*This was a paper I did for my History of Psychology class. It has been reproduced here with only the most minor of alterations.
People, you’ll find, don’t like luck very much. Actually, that’s not quite true. The problem is not so much that they don’t like it but they don’t want to acknowledge it. But, as most people come to find, there is no avoiding the truth; the only thing to do with an unruly, wild force such as luck is to cloak it in something more…digestible. So now in place of luck, we say things like ‘the will of God’ or ‘the alignment of the stars’ or, the most recent contender —and my personal favourite — ‘privilege’ (because, what really is privilege but luck as an accident of birth?)
Of Children Born on Friday
‘I’d rather be lucky than good,’ is a line I stole from Charles Bukowski (2016) who in turn stole it from Leo Durocher and which, hopefully, you will steal from me too once you’re done with this ode to luck. There’s a methali that states ‘bahati kama mwana aliyezaliwa Ijumaa‘: as lucky as the child born on Friday. I must have come across it when I was ten, maybe nine, in one of those Kiswahili lessons where we attempted, through rote memorization and repetition, to become learned —and simultaneously drive our teachers to the brink of death through boredom. If you ask me now, hundreds of methali-exposure later how many I can remember, I would disappoint you. If I were to be dangled over a pit of rats by the ankles, then, and only then, I might remember five…six at best.
But this one, this methali fascinated me even then. I didn’t understand it yet I felt it was important. I remember badly wanting to be one of the chosen ones: one of Friday’s children. Now, this was a long time ago before you could say ‘Ok Google’ and ask technology to pull up the calendar from your year of birth. So, I did what could be done in those analog times: I asked my mother. Needless to say, she really didn’t know (and could hardly be bothered to care) what day of the week I might have been born. I was here? Wasn’t I?
I couldn’t let it go, however, and I made a valiant attempt of moving back in time, day by painstaking day, year by painstaking year, jotting them down on a piece of paper until I could go back far enough to get to July of ’97 and solve the mystery. I soon abandoned this project after realizing my laziness eclipsed my curiosity. But fortune favors the bold, they say (untrue, fortune does not discriminate), and I was finally able to go back in time by the aid of a Windows OS and track the exact date when the universe spit me out. And there it was: a delayed acknowledgment of my efforts: July 11, 1997 was a Friday. If wahenga could be believed (and why not?) I was slated for a life of fortune’s graces.
A Philosophy of Luck
Daniel Kahneman (2013) proposes an unconventional formula for success:
Success = Talent + Luck
Great Success = Talent + A lot more luck
Fortune-deniers look at this and immediately refuse it. I, however, think it is honest, more honest at least than those nauseating self-help books that hold the supposed key to wealth and happiness. As Kahneman (2013) so eloquently phrased it, ‘Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome’.
Luck is the ever-present element that resists measurement. It is, I would argue, the god-over-all, omnipresent, omniscient and beyond human understanding; hence the paradox: a constant, unaccountable, variable. So perhaps, if I were forced to, I would define my faith as a belief in luck. But what does the church of luck offer its believers? Well, Aristotle may have promised his own faithful that the end of the road held out happiness. We make a more humble claim: our telos is amusement.
A Rose by Any Other Name
Leo Tolstoy theorized that it was not out of God that faith was born but out of people’s own faith that God could become manifest (Tolstoy et al., 2019). Or as Nietzche (2018) put it — though in a rather round-about fashion: God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him! (Which desperately misunderstood and cheapened gave rise to those two unfortunate movies God is Dead 1 and God is Dead 2). But no matter: Nietzche said the same thing Tolstoy said: that God is a creation of our need, and we birth him and do away with him as this need commands.
I would like to humbly proclaim that the only reason luck has never been accorded its proper place as ruler of all is because luck is not as easy to manipulate as these gods we create out of our loneliness. Luck is subject to its own rules, rules that don’t bend to reason, pleading, prayer, or the slightest semblance of consistency. So we exist like the Chinese monkeys: seeing no luck, hearing of no luck, and voila! We conclude that there is no luck. And yet there is luck by every other name: luck as hard work, luck as industry, luck as pureness of heart, luck as the hand of God, and of course, luck as privilege.
We will create new words before we can acknowledge that a lot of the things we explain away with our made-up terms can more easily be attributed to luck. But we won’t do that. We won’t do that because we are drunk, delirious, foaming at the mouth with our desire to be in control of this short span of time between our birth and our death.
But I digress. Let me illustrate:
Let’s start with something as innocuous as ‘the great man’ theory of the evolution of psychology. An unfortunate title and an even more unfortunate rewriting of history. If we were tied to any beliefs around accuracy we would describe it as little more than luck-manifest-as-patriarchy. To speak of the forces that shaped psychology while overlooking the restraints placed upon women at the time to think, write and bear acknowledgments for their contributions is at best an inaccurate representation of the forces at play and at worst an attempt at claiming that women had nothing of value to add to the development of psychology,
By this metric, we erase the work of Sapho of Lesbos (Joshua, 2021) and her poetic ode to love and desire yet acknowledge Plato’s Ladder of Love (Reeve, 2016) metaphor as significant. By what metric was Plato’s thinking of greater consequence than Sapho’s? Simple, Plato was lucky enough to think-while-male. Freud coined the term penis-envy, and I would, in the same fashion like to offer to the world the term penis-fortune. Penis-fortune is the success accrued to you by the happy accident that you were born a man. Do I digress? Not at all.
