Good luck, bad luck, unpredictability

chaos1In some phases of life, things just go your way. Fate seems to smile on you. You have good luck.

You apply for a job and get hired. You fall in love with someone who falls for you too. You remain happy and healthy while your family, friends and colleagues fight one flu after another, all winter long. The people you love continue to live on, seemingly unstoppable.

And sometimes, everything goes wrong. Suddenly you have bad luck!

You struggle to make ends meet. And when it rains, it pours. Every conceivable apparatus you own, including your car, breaks down. One afternoon, two police officers appear at your front door to tell you your child is in intensive care following a car accident. For 23 years, you’ve put your all into your job, but at the age of 54 you’re suddenly laid off because the organization has lost its funding. You go to your family doctor for a routine checkup, but she sends you to the hospital for tests and before you know it, you’re told you have ALS. Or you live in Groningen and one day your house is irreparably damaged by a gas extraction-related earthquake.

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 What does this tell us?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has interesting things to say about this in Antifragile and The Black Swan, two books that discuss the impact of the improbable. Taleb argues that we have forgotten how to deal with the unexpected. He says we always think in a linear fashion, assuming that every problem has a cause. Once we’ve identified that cause, we think we can plan ways to solve the problem or prevent it from ever re-occurring. We’ve lost the ability to deal with, and respond to, the unexpected or unknown. But that’s exactly what life is about: you make plans and then something confounds them.

It’s hard work to disentangle yourself from this dominant paradigm of analyzing problems, devising solutions, planning these and carrying them out. For example, you’ll notice how, in times of trouble, your family, friends and co-workers tend to ask how it came about and offer solutions. If there is no readily identifiable cause, they might say you attracted this fate. There’s a lesson to be learned, they assert. Things don’t just happen randomly. Even if you don’t know what lesson your misfortune holds for you, it will become clear over time…

Usually such advice comes from people who are not down and out themselves. If you happen to be riding on a wave – if you’re in good health, have enough money to pay the bills, food, clothes and shelter – then it feels good to imagine you have yourself to thank for it. That makes it easier to believe you can make your dreams come true, if only you put enough effort into it. If you’re struggling yourself, you’re less likely to use this reasoning to cheer someone else up.

I believe it’s an art to stay aware of the unimaginable, the unpredictable, the beautiful, but also the gruesome, unpleasant and devastating things life has in store for us. We should learn to live in the knowledge that there are times of flow, when all you touch seems to turn to gold, and times of ebb when it seems you’re wading through muck …which might also turn into a clear mountain stream suddenly, for no particular reason.

You have a measure of influence of course. You can do things that help, and things that hinder. But still, there’s always a measure of luck. Good luck. Or bad luck.