Why it pays to recognize the role of luck in your success.

I loved parables as a kid. One of my favorites was the parable of the Chinese farmer. It’s an old Taoist story, but philosopher Alan Watts popularized it in his book, Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life. It went something like this:

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

As a kid, I figured the moral was about perspective; the whole glass-half-full thing. If you read into it more, the parable goes beyond that, though. It illustrates the meaningless of luck and life. Which, at first, seems kind of depressing. However, it can also be a powerful message in terms of creating your own success. Stick with me.

What We Can Control vs. What We Can’t

Despite the events you can’t control in life (like your jerk horse running away), there are so many things you can control. If you feel this way, too, chances are, you have a strong internal locus of control: a tendency to feel like you have influence over your own destiny.

Research, like this study published by the American Educational Research Association, shows that people with a strong internal locus of control are more motivated, less stressed, and academically successful. If you blame and credit yourself for the circumstances in your life, chances are, you have a strong internal locus of control. If you feel outside forces are responsible for your fate, good or bad, you have an external locus of control.

An internal locus of control has drawbacks, too. It’s hard for a controlling person to accept circumstances of fate, and that can be problematic. As dominant as you might feel in your own life, there are things outside of your control: Layoffs. Breakups. Death. It was extra hard for me to accept my own layoff because I just couldn’t accept that there was nothing I could have done about it.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are good things you can’t always control, like hitting every green light on your way home. Those of us with a strong internal locus of control tend to dismiss luck, though. I’ve always felt that when you focus too heavily on luck, you discredit your hard work. But luck is not the opposite of hard work. We often look at hard work and luck as mutually exclusive when, actually, they go hand in hand. And when we dismiss luck, that can be problematic.

“Lucky Fool Syndrome”

A few years ago, my biggest financial fear came true: I was laid off. my editor assured me it was a company-wide budget cut and every other freelancer was laid off with me.  

But I was such a control freak that I refused to accept this answer.

Instead, I wasted a lot of time looking for reasons it was my fault. I thought I wasn’t cut out to be a writer. I thought I must have said something stupid. I thought my wardrobe had something to do with it (which was especially silly since I worked from home where nobody could see me). I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to fix the wrong things because I failed to acknowledge the role of luck in my life.

It works the other way around, too. It’s called “lucky fool syndrome” or more formally, “self-attribution bias.” In a paper published in the Journal of Experimental and Behavioral Economics, researchers studied how investors rated their skills, depending on how their investments performed. When their returns were good, they credited their awesome investing skills. When their investments plummeted, they blamed luck. It’s a classic case of self-attribution bias, the tendency to favor explanations that protect your ego.

You can see how this bias could be a problem. You over credit your skills, buy or sell investments based on your bias, and lose all your money.  In a recent New York Times post (which inspired this one), Carl Richards puts it this way:

“If bad luck exists and it is not your fault, so does good luck that has nothing to do with your efforts or actions either. And that is O.K. too.”

You don’t want to dwell on things you can’t control. But acknowledging those things gives you a more objective point of view to make decisions and plot goals. There are other practical benefits to acknowledging luck, too.

The Practical Benefits of Acknowledging Luck

When you recognize luck, good or bad, you’re just recognizing a series of outside circumstances that work for or against you. When you look at things that way, it’s a lot easier to find and make your own good luck. When you know the deck is stacked in your favor, you can fully take advantage of the situation. When you know the deck is stacked against you, you can look for a way around it. Recognizing luck inspires resourcefulness.

Admitting the role of luck also helps with empathy. It’s easy to judge someone else’s situation and think that, because we succeeded at something, everyone else should be able to, too. When you admit your luck and privilege, it’s easier to look at those situations with a more open mind.

Deconstructing the Idea of “Luck”

My interpretation of the parable is that, in a way, there’s no such thing as luck.

Sometimes things just work out a certain way and we interpret them to be lucky or unlucky, depending on our own needs and desires. Life is Yin and Yang, give and take, and beyond that, it’s up to you to mold it to your liking. Later in that text, Watts explains that you can’t always choose your circumstances, but you can choose how you react to them. In this way, you give meaning to meaninglessness.

Luck and hard work are often pitted against each other as though you have to choose one that defines your fate. But in reality, hard work and luck work in tandem, not opposite each other. After all, you can get all the lucky breaks in the world, but if you don’t take action, they’re pretty useless. And if you believe the parable, that luck is just a manmade construct to explain a series of objective circumstances, the good news is, you can choose how you react to it, use it, and take advantage of it. 

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Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Her book GET MONEY will be available on 3/27/18 with Hachette Books.

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