Why Luck Isn’t Real

A few weeks ago I was talking with my cousin, who works at a movie theater, and I asked him, “What’s something that you learned while working at a movie theater that most people don’t know?”

He replied, “25% of people who come to buy a ticket at the ticket window don’t know which movie they want to see.”

“What? How do you know this?” I asked. He responded, “Because they ask me for recommendations.”

I was shocked. Though I don’t go to the movies often, every single time I’ve gone I’ve always known what movie I wanted to see beforehand. I asked my cousin whether this was his experience as well and he confirmed. Yet, some people don’t do that. They head to the movies and have someone else guide them on what they should see.

This seemingly trivial observation got me thinking about how we make choices in life. It reminds me of one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read called “Luck Isn’t Real.” I can’t find the post in its original format anymore, but the author has a somewhat similar post here.

The premise of the article is simple—some beliefs that are objectively false can be practically useful. For example, if you believe that “all wild mushrooms are poisonous,” then you won’t eat mushrooms in the wild and risk being poisoned. Though many wild mushrooms are not poisonous, believing that they are provides more benefits than costs.

Michael Jordan did something similar when manufacturing objectively false beliefs about his opponents. As revealed in The Last Dance, Jordan would regularly make up things other players said about him to push himself harder on the basketball court. He used fake beliefs to create real results.

You could do the same thing with one false yet useful idea—luck isn’t real. Of course, we know luck is real. We know luck impacts our investments, our careers, and our lives. And we’ve all been on the receiving end of some form of good or bad luck at some point in our past.

But, believing in luck does very little to help us. It does very little to serve us. After all, if you believe in luck, what lesson do you learn after facing a setback? The answer is—nothing. You can always chalk it up to “bad luck” and move on.

But, if luck isn’t real, then you can ask yourself, “Where did I go wrong?” and “How can I change it?” You could learn something from even the most unfortunate of events. For example, something as seemingly random as a car crash could be less attributable to bad luck than you might initially imagine.

Peter Attia, physician and best-selling author, discussed this idea in The School of Greatness podcast with Lewis Howes. Attia had his team look at the most common locations where drivers died in car accidents and found that they occurred at:

  1. Four-way intersections
  2. T-junctions (e.g., exiting a parking lot onto a street)
  3. On a two-way highway with no barrier at the median

In scenarios 1 and 2 the driver is typically killed by getting T-boned (hit from the side) while in scenario 3 they are usually struck head-on when a car drifts across the non-existent median.

While many of these accidents can be attributed to bad luck, Attia follows specific tactics that lower the chance of him being on the receiving end of such luck. These tactics include:

  1. Scanning both ways every time he goes through an intersection (for scenarios 1 and 2), and
  2. Never driving on the lane closest to the median unless there is a barrier present (for scenario 3).

While this might seem a bit extreme, Attia recognizes that believing that he is going to be T-boned or struck head on every time he drives (though objectively unlikely) may actually save him at some point in his future.

This is why believing that luck isn’t real is so powerful. Because when you drill down to the core of an issue, there is almost always something you could do to change the outcome of an event. As Josh Wolfe famously said:

Failure comes from a failure to imagine failure.

As much as I know that luck exists and has profound effects on our lives, I also know that this belief gives away our agency and power. It makes us victims of circumstance rather than masters of our fate.

This brings me back to the indecisive movie-goers at the beginning of this article. I would assume that these are the kinds of people that let life happen to them. They don’t know what movie they want to see just like they don’t know what kind of career they want to have or what type of relationship they desire.

They float through space and time and take whatever the universe hands them. They believe deeply in luck and the role that random chance plays in their life. You know people like this and so do I.

Then there are those people that are given the absolute worst hand in life, but refuse to accept it. People that inspire generations that come after them. People like Valentin Dikul.

Dikul was a circus performer in Russia who, at the age of 15, fell from a height of over 40 feet and suffered compression fractures in his spine along with a traumatic brain injury. Following the incident doctors told him that he would never walk again.

Nevertheless, Dikul was determined to prove them wrong. So he started studying human anatomy and trained for 5 to 6 hours a day to the point of exhaustion. First he built up the muscles in his upper body and then used ropes and a pulley system to move his lower body which was inactive at the time.

After five years of intense training and study, Dikul was able to walk again. Here’s a video of him tossing around 80kg (176 lb) kettlebells at the circus over two decades after his injury:

I’ve never seen or heard anything like it. The beauty of this story is that Dikul eventually opened a rehabilitation clinic in Russia to help others recover from similar kinds of injuries.

I don’t know all that much about Valentin Dikul, but I would bet that he doesn’t believe in luck. He doesn’t let life happen to him. So, why should you?

Thank you for reading.

If you liked this post, consider signing up for my newsletter.

This is post 365. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data

This content, which contains security-related opinions and/or information, is provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in any manner as professional advice, or an endorsement of any practices, products or services. There can be no guarantees or assurances that the views expressed here will be applicable for any particular facts or circumstances, and should not be relied upon in any manner. You should consult your own advisers as to legal, business, tax, and other related matters concerning any investment.

The commentary in this “post” (including any related blog, podcasts, videos, and social media)  reflects the personal opinions, viewpoints, and analyses of the Ritholtz Wealth Management employees providing such comments, and should not be regarded the views of Ritholtz Wealth Management LLC. or its respective affiliates or as a description of advisory services provided by Ritholtz Wealth Management or performance returns of any Ritholtz Wealth Management Investments client.

References to any securities or digital assets, or performance data, are for illustrative purposes only and do not constitute an investment recommendation or offer to provide investment advisory services. Charts and graphs provided within are for informational purposes solely and should not be relied upon when making any investment decision. Past performance is not indicative of future results. The content speaks only as of the date indicated. Any projections, estimates, forecasts, targets, prospects, and/or opinions expressed in these materials are subject to change without notice and may differ or be contrary to opinions expressed by others.

Please see disclosures here: https://ritholtzwealth.com/blog-disclosures/

OfDollarsAndData.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.