An Analogy for Understanding Luck’s Role in Life


Tea Plantation Kerala, India. Source: Ian Wagg Unsplash. Would you describe these ladies as lucky or unlucky?

A few days ago I was on LinkedIn and read an article about the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, 27 year old John Collison from Stripe. In the article he mentioned that his success was a result of “intense application and hard work…But I also think that luck was required too… There are [others] who are smarter and harder-working than us who just didn’t get the same good fortune.”

As usual, in the comments section people pitched their ideological camps and started arguing. Some said that his success was purely a result of the luck of being a middle-class white male. Others said “Luck does not exist, you can do anything with hard work”. However, like most things in life the truth is a lot more nuanced and is a balance of both sides.

The luck debate is one that has been brought up many times in all walks of life and while I see people passionately argue both sides, I rarely find a perspective that properly contrasts the strengths and flaws of both arguments. For a long time, I intuitively knew that the short answer was “both”, but I had a hard time articulating my thoughts in a clear, cohesive way. Fortunately, as I write this at 2:53 am in the morning, in a flash of inspiration, I think I have a neat analogy for understanding how luck impacts our life.

Proof of the Flash of Inspiration

Flip Card


Imagine a game called Flip Card. The idea is very simple. There are 4 cards, 2 have a blue dot and 2 have a red dot, they all have identical back sides. The cards are scrambled with their back sides facing up and a card is flipped at random. If it is a blue dot, you win the round. If it’s red, you lose.


Note: In anticipation of people taking the analogy very literally, I want to clarify something. Lose in this context is not a pejorative and I am not calling the losers of a round, a loser personally. I mean lose in the sense of “in a circumstance that most people in society would find less than ideal”. E.g. poor people are not losers but they are “in a circumstance that most people in society would find less than ideal”.


Now imagine, if the first round is the birth round and you are currently in the 1700s of America. In this time period, males had a significantly stronger advantage than women. So though there is a 50/50 chance of being born a male. If you flipped the blue dot, you would have gotten lucky, been born a male and won the birth round.


The second rule is that different rounds may have different odds. So in round 2, you may have 9 blue cards and 1 red card. Though the odds changed, the rules are the same. If you land on a blue card, you win the round.


Fast forward to present day america, where about 10% of people live below the poverty line.

In this time period, the poor had a significantly stronger disadvantage than the middle class and above. Again, however, there is a 1/10 chance of being born below the poverty line and losing the round. So in this round you have 9 blue cards and 1 red card. 1 in every 10 player will flip the red card, lose the round and be born poor.


We can all have different interpretations for why we got lucky in various rounds and whether we should even call it luck or something else. Religious people believe it’s because we’ve been blessed by God, the superstitious may say its because they knocked on wood 3 times and wore striped socks on the 2nd of the month, the atheists may say “that’s just the way it is”. The important point now is how can we use this mindset to help us in our lives. For this, we introduce the 3rd part of the game.

Stacking the Odds


Now imagine if you can impact the number and colors of cards in a given round. First, suppose 20% of entry level jobs make minimum wage or less*. Then in the entry level job round, there are 4 blue cards and 1 red card. Now, it gets interesting.

*In theory and ipso facto, you can’t make less than minimum wage. But I think you will agree that this is a case where theory does not always match up with practice.


In this round you can do various tasks to add more cards in the game. For example, going to Harvard may add 8 blue cards, while having a criminal record may add 10 red cards. Notice that though you can impact the odds, the luck element remains. In other words you could go to Harvard, flip red and still end up with a minimum wage job, or you could have a criminal record, flip blue and be a millionaire.


The Bigger Picture


Looking at the bigger picture, the point is that life is a series of lucky events, some of which are out of our control and some of which we can tip the odds in our favor. The analogy is not perfect (after all, it’s called an analogy for a reason) and you could say that the odds and outcome from previous rounds out of our control affect rounds that are seemingly in our control. For example, while I can control studying hard on the SATs to get into Harvard to get a good job. I can’t control having the income level to attend a school that prepares me well for the SAT or the genes that allows me to easily study and retain information well.


Nevertheless, ipso facto, those things are out of my control, so the best thing to do is focus on what things I can control and taking personal responsibility to push myself to continually improve. I think this is the mindset that can best lead to achieving your goals and having a happy life.