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January 10th, 2023
The Fallen Dancer will be a series here on Tinkered Thinking exploring a recent shift in perspective. The resulting framework appears to tie together many topics explored on Tinkered Thinking over the years such as resilience, struggle, patience, curiosity, emotional regulation, artistry, entrepreneurship, winning, honesty, and communication. This series will be an attempt to unify them in a cohesive treatment.
Part I: Why are Evil people so lucky?
Luck is a strange entity in life. Sometimes it seems as though the world is karmic, as though luck follows the logic of karma, and that people who deserve it get their comeuppance. But then often, or perhaps more often, it seems that people who don’t deserve it - get incredibly lucky. What is going on here? Is this merely proof of a cold, unjust and uncaring universe? A cruel god? Evidence of past lives that either uplift or damn our circumstance in this life? Or is there something else going on here?
These questions contain a fundamental flaw. One so enormous that it’s impossible for the perspective that gives rise to such questions to even glimpse it. The flaw is with the perspective that generates these questions. A more interesting question might be: does your perspective on life have an impact on how lucky you are?
At first this sounds like some supernatural, hocus pocus nonsense. It would be understandable to assume that a sharp turn is about to occur, diving into all manner of balderdash like “manifesting”, “mystical energy” and “positive talk”, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead, let’s examine the pieces of the puzzle: what exactly is luck? It’s unexpected leverage. Luck is a sudden increase in personal agency due to some external aspect of new circumstances. For example we don’t instantly increase in agency in terms of what we can actually do. We don’t wake up with entirely new skillsets downloaded into our brain, and we don’t wake up with extra arms to type twice as fast. Luck is a change in circumstances that allows for our current level of agency to become magnified. Our actual agency doesn’t change, but reality has some new aspect that makes it potentially much more susceptible to the influence and effort of the agency we do have.
A few examples can help illustrate this and it’s useful to mix in the largest magnifier of agency: money. Consider this lucky turn of events: Getting a call and finding out an unknown uncle has left you a ton of money. That’s lucky. Money increases our agency without any change in who we are. Our agency is magnified because money is fungible and we use it exclusively in the context of other people. We pay people to do things and we pay for the fruit of other people’s labor either in services or products. So our agency is magnified by money by enabling us to utilize other people for our own design.
Compare this with a dedicated start-up founder who is given a sum of money by an investor to bring a business to life. That investor-money is functionally the exact same as money from that long lost uncle, or winning the lottery even. So what is different in these circumstances?
Many lottery winners end up penniless just a few short years after their windfall fortune. And many start-ups similarly fail, essentially meaning all that money is squandered in both cases. A lack of agency and ability is magnified in each case.
But consider the flipped version of the start-up founder who successfully employs that windfall of investor money in order to bring a novel idea to life. The money simply magnifies the vision, hard work and overall agency of that start-up founder.
Returning to that initial definition of luck as unexpected leverage, it’s worth examining whether the leverage really is unexpected or not. The case of the long lost uncle and windfall inheritance seems like it fits the bill. But what about the start-up founder who gets investor money? Is that unexpected? Perhaps luck isn't always unexpected..
Let’s examine the same set of examples in terms of a slightly different definition of luck: luck is when preparation meets opportunity.
Opportunity fits nicely into what’s already been laid out. Opportunity is that slight change in reality which presents the possible magnification of one’s agency. But what about preparation?
What exactly is the preparation for the lottery winner who ends up penniless, or the start-up founder who fails, or the start-up founder who succeeds?
The lottery winner who ends up penniless in a few years is a much different person then the driven hardworking start-up founder who succeeds. The money doesn’t actually impart any actual agency to the person who receives it. Money only magnifies whatever agency the person already has. In the case of the lottery winner, the only real agency might be an ability to spend that money, which is no agency at all, that’s just feeding desire and pleasure through consumption. So perhaps in such a case the money magnifies a lack of agency. Whereas the start-up founder’s agency is presumably an ability to work hard to turn a novel idea into a reality. And the hard working start-up founder who fails? Shall we chalk that up to bad luck? Perhaps.
But what is bad luck? Is it simply the opposite? Is bad luck an unexpected decrease in agency? What about that popular definition of luck as the intersection of preparation and opportunity? What is the opposite of preparation meeting opportunity? Preparation not meeting opportunity? That’s not bad luck, that’s just the absence of luck - status quo, so to speak. So what is bad luck?
The Fallen Dancer is the result of a curiosity that has long circled the concept of bad luck. For many years that curiosity was stuck in a holding pattern, yielding nothing, discovering nothing, the mechanics of bad luck remaining elusive. Likewise, a twin curiosity circled the question that forms the title of this introduction: why are evil people so lucky? These two fruitless curiosities were haunting, and then one day, a single line from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations clicked in a way that had escaped during previous readings. A fundamental error in perspective revealed itself. The Fallen Dancer is the result of discovering that error - a chronicle of a subtle but profound shift in perspective that reveals the connection between these two intractable questions.