Thoughts on Luck, Skill, and Coincidences


All of us humans are extremely “lucky” to be alive at this precise moment in time, physically sharing a very small speck of land on this rapidly spinning planet that is heading off into deep space following the source of all our energy. Some of you might not consider yourself blest with good luck because of the current adverse economic situation, a chronic illness, a painful injury, or the break up of an unhappy marriage.

Nevertheless, for each of us the coincidental union of one sperm and an ovum that caused the zygote to form and become a fetus that grew into a baby who survived birth and the traumatic psychological transition into adulthood is a truly amazing and fortunate development! Shouldn’t we celebrate? Think of all the sperm wasted and the other unfortunate human beings not produced as a consequence of that singular sexual union of your biological parents. What a coincidence that the two of us are communicating at all. If the modern human race hadn’t evolved, we could still be hairy monkeys, primitive homonids, or doomed Neanderthals!

As luck would have it, though, we were born as the Twentieth Century version of our species when there were telephones, automobiles, radios, airplanes, television, and now computers. What hath modern man wrought, Mr. Bell? (And don’t forget the various “weapons of mass destruction,” the religious and racial hatred, and the business and political shenanigans. What a paradox of progress for humanity!) The more sophisticated we humans have become, the more insecure or threatened we feel. Blame all of your frustrations on “the luck of the draw!”

Where does luck enter into the picture? Take away the common belief that folks have embraced in this country that all human beings are divinely endowed with certain inalienable rights – except for those scoundrels whom we consider terrorists, what then? If humans had no rights and therefore nothing valuable to gain or lose, we couldn’t begin to sense that there was an element of luck which played a role in our mortal lives.

Is a creature in the food chain lucky or not? Isn’t it just a coincidence that this creature becomes a dinner for another creature who desperately needs the protein and hasn’t the slightest idea about those healthy proteins readily available in tofu? And how about all those “annuals?” Those plants and animals who live only a portion of a year and reproduce, but never survive to see their offspring?

Humans are more fortunate than these poor creatures, we believe. So, what has luck to do with the pathetic life cycles of most animals? For example, what kind of luck do those horny, non-alpha males have on the savannahs, who never get the chance to mate and enjoy sexual pleasure? Or the lab rats and bunnies, the circus elephants, and the four-legged residents in your local zoological parks? There are many creatures with worse luck than Homo sapiens!

Luck is not a lady nor a gentlemen. It is considered “good” when a serendipitous gift arrives coincidentally as we had hoped, and “bad” when it doesn’t. Or when something we don’t desire shows up instead. We jokingly believe that some outside force intervenes and distributes wealth and victory to a person favored by Destiny. We choose to ignore the influence of an individual’s skill, education, inspiration, and perseverance on the outcome of a contest and a competitive sport. To our detriment we foolishly disregard the statistically calculated odds pertaining to games of chance at gambling casinos. Yet, with all the evidence to the contrary, we place our bets on our favorite horses, buy a ticket for the weekly lottery, and fly off to La Vegas with a pocketful of dreams of being “lucky.”

Only the teams of actuaries who play with rapid computers in their hidden insurance company sanctuaries understand the statistics of the coincidences of events that the general public as a whole experiences. Fate, destiny, luck, and fortune are words not found in their vocabulary. Probability, odds, and “standard deviations” are the concepts they deal with daily. Randomness is their bug-a-boo. And ours, too. We all want to be in the positive third standard deviation of the “bell curve” of observed incidents, not the negative one. Unfortunately (there’s that concept again), depending on the specific behavior being isolated and measured, we can fall anywhere along that curve, and no one can predict exactly where. Such is the difficulty in predicting the location of an electron circling a nucleus.

What actually is happening to create the illusion of luck is that two events are related in our minds. These two events may take place simultaneously and coincidentally, or not. When they become inseparably linked together illogically, the result of the linkage may seem to be influenced by “luck.”

