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Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

    What in your life can you control?

    Not much, as it happens. In fact, most of the areas we feel most in control of are riddled with uncertainty and unpredictability: business, health, parenting, finances. In a lot of cases – like picking which stocks to invest in – the average person actually underperforms random selection. That is, when it comes to picking stocks, a monkey with a dart board and a copy of the stock page can do a better job picking winning stocks than most ostensibly informed humans.

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    Why is that? In the case of selecting stocks, it’s because while a random selection has a 50/50 chance of going up or down, we humans tend to invest our choices with emotional weight that keeps us in markets too long or too short – unlike randomness, we act on hunches, fears, and hopes. More generally, we tend to be poor judges of risk and uncertainty, yet we have brains that are more than willing to impose patterns and meaning that cover up rather than address such unknowns. So we act as if we knew what we were doing, and as if we had some level of control over the situation, when really we’re at the mercy of luck – and the more uncertain the situation, the more likely we are to act as if we were in control.

    The (Mistaken) Sense of Control

    Consider this situation: Let’s pretend you have an infant girl, and one night you get a call at 1 am from a friend across town who desperately needs your help. As you prepare to drive across town to meet your friend, you have a choice – leave the child sleeping in her crib, or bundle her into a car seat and take her with you.

    For most parents, this is a no-brainer – of course you’re going to take her with you. What if something happens in the house while you weren’t there, like an electrical fire? What if someone broke into the house and kidnapped her? What if she stopped breathing?

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    The reality, though, is that the single riskiest thing you could do to an infant at 1:00 am is to take her driving in a car. Far more people die every year in car accidents than in all the potential risks to your child alone at home combined. In your car, she’ll be exposed to danger from poor road conditions, mechanical failure, and worst of all, other drivers – who at 1:00 am are likely to either have been drinking or be exhausted, neither of which makes them safe to be sharing the road with.

    But with our child with us, we feel in greater control than if she was left at home, unattended. There’s no rational basis to this feeling – it’s entirely grounded in emotion, a poor comprehension of risk, and an over-assessment of the degree to which our own presence has any significance.

    Our failure to understand risk and the role chance plays in our lives is profound and cuts across a wide swath of our lives. Consider the efforts we make to assure our children grow up with decent values – and how often parents raise kids that completely reject their values. Or consider how many businesses go under every year, and how many of them were headed up by people with strong qualifications, solid training, and a clear sense that they knew what they were doing. Or, in the financial sector, consider how many stock brokers, financial analysts, and others are caught entirely by surprise by massive shifts in the financial sector, like the recent collapse of the credit system – if there were really a pattern, and people really understood it, they all should have seen it coming.

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    Dealing with uncertainty

    If we’re really bad at understanding risk, and if we’re led astray by a mistaken sense of control, then what should we do? Should we just throw up our hands and accept whatever Fate throws at us? Should we lock ourselves in our homes, wrap ourselves in padding, and huddle in a corner until our lives mercifully end?

    Fatalism and despair are, thankfully, over-reactions to the uncertainty of life. As it happens, there are quite a few things we do control, even in the midst of uncertainty. For instance, while even the best poker players are largely at the mercy of luck as to what cards they hold, good players can control enough of the situation – their facial gestures, how much they bet, when to fold, etc. – to come out of even several lousy hands in a row ahead (at least sometimes).

    While we can’t eliminate uncertainty, there are ways we can act to minimize its effects – at least in some instances. If the Moon spins out of its orbit and collides with the Earth tomorrow, all bets are off. But for more everyday sorts of uncertainly, it pays to:

