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Get Lucky

January 26, 2011

I have good luck. Not as good luck as my older brother, who has great luck, but I would say that I have very good luck.

“How can you say that. You have cancer!” you might be thinking.

My response: “Ah, but I beat cancer.”

I understand what Lou Gehrig was getting at: yeah, it’s a bad break, but when you look at the big picture, things look a bunch better.

That’s part of being lucky, in fact: the very act of looking at the big picture.

It’s not just me who thinks this. British social scientist Richard Wiseman spent ten years researching the phenomenon of luck, and he wrote a book and a web site about his findings. The book is called The Luck Factor and so is the web site. Dr. Weisman breaks up what differentiates lucky people into several bite-sized bits; one of them is titled “See the Positive,” and another is “Take the Long View.”  I spent time thinking about it. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about because it beats dwelling; in fact, “Don’t Dwell” is another of Dr. Weisman’s suggestions to people wishing to improve their luck. He’s put together a fantastic resource.

Luck was also a big part of our lives in Japan. Recognizing that I barely scratched the surface of even understanding Japanese culture, I noticed that anything that reeked of faux pas was termed “unlucky.” Many Shinto practices also revolve around luck; Shinto is an ancient practice with roots in early agriculture. What agricultural culture doesn’t offer prayers to the gods to assure a good harvest?  Luck, in the tangible forms of sun and rain, is of vital importance to farmers; firm belief in luck seems be one of the many ways in which the Japanese agricultural tradition has held steadfast.

The Romans anthropomorphized luck into the goddess Fortuna, who oversaw the rise and fall of men’s fortunes, and they attributed to her whim both the good and the bad. Sometimes, you see her with two faces representing good and bad luck. She’s associated with the wheel which gives credence to the pattern of good fortune and bad following on each other’s heels, like a sine curve. I’d love to be able to quantify it, but how do you measure luck?

I’ve noticed that often, people with good luck are inclined to attribute their success to hard work, instead of recognizing when they’ve been lucky and transforming the realization into compassion, whereas people who consistently make bad choices often attribute their failure to bad luck instead of taking some responsibility and making a change.

There are things we can control and things we cannot.

None of us can control the circumstances of our birth: our birth date, our parentage, our native gifts, and our culture. Malcolm Gladwell addresses this brilliantly in his book Outliers which he calls a story of success and I call a clarion call to the bulk of people who read books like Gladwell’s, brilliant and successful, to stop looking so smug, and recognize how much of their (our) success is due to blind, dumb luck and not just hard work and wise choices.

We can control the choices we make: how hard we work, what we focus our efforts on, how we treat other people, how much we exercise, how much and what we eat, how much we sleep, how we dress, how often we go to church, and, to a degree, who we associate with. Bookstores abound with self-help volumes to help us make better choices. But we don’t.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that we’re all doing the best we can, and some people make bad choices and some people work hard, and we all have good luck and bad luck, and not always in equal measure.

Some people get cancer. Sure, there is a statistical correlation between obesity, smoking, overuse of alcohol, consumption of hydrogenated fats, a sedentary lifestyle, and a bunch of other stuff and getting cancer, but on a case-by-case scenario, either you have cancer or you don’t, and there are plenty of more compelling reasons to make better lifestyle choices than the specter of cancer. There are worse things than cancer. Life isn’t fair.

Some people beat cancer. I’m one of them. Statistically speaking, you have a better chance of beating cancer if you have access to better health care. If you have the knowledge to know where to go to seek out the best medical care, or if you have the self-confidence to inconvenience your family and make them take you to a further-away facility. If you can afford to stay in a hotel for months at a time, or are have friends who are willing to put you up. If you have the courage to get that lump examined right away in the first place and not hope it just goes away on its own. If your treatment kills your cancer before it can kill you.

If there is one thing I take away from this experience, it some combination of recognizing the brilliant choices I made in the way I approached my disease, replicating that brilliance in the future choices I make in my life, and realizing of how very little of my success has to do with me after all and how much of the credit goes to the people I am lucky enough to have as family and friends and to the doctors whose care I was lucky enough to receive.

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