Take a lottery winner. He or she selects a grouping of numbers hoping that the lottery machine will by chance select the same numbers. When the machine does, and the lottery ticket holders “win,” the winners are considered “fortunate.” Luck smiled on them. All the other ticket holders who did not win anything supposedly experienced “misfortune,” or “bad luck.” Really, they only experienced a coincidental non-matching of numbers. Any verbal comment about a participant’s “luckiness” or lack thereof is purely superficial cajoling to ease the pain of losing or reduce the false pride of the winner who did nothing skillful or exceptional.

Coincidences are treated with too much respect. Popular home remedy cures are mostly the results of coincidental recoveries which should be attributed to the fact that the individual’s immune system finally kicked in to rid the body of some discomfort-inducing microscopic intruder. A placebo often seems to be beneficial, although scientists are aware that there can be no correlation between the recovery and the phony medicine. In both cases, the coincidence of a recovery shortly after taking the remedy links the two events in the patient’s mind.

Certain results in a sporting event are merely the coincidental entry of a very skillful athlete in a championship who out-performs the competition. He or she wasn’t lucky, just more proficient than the rest. Tiger Woods’ achievements are examples of this phenomenon. There may be many factors in his success, but luck would not seem to be one of them. He practices, studies, and analyzes the game more intensely than anyone else. His physical attributes also contribute to his unprecedented fast start on the PGA Tour. The sum of his talents and determination makes him an outstanding golfer who is likely to win many of the tournaments he enters, but not all. And when he doesn’t win, he will be the first to admit that he played poorly or didn’t bring his “A” game with him to the golf course that day. He never blames bad luck.

Professional musicians are also skillful and talented. They don’t end up playing in a symphony orchestra because they were lucky. The readiness for their auditions, the style of their execution of the music, and their instrumental performance influence the conductor’s decision. Personality may be a factor, but not luck. The coincidence that an unemployed and talented cellist finds a vacancy in the string section of a major symphony may seem like luck. However, the hours of practicing, the dollars spent for lessons, and the rehearsals in other orchestras would suggest that the skill honed by the individual was the major reason that the cellist became employed.

There are millions of independent incidents happening and events taking place everywhere every minute. Each one, visible or invisible to the human eye, is driven by one of four forces that physicists have defined. None of these four is called “luck.” The unseen force activates some object in its field, and the movement of this object is the consequence. An event is observed and related to others by our human mind. This mental perception tries to link the past and present actions observed to determine whether or not a relationship between any two events exists. When we think one does, we believe we have a “cause/effect” relationship. When there is no such explanation for what seems to be related events, we say “luck entered in” to cause the effect observed. What we are really saying is that we have no connection to explain what happened, so the fifth unscientific force “luck” must have determined the outcome. That mystical fifth force might be spiritual, but let’s not go there.

Since we are sure that there must be a cause behind every effect, we assign one (luck) when no logical one appears. Few of us can handle the mathematics of probability that would statistically explain why something might occur like winning the lottery. If someone could buy up all the possible tickets for a lottery with less money than the anticipated prize, there would be at least one certain winner. Then, luck would be ruled out. Mathematical certainty would replace the factor we call luck.

In an apparent uncertain world, certainty is unknown even though it exists like death and taxes! We just have to look harder for it amongst all the probable coincidences we encounter, but we seldom have the patience. We’d rather get on with the fun in our lives that uncertainty provides us like gambling, bungee jumping, or sky diving!

Chic Hollis is a longtime drummer and motorcyclist, who served in the US Air Force in North Africa. Married 4 times with 5 children born in 5 different countries on four continents, Chic is a politically independent citizen of the world interested in helping Americans understand the reality that is life overseas where many intelligent, educated, and industrious people aren’t as privileged as we are in the US. He studied Latin, Greek, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German and ran several large companies. Sadly, Chic Has left this planet and we miss him very much, but we are very pleased to display his amazing writing works.