Let’s talk about Freud in this great man tradition. What do you know of a woman named Sabina Spielrein? Possibly nothing. But Sabina was the one who first theorized on the death instinct (Wharton, 2006). Sound familiar? That’s because Freud developed upon it and receives credit for its conceptualization even as Sabrina’s own legacy fails into astounding oblivion. Need I say it? Penis-fortune.
This account would be shamefully incomplete if we failed to include one of the more modern of the great men: Jean-Paul Sartre, he of the infamous phrase l’enfer c’est les autres: hell is other people. It would strike some as surprising to learn that while in school he actually came second to the great Simone de Beauvoir. A brilliant writer who gave unto us the statement ‘One of the benefits that oppression secures for the oppressor is that the humblest among them feels superior…the most mediocre of males believes himself a demigod next to women’ (Beauvoir et al., 2011). So again, I ask: why does Sartre’s Nausea rank above Simone’s The Second Sex. What makes one foundational to the evolution of psychology and the other little more than feminist literature? It goes without saying but I will say it all the same: penis-fortune.
Now what? Or Conclusion
Maybe I’ve convinced you about this whole luck thing but more likely than not I haven’t. ‘Our minds are built for stories. We crave them, and, when there aren’t ready ones available, we create them,’ opines Konnikova (2017). Luck is never going to be a good story. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it if you interview someone about their journey and they tell you ‘I think I was just lucky’. No, we want the started-in-the-garage story, pulled-up-by-the-bootstraps story. We can find a garage, we can ‘rise and grind’, those things are attainable. But luck? Luck leaves us ‘alone at the bottom of the abyss, poor unfortunate mortals’ to quote Rousseau (Rousseau & Goulbourne, 2011).
It just won’t do.
But I am the writer of this long paper and I must, like a wayward boyfriend, give you closure. Here it is: one must imagine Sisyphus
No doubt you are familiar with the Myth of Sisyphus: the man cursed by the gods to push a boulder up a mountain only for it to roll back down again. A curse to span all eternity. No one would call Sisyphus lucky, a curse is the very antithesis of fortune: it negates it, obliterates it. And Sisyphus is in the most difficult of conditions in that he knows that his luck will not change.
Camus, in his book, The Myth of Sisyphus states that even with his fate, we must imagine Sisyphus happy because ‘the struggle toward the heights is sufficient’ (Camus, 2018). I agree, partially. Happiness, through overuse and misuse, has become a non-word, what does it mean to be happy? Who knows?
I propose instead that within the vicissitudes of luck one should imagine Sisyphus amused. Luck demands of us, not happiness, not anger, not despair, but amusement. I would then say that Sisyphus’ role is to look around him and think of how he ended up at that point: rolling a boulder up a mountain, the oddity of the very punishment, and he should allow himself a wry smile because only a god with humor would condemn him to a punishment as self-defeatist as that. If he allowed himself a chuckle now and then while pushing that boulder up, I’d say that qualified as a good life.
Luck, by its very nature is awkward, unpredictable, and ultimately absurd. There is no way to avoid it and there is no way to own it. One must wait out the periods that luck leaves and revel in the times when it makes a home at the feet. Penis-fortune is no longer a thing because luck is slowly leaving the house of the patriarchs to wrap itself around the calves of women. Who knows how long our lady will stay?
The thing to do is not to read astoundingly bad writing—in the guise of self-help— in an attempt to cheat luck but to cultivate an ever-present amusement at the ways in which luck lifts and lowers us all. Luck is here, and we, her loyal believers await with wry amusement to see what she does next.
Till then, may you be as lucky as Friday’s children.
- Beauvoir, D. S., Borde, C., & Malovany-Chevallier, S. (2011). The Second Sex (1st ed.). Vintage.
- Camus, A. (2018). The Myth of Sisyphus (Translation ed.). Vintage.
- Joshua, J. (2021, June 10). Sapho of Lesbos. World History. https://www.worldhistory.org/Sappho_of_Lesbos/
- Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Konnikova, M. (2017). The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time (Reprint ed.). Penguin Books.
- Nietzsche, F. (2018). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
- Reeve, C. (2016, June 1). Plato on Friendship and Eros. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-friendship/
- Rousseau, J., & Goulbourne, R. (2011). Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.
- Tolstoy, L., Maude, A., & Maude, L. (2019). A Confession: Leo Tolstoy. Les Prairies Numeriques.
- Wharton, B. (2006). Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis (Book Review). APA Divisions. https://www.apadivisions.org/division-39/publications/reviews/spielrein