# [Zettel Feedback] What is luck?

edited January 31

Here is my contribution for consideration. It is a simple example, and pithy (for me), but reflects the structure I attempt to put into my zettels.

# What is Luck?

[[202110172020]]
10-17-2021 08:20 PM
tags: #Luck #Determination #Preparation

I’ve heard luck defined as simply being well prepared (through hard work of various types) when opportunity comes knocking. I like and believe that definition, particularly because it removes luck from the realm of the mystical.

So then, you might ask, isn’t it just luck when opportunity comes along?  The simple fact is that opportunities always come along. One just needs to be prepared, then patient and persistent (even tenacious), and finally discerning to recognize the right opportunity.  So, you see, luck isn’t the first step nor is it the driving force - it’s rather the result of all the precursor steps just mentioned.

When one says “I wish I could be as lucky as that person”, what she is really saying is “I wish I could work so hard, learn so much, develop all the skills, and be as patient and tenacious, and as discerning of opportunities as that person”.  Then I’d be just as “lucky”.

The following quotes reflect this idea.

Luck? I don't know anything about luck. I've never banked on it and I'm afraid of people who do. Luck to me is something else: Hard work - and realizing what is opportunity and what isn't. (Lucille Ball)

When it comes to luck, you make your own. (Bruce Springsteen)

I have yet to be in a game where luck was involved. Well-prepared players make plays. I have yet to be in a game where the most prepared team didn't win. (Uban Meyer - Head coach of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars)

I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. (Thomas Jefferson)

[[202007122008]] What some people call "luck" is actually "probability" or "risk".
[[202006242037]] What is faith and how it leads to hope - is there a relationship also to "luck"?
[[202101102149]] A discussion about my dad's life - what relationship is there between always being open to opportunity and "luck"?
[[202006121454]] Some information about my friend W. A. - what relationship is there between tenacity and "luck"?

Post edited by Sascha on
«1

• [[202007122008]] What some people call "luck" is actually "probability" or "risk"

This makes me wonder, can one be wrong about a definition? Because a definition is just the meaning of a term[1], and a term is a word or phrase that captures an idea[2]. A term is like catching a butterfly with a net, putting it in a jar, and saying "This butterfly shall be called [insert name]".

The following quotes reflect this idea.

Luck? I don't know anything about luck. I've never banked on it and I'm afraid of people who do. Luck to me is something else: Hard work - and realizing what is opportunity and what isn't. (Lucille Ball)

When it comes to luck, you make your own. (Bruce Springsteen)

I have yet to be in a game where luck was involved. Well-prepared players make plays. I have yet to be in a game where the most prepared team didn't win. (Uban Meyer - Head coach of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars)

I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. (Thomas Jefferson)

Also, are the quotes really necessary? Maybe it's just me because I work with citations differently, so to me it feels like you could remove them. Perhaps I'm wrong, and if so, I'd love to be proven wrong.

References:

[1] Fast S. Reading for the zettelkasten is searching [Internet]. Zettelkasten. 2016 [cited 2021 Apr 20]. Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20220126174138/https://zettelkasten.de/posts/reading-is-searching/

[2] Cambridge University Press. Definition of noun term. In: Cambridge Dictionary [Internet]. [cited 2021 Nov 12]. Available from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english-spanish/term

• My first reply is one my initial Zettels.

# 20210503135015 Ecclesiastes 9:11

CONTEXT [[20210503134813]] Ecclesiastes 9:10

11. I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise,
nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill;
but time and chance happeneth to them all.

My second reply is a link to an article the MIT Technology Review: If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out it’s just chance.

Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies sometimes delayed since life is short.

• @Annabella I agree that we define our own terms, that is, we describe what we mean when we use certain words. The word "luck" will have different meanings and even connotations to different people.

I find including quotes in a zettel enriches them. I use quotes in about 1/2 of my zettels, and there are normally only 1 or 2. For some reason, this zettel had more, perhaps because I liked the nuanced differences between them. But I don't want to go looking for them elsewhere - having the quotes embedded in the zettel works well for me.

