One of the reasons that we deny the role of luck is that it acts as a cold counterbalance to the notion of hard work. At every stage in our lives, we are taught that the best way to make our way in the world is by hard work, tenacity, and grit. And while I believe there is a lot of truth to this, it also causes some perverse consequences.
For instance, when we’re successful, we’re hesitant or even ashamed to admit that luck played a role because we somehow feel that diminishes what was under our control. Conversely, if we’re hit with bad luck, it’s culturally reinforced that that was our own fault. We’re led to believe that we’re responsible for outcomes not process, when in fact just the opposite is true.
We are culturally conditioned to deny the role of luck because of its impact on our search for meaning.
In How to Get Lucky, Max Gunther explains:
All American and European kids (and for all I know, Russian and Chinese kids, too) get the “tragic flaw” theory of great literature laid on them in high school or college. This theory holds that in Shakespeare’s tragedies or Dostoevski’s novels or the epic poems of Homer, the heroes and heroines always bring their troubles on themselves through some failing of character. Teachers and professors insist that this is so, and many generations of kids have been given the same choice: agree or flunk.
The fact is, however, that you have to look pretty hard to find those “tragic flaws” that supposedly are behind the tragic happenings. There is no good evidence that either Homer or Shakespeare, for example, bought this goofy theory. In the Iliad, much of what happens is brought about by the manipulations of the gods – in other words, by good and bad luck that the human characters have no control of. Shakespeare’s tragedies are similar. Hamlet opens with the hero in a fix because of events he had nothing to do with. It ends with nearly everybody dead by mistake – a blither of bloody blunders. It isn’t a play about tragic flaws. It is a play about bad luck.
Why do English professors deny it? A good answer was offered recently by Phyllis Rose, a professor of English at Wesleyan University and no fan of the “tragic flaw” notion. Students are taught that the character flaw is a necessary ingredient of tragedy, Professor Rose wrote in The New York Times: “If the hero or heroine didn’t have a flaw, it wouldn’t be tragic because it wouldn’t ‘mean’ anything. It would just be bad luck.”
She added, wryly, “To convince students that bad luck isn’t tragic must take some fancy teaching.” But that is what is taught, and most people seem to buy the notion. And now, we have uncovered yet another reason why the role of luck in human experience is so persistently denied. Luck isn’t “meaningful” enough. We yearn for life to have meaning. Acknowledging luck’s role takes half the meaning out of it.
This is the “tragic flaw” theory — nothing bad ever happens because of luck but rather because people deserve it.
How to Get Lucky goes on to explore 13 ways to improve your luck.