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Sagacity, Strength, and Luck
You have the power to control two of these.
“An ancient writer says, very truly: that there are three great powers in the world: sagacity, strength, and luck.” — Arthur Schopenhauer, 1851
In the previous edition of Timeless & Timely, I wrote about leadership lessons I gleaned from Maria Konnikova’s remarkable tale of a sabbatical that made her a poker champion, as she chronicled in The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win.
As I prepared this Subscriber-only update for you (Friday’s update is usually a deeper dive, alternate angle, or personal story related to the week’s topic; you can subscribe to read them.), I reread the essay and came across this paragraph:
“Call them luck, call them fortune, call them chance or superstition, it’s all the same: circumstances that we can’t control. But if we put ourselves in the proper mindset, we can tilt ourselves one way or another, as a sail catches wind.”
I remember struggling with the second sentence. “What can I use as an analogy that makes the point?” I recall asking myself. I settled on a sailing analogy and that was that.
Until I came across an essay last night that made me realize I hit the proper tone.
Arthur Schopenhauer’s “The Wisdom of Life” (1851) contains this passage:
“A man’s life is like the voyage of a ship, where luck acts the part of the wind and speeds the vessel on its way or drives it far out of its course. All that the man can do for himself is of little avail; like the rudder, which if worked hard and continuously may help in the navigation of the ship; and yet all may be lost again by a sudden squall.”
I’m not interested in gloating over unconsciously channeling Schopenhauer; I’d rather continue where the paragraph ends.
So much of our efforts are related to preparing ourselves, paying our dues, putting in the work to become experts in our field (much like Konnikova did in the field of poker). But even so, we can count on adverse events blowing us off course. Or crises not of our making that turn our plans on their head.
A global pandemic, social unrest, an economic downturn: all sudden squalls, blowing us off course. What’s a person to do? If you’re in Schopenhauer’s world, he says anything we can do isn’t much help.
This is where I think Schopenhauer and I differ in our thinking.
When you’re in a jam, it isn’t luck that’s going to help, necessarily. It’s resilience (a topic we’ve covered previously here). The thing with resilience-inspired luck is that it requires a mindset shift.
Have you noticed that when you get on a streak of good luck or bad luck, your head usually gets you in a place where you expect the streak to continue? Both are irrational, but the thought process does something to our minds that reframes our situation.
As Konnikova observed:
“If you think of yourself instead as an almost-victor who thought correctly and did everything possible but was foiled by crap variance? No matter: you will have other opportunities, and if you keep thinking correctly, eventually it will even out. These are the seeds of resilience, of being able to overcome the bad beats that you can’t avoid and mentally position yourself to be prepared for the next time. People share things with you: if you’ve lost your job, your social network thinks of you when new jobs come up; if you’re recently divorced or separated or bereaved, and someone single who may be a good match pops up, you’re top of mind. That attitude is what I think of as a luck amplifier. Sure, you can’t actually change the cards, and the variance will be what it will be—but you will feel a whole lot happier and better adjusted while you take life’s blows, and your ready mindset will prepare you for the change in variance that will come at some point, even if that point is far in the future.”
So many of us were affected in one way or another with the pandemic: having to home-school kids, working from home, or even a business model that was smashed to pieces, thanks to social distancing. In those moments, it sure was easy to think that we failed, or couldn’t handle it, or kick ourselves for not being otherwise prepared.
But why? Because things became different than they were supposed to be? Because the norm was now what used to be an outlier? Because we couldn’t see what everyone else couldn’t see either?
“If a man look sharply, and attentively, he shall see Fortune: for though she be blind, yet she is not invisible.” — Francis Bacon, 1625
Look closely. What seems like an upset or an end may actually be a repositioning or a new beginning.
It depends on how you’re mentally prepared for it and what you’re willing to do next.
The mishaps will always come, but perhaps it isn’t about the “little avail” of the human-controlled rudder. Maybe we should focus on how we recover from squalls and what we do with a reoriented compass.
“On looking back over the course of his life—that labyrinthine way of error—a man must see many points where luck failed him and misfortune came; and then it is easy to carry self-reproach to an unjust success. For the course of a man’s life is in no way entirely of his own making; it is the product of two factors—the series of things that happened, and his own resolves in regard to them, and these two are constantly interacting upon and modifying each other.”
Chance will always play a role in our lives, but is outside of the realm of our control. What can we control, then? We can prepare ourselves with the resilience to bear the load. And reflecting on our experiences and our surroundings, we have an opportunity to attain wisdom.
Sagacity, strength, and luck.
Maybe Schopenhauer was onto something.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.