I'm not trying to fit to a particular formula for quotes, by the way - I just include them when I like them. But I believe quotes are quite distinct from reference material (from which we derived an idea).

@ZettelDistraction I love that quote from Ecclesiastes and agree that time and chance happen to all of us. However, within that context, I believe some can prosper when others would not - not because of intelligence, but because of foresight, preparation, and acting when they recognize opportunity (you can have/do all of those without an excess of intelligence). Those are all powerful forces, but they are certainly not supreme - they can still be over-ridden by accident, poor health, age, etc. Life is interesting that way. If for some reason we are successful, we shouldn't pat ourselves too vigorously on the back - we stand on the shoulders of others who showed us the way, and all that...

• @GeoEng51 Yes, all true. There are many references to luck in classical and modern philosophy as well--I'm sure you're very familiar with these.

Ahrens in "How to Take Smart Notes" seems to leave no room for verbatim quotation, but verbatim quoting has its place, even in a Zettelkasten. Ecclesiastes, for example. I happen to like Ecclesiastes 9:10 as well.

Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies sometimes delayed since life is short.

• @ZettelDistraction said:
Ahrens in "How to Take Smart Notes" seems to leave no room for verbatim quotation, but verbatim quoting has its place, even in a Zettelkasten. Ecclesiastes, for example. I happen to like Ecclesiastes 9:10 as well.

Yes - another good one. A sobering thought.

• @GeoEng51 said:

I agree that we define our own terms, that is, we describe what we mean when we use certain words. The word "luck" will have different meanings and even connotations to different people.

Yeah, just like nature. A week ago, when I was diving into the basics of science, the definition I found said that science studies nature. However, the author never explains what nature is, so I set out to investigate. Guess what? It has so many different meanings that it's useless for explanations. So useless that most scientists avoid it like the plague. And that seems to be the reason they say to study the universe instead. Or at least one of the reasons.

This goes to show how careful you have to be with definitions. That's why I was wondering about that.

@GeoEng51 said:

I find including quotes in a zettel enriches them. I use quotes in about 1/2 of my zettels, and there are normally only 1 or 2. For some reason, this zettel had more, perhaps because I liked the nuanced differences between them. But I don't want to go looking for them elsewhere - having the quotes embedded in the zettel works well for me.

I'm not trying to fit to a particular formula for quotes, by the way - I just include them when I like them. But I believe quotes are quite distinct from reference material (from which we derived an idea).

If it works for you, then that must be good enough.

• Re: term definitions -- I think it gets really interesting when you collect conflicting definitions. And then you can play them out in your notes, pitch them against each other. It's not likely there's one true definition for a term that you just have to find. There'll always (ok, most of the time) be conflicting understandings.

Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

• @ctietze Ooh. I didn't think of it in terms of understanding. Thanks for bringing it up. I'm adding that to my Zettelkasten.

• @ctietze said:
Re: term definitions -- I think it gets really interesting when you collect conflicting definitions. And then you can play them out in your notes, pitch them against each other. It's not likely there's one true definition for a term that you just have to find. There'll always (ok, most of the time) be conflicting understandings.

Good suggestion - rather than seeking for the "one, true meaning", let's look at how different people define or use a particular term - what insight does that give us into the related idea(s)? Thanks for that insight.

• edited February 2

#### Title

I'd think about the title. The note doesn't seem to elaborate on the concept of luck but rather its contribution to success, achievement, happiness etc.

So, if I'd keep the question-form, my title would be "What actually is if one calls it luck?"

#### Tags

To me, opportunity is really one of the key concepts used. So, I'd use this as a tag.

#### Content

I was happily suprised by your style. You have a way more story-telling type voice than, for example, me. I tend to be more assertive (or: preachy if we ditch the euphemism.. ) It reads very well. The note would be a great foundation for a text.

