Our commonsense notion of luck is flawed. “You make your own luck” is closer, but needs some unpacking.

I’ve noticed myself going through the following reasoning:

  • Looking back at my life, if I remove event X and leave the rest of the timeline the same, I’d be in a worse position.
  • It’s very plausible that event X would not have happened (“X was lucky”).
  • Therefore, my current position was a result of luck.
  • Therefore, I do not deserve to be where I am.

The motivating example here is “I have an amazing advisor for my startup,” but I think this applies more broadly.

Laid out like this, the flaw is pretty obvious. “Leave the rest of the timeline the same” is usually an unrealistic assumption. X was caused by everything before it, and often I took steps to make X possible and increase its likelihood. If X hadn’t happened, I would have continued those efforts, and maybe X’ would have happened instead. Even if X is “winning the lottery”, you would have kept buying more tickets if you hadn’t won that time.

And of course, the notion of “deservingness” is flawed in other ways – unhelpful, unfair, unkind to yourself. But that’s another topic. So then what are the stakes of this?

I think luck gives us a sense of fragility: that if X were removed we’d be in trouble. So it can be reassuring to remember that you contributed to the causation of X in some way.

Useful here is the idea of “the process which generated these events”. I first heard it used in statistics, where you want to think not just about the observed data but their provenance. We’re not just curve-fitting: we have a sense of causation.