The psychological paradox of luck

We tend to underestimate to what extend luck plays a role in our successes. Consequently, we are more motivated and tend to perform better in our endeavors. But might this common bias have a downside?

This post is also available in Dutch.

“10% luck, 20% skill, 15% concentrated power of will 5% pleasure, 50% pain, and 100% reason to remember the name” – Fort Minor. The crux of this famous lyric lies in the first part. To accomplish our goals, we need to exert effort, apply our skills, and—drum roll please— be subject to fortunate circumstances outside our direct control. In other words, get lucky. People often underestimate the influence of luck on their lives. Weirdly enough, this can help us achieve our goals, but it can also negatively impact how we view the world and those less fortunate. Herein lies a paradox of how we relate to our life’s fortunes.

The contribution of luck is even greater when competition is fierce and successful outcomes limited, such as in top positions in businesses and politics. These individuals need to be incredibly hard working and possess the qualities necessary to thrive in competitive environments. However, they were certainly luckier than most. And just as with most of us, they often are not aware of the extend in which luck has played a role in their success. Consequently, they will have a biased view of the world and see it as fair and rewarding hard work. But what they lack are the experiences of all those individuals who are just as talented and hardworking but didn’t have quite the lucky circumstances. Interestingly, this biased perspective on the world probably helped them succeed in the first place. Psychologically speaking, the conviction of being in control of the outcomes of your actions will help in asserting effort and perseverance and is referred to as having an internal Locus of Control. With an internal Locus of Control, someone believes that events and outcomes in their live is mostly a result of their own actions, while someone with an external Locus of Control attribute future outcomes more to external circumstances and luck. Individuals with an internal Locus of Control appear to have a leg up when it comes to academic or professional performance. Thus, it appears to be helpful to discount the role luck plays in your life.

Unfortunately, there are downsides too. Take the same successful politicians and businessmen. With their experience of the world, they probably tend to view others as less talented or hardworking. This makes them less inclined to give back to the societies helped them succeed. For example, those with higher societal status are less supportive of economic policies that results in wealth distribution by, for example, tax policies. Moreover, they are the individuals that have influence in setting the rules on which society operates. On the flip side of that, acknowledging the role luck plays in our lives will make us more likeable, but moreover allow us to feel gratitude, which has a multitude of advantages to our mental well-being from anxiety to overall life satisfaction.

This brings us to the paradox of luck. On the one hand, it’s helpful to believe that you are in full control of your life and your accomplishments are a product of your own talent and determination. But on the other hand, you must know that in reality that’s not true, for anyone. By acknowledging the 4-leaf-clovers in our lives, we can gratefully give back to those less fortunate. 


Author: Lucas Geelen

Buddy: Judith Scholing

Editor: Helena Olraun

Translation:  Maartje Koot

Editor translation: Eline de Boer

Photo by Dustin Humes on Unsplash

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