Why ‘Luck’ Can Prove to be Entirely Irrelevant in the Long Run

Asmita Karanje

Recognize the ‘good-in-bad’ and ‘bad-in-good’ things of life

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When I turned eighteen, I was excited to drive around the city and drop my friends back home. One day, however, I was returning home when I crashed into a bus. Fortunately, I came out unharmed, but the car was heavily damaged. Several days after this incident, I kept replaying the whole scene in my mind, and I thought to myself, “What if I had taken a different route?” or “What if I hadn’t gone out on errands that evening?” or “What if I had slowed down a little?”

I am sure you might have faced a similar dilemma after an unfortunate incident in your life. In the aftermath of the event, we all desperately hope to undo somehow what happened and go back in time to change the circumstance. However, it isn’t in our control, and we cannot influence these external factors.

And what if I had been hurt in the accident? Or did this accident prevent a much bigger mishap that could have cost my life? So should I consider myself unlucky for incurring heavy damages, or perhaps lucky for avoiding something worse?

“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.”
― Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

The Nova effect was first outlined by a famous philosopher Charles Taylor in his book ‘The Secular Age.

Consider this story by ‘The pursuit of wonder’ that beautifully explains the Nova effect.

Eric goes out for a walk with his dog Nova but loses him to a rabbit. Weeks go by, but to his utter disappointment, Nova is still missing. One beautiful morning, a woman shows up at Eric’s place, and she has Nova. Her name is Vanessa. Eric and Vanessa instantly connect and start hanging out with each other. They fell in love. Get married and are living happily.

Fast forward to a few months, Eric is driving to pick up Vanessa but unfortunately meets with an accident. He is knocked unconscious and is taken to a nearby hospital. Eric is furious at the possibility of everything that occurred that day, resulting in the accident — starts wondering if he hadn’t left at that time or taken a cab or not picked up Vanessa. Meanwhile, the doctors run some tests and a brain scan to determine any brain damage or internal bleeding. Fortunately, there is no sign of any damage, but the doctor reveals that luckily they found a tumor that could have gone undetected. Eric is now wondering if he should be happy or sad that he met with an accident.

How can something so bad turn out to be so good and for something so good turn out to be so bad?

This paradoxical sense of freedom (not everything is in your control) and misery (because not everything is in your control) is called ‘The Nova Effect.’

Have you ever experienced it?

There is an old saying, ‘Whatever happens, happens for the best,’ which means everything that exists is a culmination of our decisions in the past.Be it good or bad; it is because of a series of decisions that led you onto that path. Imagine if you had opted for a different college or had been with a different partner or pursued an entirely different career path.

Your life would have been vastly different from how it has shaped now. You could be in another city with a different partner and perhaps different ideologies.

It is not about whether these are right or wrong decisions. You will never fully know whether a choice was right or wrong until you know all the consequences of that decision. Like we saw in the example above, losing Nova was actually a good thing that happened to Eric. But we can say that now, as we know exactly how that story unfolds. We couldn’t have said it on the day when he lost Nova. So, if you are going through a rough patch in life, maybe there is something good that could come out of it. Or maybe not. We don’t know for sure, and we will never know until it happens. What we do know is thinking alone wouldn’t suffice; we need to act as well.

Let’s look at a few famous case studies that all depict how bad luck can be used to one’s advantage.

Penicillin

When Alexander Fleming came back from vacation to his messy lab, he found a green mold destroying his specimen of bacteria — and that’s how he accidentally discovered penicillin. Had he not left the lab untidy, the mold wouldn’t have grown. While that destroyed the bacteria, he was growing; it actually led to the discovery of one of the breakthrough medicines — ‘Pencillin’. Bacteria was one of the most common reasons for death at the time; almost 18% of soldiers died due to infections.

Coca-Cola

The other example is that of Coca-Cola. John Pemberton, a pharmacist by profession, wanted to find a cure for headaches. So he mixed coca leaves and cola nuts. When his lab assistant mixed that with carbonated water, it resulted in what we today know as Coca-Cola. Today Coca-Cola is a household name, and its success story is taught in every business school. While they sold nine bottles daily in their first year, today, they sell approximately 1.9 billion bottles per day. Fun fact — while Coca leaves are still used in the production, it doesn’t contain any cocaine.

Kellogs

Another famous story is that of Kellogs. The Kellog siblings are known for the uber-famous breakfast cereal — it was an accidental discovery too. When they left a batch of dough overnight, they decided instead of throwing it the next day, to roll it and bake it. The result — flaked Kellogs cereal. Today it is a multi-billion dollar company with operations in over 180 countries.

These examples are not to showcase the randomization of success. But that there is a possibility of something terrible to turn into something useful — in fact, something strangely significant or life-altering. While we cannot fully ascertain the consequences of each decision we undertake, we can at least find some merit in a bad decision — a beautiful life-lesson you learned or the fuck-up stories you can sell in your art.

If Alexander Fleming had thrown away the mold, some of us wouldn’t even have existed. If John Pemberton had not created the concoction, we wouldn’t have any Coke to enjoy with popcorn (and well, the world might have been a little less obese, but that discussion is for another time). Lastly, if john Kellog threw away the dough, we won’t have any alternatives to old sugary granola (Fun fact — the first manufactured breakfast cereal was ‘granula’ and not cornflakes.)

The next time you are faced with any unfortunate circumstance in life, consider where you are in the timeline of events that might unfold from this event. If that day, my car didn’t crash, I might not have any story to tell you, or if I continued driving that way, I could have hurt myself fatally. But guess what — I will never know, and it shouldn’t bother me either. What is important is that we understand that luck is a factor of perception, consequence, and time. Mishaps and misfortunes are part and parcel of our lives. Either we cry foul over a bad hand that we have been dealt with. Or use that to our advantage somehow.

“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”
Dalai Lama XIV

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Thinker, self-experimenter, and a newbie writer. I write about personal growth, socio-political issues, and career advice.

Dallas, TX
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