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Different Dimensions of Good Luck

| August 20, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading is a response by Dr. Nick Dedeke, Executive Professor of Supply Chain and Information Management at Northeastern University in Boston, MA to the recent Tuesday Readings on “luck.” [Nick may be reached at [email protected].]

Recent Tuesday Readings have prompted me to reflect on the subject of good luck. Good luck is a phenomenon that we often associate with our good fortunes. Unfortunately, our human biases may sometimes distort our understanding of good luck. For example, I find that people often frame good luck in a one-sided manner. If a person wins the lottery, we conclude that she/he has good luck. Not having a winning ticket is then equivalent to not having good luck. 
After a catastrophic car accident, there are two groups of people who consider themselves to be lucky. First, those who drove by the location before the accident and those who drove by the scene after the accident. The first group deems itself to have had good luck for driving past the location early and the latter group deems itself to have had good luck for driving past the site later. In other words, good luck happens when something good happens to us or when something bad misses us. Either way, this one-sided view concludes that good luck is a positive experience.

However, our experiences inform us that this might be a narrow framing of this phenomenon. Sometimes, the most lucky thing that could happen to an individual, is for her/him to suffer the consequences of her/his actions. Why? Because for most of us, suffering, pain and discomfort is usually the beginning of deep reflection and self-assessment. If a negative experience leads a person to make needed positive change, there is no reason why such an event should not be defined as good luck. 
Similarly, if an individual is in a bad personal or professional relationship, the negative event of the dissolution of such a relationship, is usually connected to a deep sense of pain and loss, in the short run. However, with the benefit of hindsight, one finds that negative events which brought pain to us led us to discover new potentials in ourselves and/or to form better and stronger personal and professional relationships. What do these observations mean? They suggest that one should not be too hasty to conclude that all negative experiences that we have are all bad luck. Some negative events are good luck events in disguise.

Another bias that I wonder about is our habitual use of a one-dimensional lens when we conduct a causal analysis of events that we deem to be good lucks. Sometimes, we are too quick to conclude that because certain events were unplanned, un-willed and un-pursued by us, that they must be unplanned and unintended by everyone. Imagine, the athlete Jimmy, who received the news that he had made the roll of an elite college football team. He knew that it was good luck. He was surprised because he knew that there were several other athletes who were rejected. 
However, if one asked the coach, he might learn that the coach had a reason for choosing Jimmy – he fitted the coach’s plan. If one inquired deeper about the coach’s plan, he might reveal to us that there was a purpose that he wanted to achieve. Might it be that the good luck events that seem unplanned, un-willed and unintended to us, may be purposeful, intended, and planned if we use a multi-dimensional lens?


Nick gives us a lot to think about here. “Luck” is not a one-dimensional simple entity. As I read his essay, I recalled a position I had once applied for. I believed I was well qualified for the position, in fact, uniquely qualified, and was terribly disappointed when I was not selected. Unlucky! Later, I came to realize how unqualified I was for the position and how I would have really failed had I been chosen. At this point, it was clear that I was indeed “lucky.” 
As I reflect back on Julian’s, Maria’s, and Nick’s essays I am convinced of three things: First, we use the words good/bad “luck” to describe many happenings in our lives. Second, that many times our activities preceding the event significantly influenced the event that happened. [I didn’t study for the test and was “unlucky” (really) to fail. I was late for my appointment and driving fast and was “unlucky” to be given a ticket for running a stop sign.] And, third, that it is very important for each of us to examine what we ascribe to “luck” in order to better understand how prior life events impact what we attribute to “luck.” Doing this will enable us to better influence our life events. 
Make it a great week for your team and for you. .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.