To me, this is an opportunity to connect the content to the concept of beauty: I think it is not by chance that the quotes take on luck invoke at least a bit of admiration for the people. To me, the life of someone who truly lives by the principle that luck is something truly beautiful in the same sense great art makes us awe. It is similar to music when you feel the oomph of the drop when its properly prepared (greatest song that somehow just manages to build and build: The Only Thing They Fear is You) or the suspense of Chopin (brilliantly explained by Benjamin Zandler).

Imagine reading the story of such a hard working person and finally all comes together. No wonder, the old Greeks often depicted this moment with the metaphor of godly help.

This is my take on it:

# 2022020816 Happiness can be forged

Success is explained, often even by the successful person himself, by luck. What seems to be meant here is that the lucky person is not the sole cause of success. Part of success is that opportunities arise. This is then referred to as luck.

a) But this ignores the fact that opportunities are ubiquitous. There is no lack of opportunity in the lives of us humans. But while opportunities come and go for all people, only a few seize them. And only a few can turn opportunities into success.

b) What distinguishes the people who make something out of opportunity from the others? From the above considerations, two characteristics emerge:

1. Risk-taking. An opportunity is both chance and risk. An opportunity is not something purely positive, but always also something dangerous. It is not only about a possible negative result that arises directly in connection with the opportunity. One's own self-image, in the case of failure for example, sometimes wants to be protected as well.
2. Skills and Abilities. Taking an opportunity does not mean that something good will happen. You have to be able to do something with it. If I was made an offer to write a book on a subject I didn't know, I could manage it. But if I was made an offer to manage a large corporation, I'd lack skills, abilities and experience.

Courage and skill are qualities we can cultivate and train. Luck is a combination of opportunity, courage and skill. So if a) we do not lack opportunity, but b) we lack courage and skill, we can conclude: *We are indeed the makers of our own luck.

Thomas Jefferson has already expressed this in this way:

I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. (Thomas Jefferson)

And even more crisply Pablo Picasso:

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. - Pablo Picasso

This note was inspired by and is heavily on @GeoEng51 's note: What is luck?

Post edited by Sascha on

I am a Zettler

• @GeoEng51 Rather than commenting on the Zettel itself, let me make a (perhaps) connected observation.

Social psychologists tell the story of the couple of fish that are swimming along, and meet another fish who says "Water's nice today!" After a while, one of the couple says "What's water?"

This illustrates that the context in which we exist is something we don't notice, and consequently we don't consider that there might be another one. So, for westerners like us, it is normal to think in terms of individuals, and individual striving. Our culture does not encourage us to think in terms of the context in which we exist, and its influence on us. I note that the quotes you give above are mostly (exclusively?) about human agency, a way of thinking that probably goes back to the ancient Greeks.

But other cultures do not think about causality like this (for example, in parts of Asia). So non-westerners are much more likely to attribute cause to environmental factors (there is a whole branch of psychology called Attribution Theory which deals with how we see cause and effect). I am guessing, but I would surmise that one of the reasons why it took such a long time for Chaos Theory to develop is this tendency to see things in terms of human agency. And I think it could be argued that the whole "American Dream" is a failure, or disinclination, to recognise the influence of context. It is an expression of the desire for control. But as Pinker has observed, there are more ways for things to go wrong than there are for things to go right. If you want to really understand the influence of chance on our lives, you probably need to collect more stories and quotes concerning failure, rather than limiting yourself to stories of success (resulting from effort). For every story of the person who worked hard and everything came good, there must be trillions of people who worked hard and nothing much came of it. But the "positive" stories are made more salient to us by our culture, our media, and so forth. We notice them much more than the general background "hum" of effort without much reward.

To summarise, I have an external locus of control. I believe that context is immensely powerful, which is why most of us don't go against it. We can probably improve our lot by our own efforts, but as the residents of Tonga know better than we do just now, environmental events over which we have no control can easily overwhelm us. Is that bad luck? I'm not sure what else you could call it.

