Embracing random luck and the chance for a better life

9:55 am on 27 May 2024
240314. Photo Diego Opatowski/ RNZ. Gambling. Dice

There are benefits to embracing the role of randomness in life, Dr Mark Robert Rank says. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Many things in life, from the outcomes of sports matches to scientific discoveries, are determined - at least in part - by chance, says author and professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis, Mark Robert Rank.

And his new book, The Random Factor: How Chance and Luck Profoundly Shape Our Lives and the World Around Us details how under-appreciating that randomness may be to our detriment.

"The random factor is kind of like our dance companion in life," he told RNZ's Sunday Morning. "We have our self and we have randomness, and it's the interaction of those two dance partners that gives life its dynamic quality."

Those who were successful were particularly likely to discount the impact of luck on their lives, he said, though empirical studies had shown that while people who succeeded tended to have "a baseline level of talent and skills and determination", "the ones who really made it big got some lucky breaks".

However, probability and chance were more likely to work in people's favour if they were coupled with perseverance, Rank said.

"The odds of something may be kind of low, but if you have more irons in the fire, then you're more likely to get a positive outcome."

The publishing industry was a good place to turn for those lessons, he said, noting that Ernest Hemingway's first novel was initially rejected many times by publishers, as was the first Harry Potter book and Gone with the Wind.

"In each of those cases, the quality of the work was really good, but the publishers - for whatever reason - decided to pass."

Those authors' perseverance was what eventually led to positive outcomes for them, he said.

The Random Factor: How Chance and Luck Profoundly Shape Our Lives and the World around Us

Photo: Chicago University Press

It was also important for those who wished to benefit from chance to keep their eyes open so they could take advantage of events that happened "out of the blue", Rank said.

Many scientific discoveries, including the accidental discovery of penicillin were "stimulated by chance and randomness", he said, "but the scientist had to see that opportunity and take advantage".

Changing on a dime - the role chance has played in shaping our world

History was littered with stories of chance, Rank said, noting that the 20th century would have unfolded differently had Adolf Hitler been accepted into art school in Vienna.

Those deciding who should be admitted felt the future dictator's skill "lay more in architecture than in art".

But art was subjective, Rank said, and "had that committee met on a different day, had it been composed of a couple different people, he may very well have gotten accepted into art school, and had that happened, the history of the 20th century would've played out entirely different".

Similarly, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 could have escalated to another level altogether had it not been for a chance event, Rank said.

Russia sent four submarines to the site of the naval blockade ordered by President Kennedy.

"Unbeknownst to the United States, each of those submarines actually had a nuclear-tipped torpedo."

One of the submarines, which was being "harassed by the US fleet", was eventually forced to surface as it needed to recharge its electrical system.

"When they got to the surface, the Russian commander felt that he was under attack - the fleet surrounded him, they were firing shots across the bow ... he gave the order 'submerge the submarine, get the nuclear-tipped torpedo ready for firing'," Rank said.

"Now in that split second, when he was coming down from the conning tower ladder ... there was two other people on there - a Russian sailor and the second-in-command - the Russian sailor got his foot stuck on the conning tower ladder; in that split-second, the second-in-command realised that the US fleet was not attacking but signalling, and he said 'stop the order, they're signalling'.

"If that Russian sailor hadn't gotten his foot accidentally stuck on that ladder, that submarine would have submerged, and in five minutes they would've fired that nuclear-tipped torpedo, which would've led to a nuclear catastrophe and World War III. And it was prevented by a pure chance event."

Another historical example involving Hitler indicated he understood the role of luck in life.

After missing being caught up in a November 1939 Munich bombing by mere minutes, he remarked: 'A man has to be lucky', Rank said.

"Well, he certainly was lucky and we certainly were unlucky because imagine if those 12 minutes had played out; World War II would have been much different, the Holocaust may very well not have happened - or certainly wouldn't have happened probably the way that it did."

The luckiest of breaks

There were benefits to embracing the role of randomness in life, Rank said - one of which was that it could sometimes relieve "the burden of guilt" around difficult situations.

He gave the example of cancer, which could have genetic and environmental components, but could also be due to "random genetic mutation".

People facing a cancer diagnosis often asked themselves what they had done wrong or could have done differently to prevent it, he said: "And in some cases, the answer is 'nothing'. There was nothing you could have done to prevent this, it was simply bad luck that that happened to you".

The chances of us being here at all were infinitesimal, he said, and that was really what we should be focusing on.

"Whenever you talk to people and how they met their significant other there's a huge amount of chance involved - so your parents had to find each other, their parents had to find each other, their parents had to find each other. Then the sperm with your name had to find the egg - out of millions - so when you think about this, the chances of us actually being here are zillions to one.

"We ought to be grateful ... and actually, we should make the best of our time here, because talk about a lucky break.

"Always remember to count your lucky stars."