I hope you all have a good year in 2021, with a bit of luck out there on the road or trail enjoying your motorcycle. But what am I wishing you when I write “luck”?
There is a Terry Pratchett character living among the gods in their mountaintop palace Dunmanifestin’ called only The Lady. She is never referred to by name, because mentioning that might be seen as calling upon her; and she is not one of those pitiful gods who need constant reinforcement of their importance by having followers call upon their name. In fact, she has no followers because everyone is her follower, whether they want to be or not. And she does not like being called upon; that might be seen as a diminution of her ability to damn well do as she pleases.
Her name down here is Luck, and as on the Discworld you take your chances when you call on her.
Many people want to be her acolytes. They invent sacraments where none are called for. Samuel Goldwyn reportedly said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” while Ray Croc joined in with the slightly rephrased commandment “Luck is a dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get.” I hope he wasn’t sweating into the hamburgers. Even Thomas Jefferson, along with several dozen other quotees, is said to have said, “I’m a great… believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”.
Really, Mr President? I suspect that like so many other people you are confusing “luck” with “success”.
Of course she is not anything as concrete or even identifiable as mere success. Cormac McCarthy possibly said it best when he noticed that “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” And P G Wodehouse, not known for his deep philosophizing as much as his glib humour, clearly gave the matter some thought before he wrote that “Luck is a goddess not to be coerced and forcibly wooed by those who seek her favors. From such masterful spirits she turns away. But it happens sometimes that, if we put our hand in hers with the humble trust of a little child, she will have pity on us, and not fail us in our hour of need.”
On the other hand, when Barbara Sher says that “The amount of good luck coming your way depends on your willingness to act,” and blogger Nesta Jojoe Erskine adds that “You don’t get lucky while sitting in (sic) the sofa with arms crossed doing nothing. You can be lucky only when you are prepared” they are doing nothing more than pushing the protestant ethic. They’re saying that there’ll be pie in the sky when you die, as long as you have worked hard to deserve it. That may be true, but it has nothing to do with The Lady.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect”, he was saying much the same thing, only adding an increased level of self-righteousness. I suspect The Lady would be wanting to have a word with him if he appeared on the Discworld. Likewise with Lucius Annaeus Seneca, whose take might seem repetitive but at least has the distinction of being an early one: “Luck is where opportunity meets preparation.” Business management ‘guru’ Eliyahu Goldratt borrows that (without acknowledgement, as far as I can see) and spins it out further when he says that “Good luck is when opportunity meets preparation, while bad luck is when a lack of preparation meets reality.”
Can you see the consistent line running through this? Not one of these people actually believes in luck. They believe that good luck rewards hard work, while bad luck is just an excuse for failure. Like J C Penney founder James Cash Penney, who said that “Luck is always the last refuge of laziness and incompetence.” Arrogant? Well, no doubt he worked hard all of his life, but one does wonder what he would have to say to one of his workers who worked just as hard and lived from payday to payday. At least Penney didn’t live entirely by that quote. He was a substantial philanthropist. He was still wrong, though.
Longshoreman and philosopher (there’s a pair of words you don’t often see together, although I suspect you should) Eric Hoffer said it best. “Nobody gets justice. People only get good luck or bad luck.”
And Orson Welles summed it up admirably with the words “A great man’s greatest good luck is to die at the right time.” There’s a true example of luck, a piece of timing that no amount of hard work can guarantee.
As for me, I think I have been lucky at least partly because I’ve managed to do what I enjoy, for most of my life: ride motorcycles, travel to interesting (and some drearily dull) places and write about these experiences for you.
And you know what? I probably didn’t deserve any of it. Just lucky, I guess.