On luck

Luck is a funny thing. Some people say it doesn’t exist. Others swear it does. Me? I’m conflicted on the subject, and here’s why.

I’ve stated my humanist leanings numerous times on here. I won’t say I deny the existence of deities or other supernatural or metaphysical elements. I simply believe that, if they do exist, they play little to no role in our daily lives. One look at the state of the world today is enough to support that notion, if you ask me.

But luck is different. While it might be considered metaphysical, it’s also quantifiable, in a sense. Take random chance, say the rolling of dice or drawing of cards. We can measure the positive and negative outcomes and, using statistical methods, determine the likelihood of each. Given enough samples, patterns might emerge. Anyone can have a run of good outcomes, a hot streak. Likewise, we’ve all experienced extended periods of bad outcomes. For most people, they tend to average out.

I’ve had my share of ridiculously bad luck. When I played online poker (before it was made illegal in the US in 2008), I got a royal flush once. That’s a rare outcome, around 1 in 31,000 hands for Texas Hold ’em. I also had a run of over 160 hands without being dealt a pocket pair: about 1 in 640,000 odds of that happening. You play enough, you tend to see some odd things, so no big deal. And we all knew that PokerStars was rigged to generate action, making that whole “3% chance to win on the river” more like a n 80% chance. (Fans of tactical strategy games and RPGs like XCOM and Fire Emblem understand my pain here.)

Running statistical tests on the hands I played and their outcomes showed that I did, in fact, lose more than I should have. Consistently. Not all of that can be chalked up to janky algorithms. Over the 4 years I was on PokerStars, I was about 1.5 standard deviations below the mean, so in the lowest 15% in terms of how likely I was to win based on the percentages.

Speaking of standard deviations, let me digress to a case where you might say I had extraordinarily good luck.

IQ tests are notoriously unreliable as indicators of absolute intelligence, as everyone knows, but they can be useful for comparison. If two people the same age, from roughly the same background, take the same test around the same time, then yes, you can compare their IQ. Get enough people like that, and you can start drawing a few conclusions. Not quite as many as proponents claim, but a few.

Now, IQ is traditionally defined as a normal distribution with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. Thus, a person of “average” intelligence (for their age—this part is important!) has an IQ of 100. By the rules of math, about 68% of people have an IQ within one standard deviation of the mean, or in the range 85-115. Two standard deviations (70-130 IQ) covers around 95% of the population.

I’ve only taken one proper IQ test in my life, when I was 5 years old. (The one I took at age 9 was flawed for numerous reasons.) A funny thing I learned only recently is that those tests max out at 175. That makes sense. An IQ of 175 is five standard deviations above the mean, so 99.99994% of people are going to be just fine. But if you’re in that 0.00006%, what then?

Well, you get told that the people administering the test were “afraid to keep going.” In 1989, I didn’t know what that meant. In 2020, I understand that it was my mom’s way of saying that I hit the grading cap.

Yeah, I’m smart. So you could say I hit the lottery at birth, but everything since then? Not so much. Oh, I can hit those 1-in-10 and even 1-in-100 chances, but the bad ones certainly seem to outweigh the good. Parents divorcing during childhood? That was something like a 25% probability at the time. Major depression? Affects around 10-15% of Americans, myself included. The list goes on, and it has led, especially this year, to a lot of personal pessimism. I tend to expect the worse when I’m involved, for no other reason than I’m used to it.

Of course, some things I can control, to some extent. And those generally turn out decent, though rarely great. I take pride in my books, for instance; the only luck involved there is getting noticed, which I’ve yet to accomplish. It’s a similar story for the software I write. As long as I have a high degree of control over an outcome, I can make something out of it.

That’s not luck. That’s skill, determination, grit…whatever you want to call it, I’ve got it. If I’m working on my own, with my own deadlines and objectives, I’m good.

Only when other factors get involved does everything fall apart. Social situations, relationships, and my eternally unsuccessful job hunt are all good examples. Those aren’t situations where I can just try a little harder to push through to the end. It doesn’t work that way.

And that, I think, is what constitutes bad luck. It’s the state where, if you’re relying on someone or something beyond your control, you’re going to be let down more often than not. That does exist, whether you want to attribute it to probability (for every me, there’s surely someone with incredibly good luck; they tend to be CEOs, athletes, and politicians) or supernatural factors like curses. Honestly, I’d accept that I’m cursed—it would make a lot of things make more sense.

Until I see some evidence for that, however, I’ll continue to believe luck exists, and that I used all mine up for a brain that’s one in a million.

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