By: B.J. Mendelson and K. Thor Jensen
(This is part of a series analyzing a pair of business books published nearly a century ago — Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People and George Samuel Clason’s The Richest Man In Babylon — and how they laid the groundwork for nearly every self-help tome to follow.)
Clason opens one of the final chapters of his book with this:
“The desire to be lucky is universal. It was just as strong in the breasts of men four thousand years ago in ancient Babylon as it is in the hearts of men today. We all hope to be favored by the whimsical Goddess of Good Luck.”
As landfills full of scratch-off lottery tickets prove, that desire hasn’t gone anywhere a hundred years later. People still blame “luck” as the invisible hand working behind the scenes to ensure their failures as others succeed. It’s one of the most pernicious and toxic aspects of the human mind.
What is it about luck that has enabled it to form such a foothold in our brain? Let’s take a deeper dive into the history of the concept and figure it out.
The basic concept of luck is simple: for each event that occurs, there are a number of possible outcomes. Some of those outcomes are more rewarding to you than others, and people with good luck are more likely to get those outcomes.
Many people believe that luck is a supernatural force, continually working in secret to weight the scales down on one side or another. They blame it for misfortune and credit it for success.
Not all of the world’s faiths agree. There is no concept of luck in Islam — everything occurs according to God’s will, and Buddhists believe that chance events are actually dictated by your karma — the balance of good and bad deeds you’ve done in this life and previous ones.
That second one might have a little more truth to it, if you cross out the “past life” part.
In Clason’s chapter entitled “The Goddess Of Luck,” a group of struggling Babylonians approach Arkad, the titular “richest man” at a temple of learning. One, a cloth weaver, has found some coins in the street and asks how he can make his good luck continue.
The conversation turns to gambling, the horse races and dice games that Clason believed were common in ancient Babylon. Arkad himself is a gambler on occasion, so Clason isn’t preaching against placing wagers. Instead, he’s taking it as a given that everybody reading his book has probably made a bet now and again.
Arkad himself had made a recent bet, on a group of gray horses, that paid off in spades. The men gathered to ask his secret. Instead, he turned the question on them: how many of Babylon’s richest men, men such as I, made their fortunes by gambling?
None, obviously. Sure, Arkad and his cohorts placed wagers as entertainment, but none of them saw luck as a way to build a fortune.
This led to the other men in the circle sharing stories about the other side of luck — when a positive opportunity got away from them. One, an animal trader, did not buy a herd of sheep at night because counting them was too difficult. Another, a merchant, decided not to make an investment as a young man because he would rather buy new robes.
The common thread in these stories is a simple one: the refusal to take a risk that could lead to a reward, instead of taking no action at all or continuing with your existing habits.
After these stories are shared, the original questioner with his few lucky pieces of gold comes to an epiphany:
“I do see good luck in a different light. I had thought of it as something most desirable that might happen to a man without effort upon his part. Now, I do realize such happenings are not the sort of thing one may attract to himself. From our discussion have I learned that to attract good luck to oneself, it is necessary to take advantage of opportunities. Therefore, in the future, I shall endeavor to make the best of such opportunities as do come to me.”
Why does the human brain fixate on the concept of luck? It goes back to our incredible pattern recognition abilities, the same ones that have made us the dominant species on the planet. Much of this work is done completely unconsciously.
What’s interesting about luck is that it’s a psychological force more than a probabilistic one. A fascinating study published in 2014 found that people who won two bets in a row were 57% likely to win their next one, while people who lost two in a row saw those odds drop to 40%. Did those people just have bad luck? Not at all. What was happening there was, subconsciously, they were attempting to regress to the mean. The people who won were making safer bets to continue winning and protect their leads, while the people who lost were making riskier ones to make up their deficits.
Luck is what you make of it, after all, and like it or not you’re the only one responsible for your actions. To truly find success in the world, you need to be ready to take action when it’s needed and evaluate your situation with a calm and critical eye. Another study took people and asked them to self-describe as lucky or unlucky, then had them read a newspaper that contained a classified ad saying “If you see this, tell the experimenter and win £250.” The “lucky” people were more likely to see it, and the explanation was that people who consider themselves unlucky carry more anxiety, which interferes with their observational skills.
The philosopher Seneca wrote that luck was “when preparation and opportunity meet,” and that sums up Clason’s approach to the concept as well. Waiting for your lucky break is simply procrastinating on work you could be doing to bring success to your door. Yes, the universe is possibly ruled by an unknowable web of quantum fluctuations that are impossible to harness, but that doesn’t absolve people of responsibility for their actions. Luck is what you make of it, so start making something.
Photo Credit: jos/Flickr