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    • Be prepared. Good planning leaves enough “slack” to adapt readily to unforeseen circumstances. For example, many people keep a “rainy day fund” to make sure they’re prepared for an illness, loss of a job, accident, or other emergency.
    • Diversify. Balancing high-risk options with low-risk ones can help make sure that a sudden freak occurrence wreck everything. It’s the classic “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” theory – balance your investment portfolio, hedge your bets, pursue multiple medical treatments (where possible), and so on.
    • Get a second opinion. Or a 100th. James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds shows how the cumulative voice of the many can be more accurate than any one individual, even an expert. Whenever undertaking a risky endeavor, make sure to consult as many people as possible – and find a way to split the difference. Get another doctor’s opinion before embarking on a course of treatment, Discuss investment options with more than one financial advisor. Get feedback from a range of employees before instituting a radical new policy or process. By sampling a variety of people, you’ll have an opportunity to “cancel out” conflicting worldviews that, in most cases, have little to do with the reality at hand.
    • Create habits. Uncertainty often leads us astray most when we respond directly to fluctuating and random events. For instance, maybe you go to Vegas with a $300 budget to spend on slot machines, but when you see a particular jackpot is up to $12 million you throw caution to the winds and drop $800 into the machine. Creating habits that you stick to religiously can help minimize the desire to act based on emotional factors that have little to do with the actual level of certainty or uncertainty involved.
    • Recognize risk. There is a far higher injury rate for softball players than for base jumpers. Why? Because softball is seen as a safe sport and so players take few precautions, while base jumpers train heavily, invest in solid equipment, and approach the risk inherent in their sport seriously. When you recognize risk and respect it, you act smarter – which helps you to stay more in control when that’s possible, and to minimize harm when control isn’t possible.

    Life itself is inherently uncertain – and that’s a good part of its beauty. That uncertainty shouldn’t paralyze us, it should energize us – it should make us doubly aware of our surroundings and doubly appreciative of our successes. By ignoring risk – or pretending it doesn’t exist – we make ourselves stupider, which ironically leads us to act in riskier ways. By respecting and even embracing uncertainty, we can often come out even further ahead than if we tried – usually in vain – to control inherently uncontrollable situations.

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    Last Updated on November 28, 2018

    Why Do I Have Bad Luck? 2 Simple Things to Change Your Destiny

    Why Do I Have Bad Luck? 2 Simple Things to Change Your Destiny

    Are you one of those people who are always suffering setbacks? Does little ever seem to go right for you? Do you sometimes feel that the universe is out to get you? Do you wonder:

    Why do I have bad luck? Is bad luck real?

    A couple of months ago, I met up with an old friend of mine who I hadn’t seen since last year. Over lunch, we talked about all kinds of things, including our careers, relationships and hobbies.

    My friend told me his job had become dull and uninteresting to him, and despite applying for promotion – he’d been turned down. His personal life wasn’t great either, as he told me that he’d recently separated from his long-term girlfriend.

    When I asked him why things had seemingly gone wrong at home and work, he paused for a moment, and then replied:

    “I’m having a run of bad luck.”

    I was surprised by his response as I’d never thought of him as someone who thought that luck controlled his life. He always appeared to be someone who knew what he wanted – and went after it with gusto.

    He told me he did believe in bad luck because of everything happened to me.

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    It was at this point, that I shared my opinion on luck and destiny:

    While chance events certainly occur, they are purely random in nature. In other words, good luck and bad luck don’t exist in the way that people believe. And more importantly, even if random negative events do come along, our perspective and reaction can turn them into positive things.

    Your luck is no worse—and no better—than anyone else’s. It just feels that way. Better still, there are two simple things you can do which will reverse your feelings of being unlucky and change your luck.

    1. Stop believing that what happens in life is out of your control.

    Stop believing that what happens in your life is down to the vagaries of luck, destiny, supernatural forces, malevolent other people, or anything else outside yourself.

    Psychologists call this “external locus of control.” It’s a kind of fatalism, where people believe that they can do little or nothing personally to change their lives.

    Because of this, they either merely hope for the best, focus on trying to change their luck by various kinds of superstition, or submit passively to whatever comes—while complaining that it doesn’t match their hopes.

    Most successful people take the opposite view. They have “internal locus of control.” They believe that what happens in their life is nearly all down to them; and that even when chance events occur, what is important is not the event itself, but how you respond to it.

