DRMacIver's Notebook

How to be lucky

How to be lucky

I’m going to be doing some draft bankruptcy over the coming week or two, where I delete things from my newsletter drafts and post salvageable bits here on the notebook.

Here’s some extracts from a piece called “How to be lucky” that I may or may not eventually write, but certainly will want to start from scratch with a little bit of reused material rather than trying to ressurect this draft.

Luck, happenstance, and circumstance

I’d like to distinguish three different things that are often called luck, and I will only use “luck” to refer to one of them.

The first thing is what I’d like to call happenstance. An event that happens as a result of chance. You might win the lottery, you might be late for a meeting, you might go a different route than usual and discover something interesting… These are all chance events, they might be good they might be bad, they might be neutral.

People will often refer to individual happenstance events as lucky or unlucky, which is perfectly reasonable in normal usage but not how I will be using the term. Winning the lottery is not, in the sense I will be using it, the result of luck, it’s just random chance. Could have happened to anyone who played the lottery. If you exhibited a consistent tendency to win the lottery I would call that luck, but not a single win no matter how large, it’s just a highly positive happenstance.

Circumstance on the other hand is the conditions in which you find yourself. This too is often referred to as luck. e.g. you’re lucky to be born into a rich family, you’re lucky to have good friends, you’re lucky to be in a secure job, etc. I again think this is perfectly reasonable usage, but it’s not what I mean when I say “luck” here.

When I say luck, what I specifically mean is the aggregate effect of happenstance in your life. Good luck is the tendency of chance events to, on average, improve your life. Bad luck is the tendency of chance events to, again on average, make your life worse.

Four types of circumstance

Let’s talk about circumstances and how they impact luck. Many of these things will be out of your control (or only weakly under your control), and I’ll talk about things that are more under your control in a bit, but I think it’s important to be up front about the different fortune landscapes people find themselves in.

One of the easiest ways to be lucky is to have circumstances that enable it. Here are some such circumstances.

The first way is that you can be rich, either in money or other resources. Luck is, ultimately, about being able to benefit from random chance, and this involves playing a lot of numbers games. By far the easiest way to be able to play numbers games is to have a lot of buffer against risk. If a great opportunity comes your way and it costs £1000 but will probably earn you much more than that (in money or other value), then there are roughly three options: You might not be able to pay £1000 at all, in which case sucks to be you. £1000 might be affordable but not an amount you can comfortably risk, in which case you may or may not take the opportunity but you certainly can’t take the next such opportunity that comes along if this one falls through. Or you can be well enough off that £1000 isn’t a big deal to risk given the high upside. Rich people are luckier than poor people because they have the opportunity to take advantage of many sources of happenstances that improve their life that are too risky if you’re poor.

The second way is that you can be extroverted, sociable, etc. Social connections are one of the biggest and most accessible source of luck in day to day life - you meet people who will transform your life, your social circumstances, give you access to opportunities you’d otherwise lack, etc. There’s a whole paper about how the best way to be lucky is to go to more parties. It’s much easier to take advantage of this if you naturally want to spend lots of time socialising, are good at it, and find it emotionally rewarding rather than a source of anxiety.

The third way is that you can be pretty (I tend to use “pretty” in a gender neutral sense. There are some very pretty men out there. That being said, the way this manifests is definitely different with different genders). This tends to raise the chances of success in a lot of circumstances - people will seek you out more, give you more opportunities, you’ll benefit from halo effects, etc. Being pretty tends to both increase the number of opportunities (because they seek you out) and increase the chances of any of those opportunities that depend on the judgement of others from working.

All of these are somewhat changeable but are at best hard to change, and aren’t necessarily where your bottleneck

Luck as a skill

Now, this doesn’t mean you can learn to be supernaturally lucky. There’s no way you can, for example, improve your ability to play the lottery. You will probably, on average, be luckier if you don’t play the lottery.

It also doesn’t mean that everyone’s luck is purely determined by their skill. There are roughly three components to luck, in decreasing order of importance for most people:

  1. Skill
  2. Privilege
  3. Chance

Yes, chance is the least important component of luck, I promise. It’s not that chance doesn’t matter, it’s that if chance matters too much you are not actually being lucky.

The reason, in short, is that luck mostly occurs as the sum of many chance events, and statistically the chance effects average out over time. If you toss a coin 100 times, you’ve no ability to predict which way any given coin toss will go, but you’ll get heads about 50 times, and you’ll with overwhelming likelihood get heads between about 30 and 70 times.

Privilege on the other hand can matter a great deal. For example, people who are unusually attractive or unusually intelligent will have a much easier time being lucky (more on why later). It’s also vastly easier to be lucky if you’re wealthy or have other resources you can draw on. If that’s you, you can capitalise on it, and it’s worth paying attention to, but ultimately what matters more is how these affect your ability to develop the skill of luck than the privilege itself.

Which brings us to the most important part: Skill. This is the most important part both because it’s the bit that matters the most, and also because it’s the bit that’s most under your control.

An informal mathematical glossary

Here I’ve deleted a lot of material that I covered better in Probably enough probability for you so go read that bit instead.

Luck 101

Luck is a numbers game. Luck is the aggregate result of many small events, each of which is unlikely to have any upside, but which on average have a much greater upside than their cost. Let’s call these events opportunities.

Getting luckier is a process involving two things:

  1. Increasing the number of opportunities you take.
  2. Improving the average effectiveness of opportunities.

Privilege affects these differently. e.g. Being resource-rich tends to make the first easy, being attractive tends to maximise the second, but both are under your control to a large degree.

Also, note that this is somewhat non-uniform, in that the types of opportunities available to you matter a great deal. It’s possible to e.g. be very lucky in business but have no luck in dating (or vice versa), due to being good at these in one context and bad in another. This is particularly true for people who have never spent much time strategizing about luck in general and have just, well, lucked into some good habits in some specific contexts.

Lottery luck

Imagine a simple lottery, you pay £1, you have a one in 10 million chance of winning £1 million. You play the lottery, and unsurprisingly you don’t win. Someone else plays the lottery, and they do. Are they luckier than you?

In this specific instance, they have certainly been luckier than you, but in a generalisable sense they are not. What actually happened is that millions of people played the lottery, so even though every individual one was a sucker, one or two people got lucky. Those people have what you might call lottery luck - it’s a one off unrepeatable event, and any strategy for improving your luck that relies on lottery luck is a losing game.

You can think of the basic practice of luck as being about trying repeatedly, and seeking lottery luck is actively harmful for this because the more times you try the worse off you will be.

What would have come next

This is the point at which the draft trails off, which is unfortunate as what comes next is all the interesting bits.

What I was planning on covering next ties together:

The core idea being that the most interesting skill of luck is treating your engagement with the world as a creative process.

As a mild post mortem note, I think one thing this points to is that when writing a newsletter post I should start by writing the interesting bits. Then I can backfill to give people an onramp to it if I think that’s actually necessary. Write the newsletter more like the notebook, so that when I hit the point where I’m done and don’t want to write any more I can just click send. Writing as an anytime algorithm.