Cheers, Martin.

• I agree with @Sascha that you could work on your title as the note is more about opportunity than luck. Maybe:

### Opportunity knocks when you're prepared

@Sascha, I see some hidden tags in your note 2022020816 Happiness can be forged. Can you explain? If this is top secret, I promise not to tell anyone.

@Sascha said:
<!--P --> Success is explained, …

<!--W E? --> a) But this ignores the fact that opportunities are ubiquitous…

<!--W R --> b) What distinguishes the people who make something out of opportunity from the others…

<!--W K --> Courage and skill are qualities we can cultivate and train…

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @Will said:
@Sascha, I see some hidden tags in your note 2022020816 Happiness can be forged. Can you explain? If this is top secret, I promise not to tell anyone.

Ah, I forgot. Those comments are the same as in my note on dog reactivity towards personas.

I am in the process of developing concept inspired by @ctietze's idea on Test-Driven Writing. Those comments are about the nature of the paragraph. "P" means the proposition is layed out, "W E?" means empirical evidence is needed, "W R" means rational justification, "W K" means conclusion (Written with a "k" in German).

I try to develop some kind of test code for my writing similar to what is achieved through Test Driven Development.

I am a Zettler

• @Sascha

Yes - thank you for your insightful comments - I have learned from them and they are very much appreciated. I like the way that you re-worded, or perhaps re-wrote is the correct term, my submitted zettel. I believe it better captures what was in my mind and avoids some of the (valid) criticisms by others in this post of the way that I stated it. Your version is clearer and leaves less to inference.

• @MartinBB

Thanks (as always) for your comments. You are spot on with the statement that my explanation of luck is firmly founded on the concept of personal choice and agency. I actually have a few zettels on that topic as well

I take your point about context, though - several others in responding to this point have said similar things. And I do not discount context, although my zettel doesn't express that properly (I will need another, linked zettel, to explore that more). But I can see both ideas co-existing, in that neither of them are exclusive.

Oh - and I do make (in my own mind) a clear distinction between "luck" and "probability" or "risk".

• @Will
Thanks for the suggested rewording of the title. I will have to think more on it.

I believe opportunity frequently knocks; whether or not we are prepared is up to us. So I need to tweak it a bit more.

• @Sascha said:
I am in the process of developing a concept inspired by @ctietze's idea on Test-Driven Writing. Those comments are about the nature of the paragraph. "P" means the proposition is laid out, "W E?" means empirical evidence is needed, "W R" means rational justification, "W K" means conclusion (Written with a "k" in German).

I try to develop some kind of test code for my writing similar to what is achieved through Test Driven Development.

Could you guys say more, in a new thread, about your ideas for Test-Driven Writing? I'm intrigued!

Will Simpson
“Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
kestrelcreek.com

• @GeoEng51 said:
I believe opportunity frequently knocks; whether or not we are prepared is up to us. So I need to tweak it a bit more.

I don't believe in either agency or free will. As I understand it, "having agency" amounts to being the author of a narrative in which you are also a character. Personal narrative is a fertile domain for self-deception. Not to mention that all narratives are false.

I'm with @MartinBB on the causal significance of the environment. Also, the power-law distribution that success and wealth follow isn't explained by the normal distribution of ability. A narrative about preparation won't explain the yawning chasm separating these distributions.

Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies sometimes delayed since life is short.

• @Will said:
Could you guys say more, in a new thread, about your ideas for Test-Driven Writing? I'm intrigued!

It is still in its infants. I don't know how it will be published. I am thinking about getting empirical data on it if the university or my old school is interested in conducting a study. So, you will have to wait.

But the gist is: Write what you want to achieve before you write what will achieve it.

I am a Zettler

• @GeoEng51 I'm glad you found something in it that was worth reading!