    This makes them pro-active, engaged, ready to try new things, and keen to find the means to change whatever in their lives they don’t like.

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    They aren’t fatalistic and they don’t blame bad luck for what isn’t right in their world. They look for a way to make things better.

    Are they luckier than the others? Of course not.

    Luck is random—that’s what chance means—so they are just as likely to suffer setbacks as anyone else.

    What’s different is their response. When things go wrong, they quickly look for ways to put them right. They don’t whine, pity themselves, or complain about “bad luck.” They try to learn from what happened to avoid or correct it next time and get on with living their life as best they can. They have this Motivation Engine, which most people lack, to keep them going.

    No one is habitually luckier or unluckier than anyone else. It may seem so, over the short term (Random events often come in groups, just as random numbers often lie close together for several instances—which is why gamblers tend to see patterns where none exist).

    When you take a longer perspective, random chance is just . . . random. Yet those who feel that they are less lucky, typically pay far more attention to short-term instances of bad luck, convincing themselves of the correctness of their belief.

    Your locus of control isn’t genetic. You learned it somehow. If it isn’t working for you, change it.

    2. Remember that whatever you pay attention to grows in your mind.

    If you focus on what’s going wrong in your life—especially if you see it as “bad luck” you can do nothing about—it will seem blacker and more malevolent.

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    In a short time, you’ll become so convinced that everything is against you that you’ll notice more and more instances where this appears to be true. As a result, you will drown yourself in negative energy and almost certainly stop trying, convinced that nothing you can do will improve your prospects.

    Not long ago, a reader (I’ll call her Kelly) has shared with me about how frustrated she felt and how unlucky she was. Kelly’s an aspiring entrepreneur. She had been trying to find investors to invest in her project. It hadn’t been going well as she was always rejected by the potential investors. And at her most stressful time, her boyfriend broke up with her. And the day after her breakup, she missed an important opportunity to meet an interested investor. She was about to give up because she felt that she’d not be lucky enough to build her business successfully.

    It definitely wasn’t an easy time for her. She was stressful and tired. But it wasn’t bad luck that was playing the role.

    Fatalism feeds on itself until people become passive “victims” of life’s blows. The “losers” in life are those who are convinced they will fail before they start anything; sure that their “bad luck” will ruin any prospects of success.

    They rarely notice that the true reasons for their failure are ignorance, laziness, lack of skill, lack of forethought, or just plain foolishness—all of which they could do something to correct, if only they would stop blaming other people or “bad luck” for their personal deficiencies.

    Your attention is under your control. Send it where you want it to go. Starve the negative thoughts until they die.

    I explained to Kelly that to improve her fortune and have “good luck”, first decide that what happens is nearly always down to her; then try to focus on what works and what turns out well, not the bad stuff.

    Then Kelly tried to review her current situation objectively. She realized that she only needed a short break for herself — from work and her just broken-up relationship. She really needed some time to clear up her mind before moving on with her work and life. When she got her emotions settled down from her heartbreak, she started to work on improving her business’ selling points and looked for new investors that are more suitable.

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    A few months later, she told me that she finally found two investors who were really interested in her project and would like to work with her to grow the business. I was really glad that she could take back control of her destiny and achieved what she wanted.

    Your “fate” really does depend on the choices that you make. When random events happen, as they always will, do you choose to try to turn them to your advantage or just complain about them?

    What’s Next?

    Now that you’ve learned the 2 simple things you can do to take control of your fate and create your own luck. But this isn’t it! These simple techniques you’ve learned here are just part of the essential 7 Cornerstone Skills — a skillset that will give you the power to create permanent solutions to big problems in life — any problem in any area of your life!

    If you think you’re “suffering from bad luck”, you can really change things up and start life over with these 7 Cornerstone Skills. It may even be a lot easier than you thought:

    How to Start Over and Reboot Your Life When It Seems Too Late

    Thomas Jefferson is said to have used these words:

    “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

    Your luck, in the end, is pretty much what you choose it to be.

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    Featured photo credit: LoboStudio Hamburg via unsplash.com

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