought a ticket. Like the old slogan says, you can’t win if you don’t play.

Whether we like to admit it or not, many of our personal successes are the result of fortuitous circumstances and events over which we had virtually no control. You may be thinking to yourself, “Hey, I got where I am in life by a lot of really hard work. Luck had nothing to do with it.” But what made you the kind of person who is willing to work so hard? Chances are this is a character trait you acquired as a result of the home or community you grew up in and the level of nurturing, support and mentoring you received.  These are usually not things we are able to choose for ourselves.

In his book, The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, economist Robert Frank writes that “debate continues about that extent to which personal traits are attributable to environmental and genetic factors. But whatever the true weights may be, in combination those factors explain virtually everything.”

So, yes, luck plays a larger role in our lives than we are often willing to acknowledge. And this should make us hesitant to think too highly of our own successes or to be too judgmental about the failures of others.

But there is another important point to be made here, and that is that there are things we can do to actually increase the chances that we will experience luck. Every time we walk out our door, every time we choose to participate in something, every time we decide to try something new, we are in essence buying a ticket.  We are making it possible for doors to open that would not have opened otherwise.

Who among us doesn’t have a story that goes something like this: You were invited to an event that you didn’t really want to attend. After going back and forth about it, you finally decide at the last minute to go ahead and give it a try. While there, you meet someone, and that meeting kicks off a series of events that winds up altering the entire course of your life. In thinking back on it, you are amazed at how such a small decision — whether or not to attend that particular event — wound up making such a huge difference.

And every time we enrich the experience of a child, every time we act as a positive role model or mentor, every time we teach and demonstrate good character and the value of hard work and persistence, we are buying that child a ticket. We are increasing the likelihood that doors will open for that child in the future. We are improving the chances that child will experience a successful, fulfilling, and some may even say lucky, life.

We may not be able to control our luck, but it’s up to us as individuals to take advantage of those opportunities that allow luck to happen. No one can do that for us. And it is up to us as a community to make sure those opportunities are there and that they are accessible to all.

When I look at my own life — my wife, my children, my job, my home — I am overwhelmed by a deep sense of gratitude for the people, experiences, and circumstances that have made these things possible. I am reminded of Isaac Newton’s famous observation that we owe our most precious accomplishments to the fact that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

I will never be able to repay all the giants who have contributed to my life, but I can offer my shoulders for someone else to stand on when the opportunities arise. And I can keep buying those tickets that give me and others in my life the chances to keep those jackpots coming.

Jim Strickland lives with his family in Marysville and teaches at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. He can be reached at livedemocracy@hotmail.com.


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