Recently, we all seem to be looking for the thing – often enough nowadays, a tool, potentially an experience, and all too often just the next, preferably “smart,” gadget – that will make us happy, give our life meaning, help us make it a success.

Creating that success, personally and actively, has become an obsession du jour, with many a biography and presentation of the rich and therefore(?) successful the example to follow.

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

For an intelligent species many of whose members just cannot take the idea that everything might not be going to (a creator’s) plan, we sure are well-aware of the influence of luck. The genetic lottery, the roll of the die, the fickleness of Lady Luck…
And yet, those with success and looked up to as having been successful recently all chalk it up to their own doing. “I built that.” It’s all a story, so often, of having failed often, having failed fast, but never having given up and therefore having had to succeed. “And so can you.”

It is, to a large extent, a result of biases, not a realistic view. And it is true.

We simply tend to see our accomplishments as being due to our persevering character and hard effort. Where “I” succeed, it’s because of all the work I did; with others, it’s also a lot of luck. (Similarly, where “I” act amorally, it’s a mere matter of circumstances; others, however, have personality defects that make them act less than perfectly.) It’s called the fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias…

Looking at the successful ones, there’s also survivorship bias: We look for lessons from those with success, learn about their hard effort which finally paid off – but we fail to realize that there are scores of others who worked at least as hard, except that it didn’t pay off in the end. Those become invisible, though; they aren’t prominent.

(My favorite example: imagine Steve Jobs had died after he’d left Apple. At that point, he probably wouldn’t have been hailed as quite the great success he’s seen as now, especially given his character flaws. But, he was brought back and helmed the release of the iPhone… Or take The Beatles. They’ve just become an example of how no success is pre-ordained, but rather dependent on lots of lucky breaks…)

Some distinct aspects of “luck,” read: chance, always play a role and tend to go unnoticed, fundamental as they are.

Where and as what you are born, for example. Women are getting more and more support in some contexts, tend to do better at school and university – and they are still judged more harshly than men when it comes to looks, clothes, and behavior, seen as more responsible for household chores and given a harder time advancing in careers.
Being born in Boston, Bern, Bamako or Beijing will give radically different experiences and chances.
What languages you grow up with, and what you (can, especially given circumstances) learn will give you different audiences and markets and chances.
The best of talent isn’t going to help much if you get no chance of going to school or never develop the grit to develop the talent into actual skill, and the greatest skill isn’t going to be of much use, in terms of financial or public success, if it isn’t seen as being great and valuable – or if it doesn’t get used to produce something that can be seen as being so.

The problem in trying to see such things as they are is that we are seeing just too much, too quickly. Some people manage to emerge from the greatest of adversity, some perish in it, many somehow manage. Some never rise even as they start with the best of possibilities and support whereas others do. Most somehow manage.

Our focus just goes to the most prominent of stories, whether they are of how easy some people can have it or of how even the worst of circumstances can be overcome. That which managed to get the eyeballs, using ever the same quirks of our psychology and mechanics of “virality” gets yet more attention. It doesn’t look like we can get to any sensible insight that would make for good advice, though.

There may well be one, however: Life, like the luck one may have in it, has to be lived.

Calling for living life sounds just superfluous, calling for living luck counter to our understanding of luck – and yet, both are necessary, and both are the same: Living actively, learning more, building skills, taking chances. Doing things.

It’s all too common nowadays to wait for good things to come. Just wish them, and wish them strongly enough to manifest them. Wait for your lottery ticket to come up.

But, even to win in the lottery (stupid as that hope is, given the chances), you first need to buy a ticket. To win in the lottery of life and luck – or rather, to create the chance for luck to kick in – you equally need to get to the doing. The best chance for happiness and success will pass by unnoticed if you are not in a position to take that chance. And working on creating the conditions for luck, you might even realize that you are lucky anyways, being alive and human and in a position to get better still.
Defining success as nothing but fame and fortune doesn’t exactly cut it, after all – but in all the strive for success, few seem to stop and define what success actually means to them, even as the world indeed doesn’t need more people successful in ways that enrich them and diminish the world.

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it. ― David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

No matter what it is, you won’t be building your success all yourself, no matter how much we seem to like that (spin on) the story. But, if you aren’t building anything, not even yourself, you’re just circling the drain