Today, I have found myself remembering Zola's novel L'assommoir, which says a lot about how circumstance can be so powerful in the life of a person. And that got me to remembering some lines from John Donne's Song - sweetest love ...:

“O how feeble is man's power,
That if good fortune fall,
Nor a lost hour recall!
And we join to'it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,

Cheers,
Martin.

• @ZettelDistraction said:
I don't believe in either agency or free will. As I understand it, "having agency" amounts to being the author of a narrative in which you are also a character. Personal narrative is a fertile domain for self-deception. Not to mention that all narratives are false.

My understanding and use of the word "agency" is simple - that we have the ability to make choices in our lives, even if sometimes our options are quite limited. That was a learning from Victor Frankl:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

I believe you are saying that if one makes up a narrative about one's life, one is susceptible to self-deception, a point with which I entirely agree. And in my mind that has little if anything to do with agency.

• edited February 6

@ZettelDistraction said:
I don't believe in either agency or free will.

@GeoEng51
I believe you are saying that if one makes up a narrative about one's life, one is susceptible to self-deception, a point with which I entirely agree. And in my mind that has little if anything to do with agency.

I denied free will and said (or thought I said) that agency is a narrative that presupposes free will. That should have been stated clearly. For me, agency is not a hypothetical about suceptibility to self-deception: agency is a fictional narrative, because there is no free will.

@GeoEng51
My understanding and use of the word "agency" is simple - that we have the ability to make choices in our lives, even if sometimes our options are quite limited.

Then we have a fundamental disagreement. I don't know where choices come from or that we have the ability to make them. Oh well.

Erdős #2. ZK software components. “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport. Replies sometimes delayed since life is short.

• edited February 7

@GeoEng51 Great, and fun, note! I'm big on declatatives for titles, so if it were my note, I'd title it:

### Luck is the result of being prepared, patient, persistent, and discerning

This is your conclusion, and I think it makes for a strong binder to other notes. To me, that's the note at its most refined, and that's what I try to make my titles. The declarative kernel of the note.

I like using titles in this way because when I come across them later, they challenge or affirm my current beliefs, which triggers a thought or emotional response almost immediately. This pulls me in, and without even trying I'm making arguments, defending or critiquing the idea, etc. In other words, I'm laying the thought work for some writing.

I also think titles like these are easier to link. As Cliff Gruen has said (about atomic notes), they have more surface area.

• @MartinBB said:

And that got me to remembering some lines from John Donne's Song - sweetest love ...:

“O how feeble is man's power,
That if good fortune fall,
Nor a lost hour recall!
And we join to'it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,

I understood the first half of this stanza but had to ask my wife (with the English literature passion) to confirm that my interpretation of the second half was reasonable. She and I both thought that Donne was bemoaning how people let bad chance overcome them (last line) by dwelling on it too intensely. That's a depressing thought - to say that we would almost revel in being our own worst enemy. It would be a pessimistic way of looking at the world.

However, I couldn't leave it there, so read through the entire poem, trying to sort out the overall message, and then (this might have been a mistake) reading a few analyses of the poem by others. One person thought the following:

This time he (the speaker in the poem) is interested in discussing strength, particularly how human strength is able to fight off or improve bad situations. The speaker believes that “we” a reference to himself and the listener, as well as the human race as a whole, are able to “teach” bad chance “art and length” and keep it from taking over one’s remaining days.

Pretty much the opposite of what I took from that stanza. I guess that's why I'm not much into poetry.

However, I would argue that neither of Donne's theses (in the first or the second part of the quoted stanza, as I originally interpreted them) is universally applicable. Truly, no person can add or recall hours to their life, but there are many other good actions they can take if they are favoured with "good fortune" (i.e., with "opportunity"). And there are many (true) stories of people who overcome extreme adversity that extends over a long time. I know one such person who has my deep admiration. He is a wonderful, gentle, generous man with a horrendous back-story that I won't tell here. But he is definitely non-compliant with Donne's second thesis, and with his first one as well.

