Manufacturing Luck

On milking luck and still standing to gain even when it kicks over the pail

The problem with success, even just survival is that it would be a whole lot easier if so much of it didn’t have to do with chance. Chance is the thing that makes us gnash our teeth, the cow that gives good milk, but kicks over the pail. If everything were merely chance, then we would be lost.

Happily for us, competence plays a role too and that can be a wonderful thing. Competence can white out ill circumstances of your past and open doors out of reach of the incompetent, but on it’s own, it doesn’t stand a chance against chance.

Chance is like the tremble in your finger that knocks the inkpot over the drawing you spent all night inking. It is the downpour on the day of the family picnic. It is a virus that flays dreams and shits on them.

What comfort competence, when it stands against chance?

And yet, in the stories that we tell ourselves and others, happenstance is never just random, unless that is, it brings something disagreeable to your door. Even when we know that it was dumb luck, we speak about being at the “right place at the right time” with a knowing nod, as though it were all a carefully orchestrated set of events. This convenience makes life bearable.

When I was 27 years old and recovering from a bad case of rising too quickly to my own personal level of incompetence, I spent some time taking a hard look at the debris of my youthful career. By sheer luck, I had landed a management job in a software firm at the start of the dotcom boom. I’d like to think it was that very same luck that made me lose it in the midst of the crash. I began to wonder if this damn thing could be beaten.

I concluded that the trick is to never run out of options. When luck corners you on a dark night, claws in your gut, fangs on your throat, what I’d like by my side are options. Maybe the devil cannot be beaten over the long run, but with a handful of options, I can give him the old run around. You see, I have come to think of the time spent between the cradle and the grave, as time spent generating options.

Learning a new skill, building a new venture, reading a new book, visiting a place you’ve never visited before… these are the things that create options. People describe coming across an opportunity as though it were like spotting a valuable jewel buried in a koel’s nest. It’s not. Opportunity is the ocean, it is the sky. Opportunity is everywhere and in everything.

It is our stories that restrict our vision, narrowing our visual field, throttling the birth of newborn options. Our stories make us delusional, distorting truth, showing us only what we want to see. The longer we persist with the same plot, the more concrete and unchanging our futures become.

But, when we change the stories that we tell ourselves, something wonderful happens. Our vantage points shift and with that come new perspectives, and quite often, a new perspective opens a new door and a new option is born.

So it seems that to manufacture luck, one needs two things – having options and keeping an open mind.

Try to wrest control of your life, steer too hard, and your story becomes rigid, unyielding concrete. Surrender to fate and go where the wind blows, and your story becomes a wraith, lacking substance. It will make of you a dilettante, a dabbler. Somewhere in between these two, there is a way of living, a space that if it were physical, would be what chi sau felt like the first time my friend Ryo slapped arms with me.

Life may be unyielding you know, but we needn’t be.