Ha! I've made a hash of Donne's poem. If you have some insights, please enlighten me.

• @ZettelDistraction said:

Then we have a fundamental disagreement. I don't know where choices come from or that we have the ability to make them. Oh well.

I appreciate our disagreement - it's made me think more about the topic and adjust/clarify my idea. And your counterpoint will have its own zettel in my ZK, for me (and others who may care) to ponder later. Thanks!

• @MartinBB

Here's another summary of Stanza 3 of Donne's poem, which is more along the line of what I was thinking when I first read it:

Man is a very feeble creature indeed. If good fortune befalls him, he cannot lengthen the time of his enjoyment; nor is man empowered to recall the past. But it misfortune overtakes us or man we add to it by feeling sorrowful and we allow it, by strengthening and prolonging it, to overwhelm us.

This was taken from: https://www.englishliterature.info/2021/06/song-sweetest-love-i-do-not-go.html

• @taurusnoises said:
@GeoEng51 Great, and fun, note! I'm big on declatatives for titles, so if it were my note, I'd title it:

### Luck is the result of being prepared, patient, persistent, and discerning

This is your conclusion, and I think it makes for a strong binder to other notes. To me, that's the note at its most refined, and that's what I try to make my titles. The declarative kernel of the note.

Yes - good suggestion. Thank you!

• @ZettelDistraction

Then we have a fundamental disagreement. I don't know where choices come from or that we have the ability to make them. Oh well.

Do you live a life in which you are practically consistent with this position?

I am a Zettler

• @GeoEng51

It is always useful to know something of the context in which a work of literature is written. During the period in which Donne was writing, there was something of a "cult of melancholy" and Donne undoubtedly seems to have seen himself as a melancholic. I know little enough about Donne's poetry, but I am aware that he is stating ideas that were quite fashionable at the time (which his contemporary readers would have recognised) and which are bound up in a complex way with stoicism, notions of submission to divine will, and thoughts about the transience of human existence.

The first part of the stanza dwells on subjects that occur often enough in the literature of the period, that is to say the puniness of human beings at the hands of fate, and the irresistible passing of time. (Hence, in King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport", while the word "time" appears on about 80 occasions in Shakespeare's sonnets.)

In the second part of the stanza I think that what Donne is really reflecting on is the perversity of human beings, who seem tempted by bad luck to make their situation even worse than it actually is. In modern psychology, we might call this "catastrophising". In my experience of counselling I see this quite often. A minor mistake can easily become "I am the most stupid person in the world". It is fascinating to me that Donne, a few centuries before the advent of modern psychology, could make an observation of a phenomenon that nowadays often receives attention in cognitive behavioural therapy.

When it comes to debates about free will, I think I will just spectate! The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a lengthy article on it and Robert Sapolsky has interesting things to say about it.

• @MartinBB said:

In the second part of the stanza I think that what Donne is really reflecting on is the perversity of human beings, who seem tempted by bad luck to make their situation even worse than it actually is. In modern psychology, we might call this "catastrophising". In my experience of counselling I see this quite often. A minor mistake can easily become "I am the most stupid person in the world". It is fascinating to me that Donne, a few centuries before the advent of modern psychology, could make an observation of a phenomenon that nowadays often receives attention in cognitive behavioural therapy.

When it comes to debates about free will, I think I will just spectate! The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a lengthy article on it and Robert Sapolsky has interesting things to say about it.

Ah - so my first impression of the meaning was perhaps the more accurate - thanks for the extra background.

I'll check out the referenced articles on "free will" - thank you. I prefer to use the term "agency", which is similar but somehow has a different flavour. Agency to me means the ability to choose, in some cases from limited options or just to choose how we will respond emotionally to some stimulus. But nevertheless, we have this capacity to choose.

Also, "free will" as a term seems redundant. If you exert your will, isn't the "free" part implied? Of course, your efforts can be overwhelmed by circumstances outside your control (your previous example) or by the will of someone stronger or more persistent.