Our Journeys of Chance
The lucky-save is a classic story, that event awash with emotional weight, in which the person survived by the merest, slightest, of chances. Were a microphone to be present at the time, the likely most common phrase after would be “Whoa! That was lucky!” though often with a great deal more cursing involved. There’s a compilation, not for the faint of heart, on YouTube, of videos showing bare misses. It’s been viewed more than 13 million times.
These stories begin as exclamations of luck, but fast-forward a period of time and when told around drinks at a social gathering, the story shifts ever so slightly into one of personal courage and skill. The focus is no longer on how the vehicle missed, but how “I” was able to get out of the way. If one were to shift the perspective to the flip-side and note just how many people aren’t lucky in similar circumstances, the response will likely not include being invited again. Yet, the reality of chance, or luck as we like to personalize it, is the storm falls where it will. The lucky-save video compilation focus is on the person saved, yet the question of what happened to everyone else involved in the accidents isn’t considered.
This tendency to personalize chance is bound within the way we tell our personal narratives. If we consider that story-telling is essentially memory-reconstruction, then, as Daniel Schacter (2002) puts it:
“…we tend to think of memories as snapshots from family albums that, if stored properly, could be retrieved in precisely the same condition in which they were put away. But we now know that we do not record our experiences the way a camera records them. Our memories work differently. We extract key elements from our experiences and store them. We then recreate or reconstruct our experiences rather than retrieve copies of them. Sometimes, in the process of reconstructing we add on feelings, beliefs, or even knowledge we obtained after the experience. In other words, we bias our memories of the past by attributing to them emotions or knowledge we acquired after the event.”
This attribution of emotions and knowledge post-event, is part of a bias spread across humanity. “…Events that work to our disadvantage are easier to recall than those that affect us positively” (Frank, 2016). This applies to a consideration of luck with a focus on the overcoming of an obstacle. The lucky-save story is not about everything that had to be in just the right order to have survived, instead it’s about one’s own activity in narrowly missing the destructive event.
Frank (2016) takes this mental gamesmanship into the realm of financial success, noting:
“According to the Pew Research Center, people in higher income brackets are much more likely than those with lower incomes to say that individuals get rich primarily because they work hard. Other surveys bear this out: Wealthy people overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than to factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.”
However, the core psychological feature of the studies mentioned stretches far beyond financial success. Effectively, the belief of the wealthy that hard-work rather than chance led to their success, is based on the notion of individual rightness, of having personally acted in such a way as to overcome negative events. This feeling of self-right-eousness, or pride, is based on two factors: 1) confrontation with a perceived obstacle, and 2) ignorance of supporting variables.
Pride is not limited to a connection of financial success, it is a supportive feeling in any circumstance of dealing with adversity. With the political season full upon us and the central narrative for both parties being a battle between the “Haves and the Have-Nots,” the two factors of confrontation and ignorance have a lot to work with. Combined with social media’s ability to exponentially expand the reach of ego, it is not merely leaders that have become demagogues, we all are in a mad dash to manifest our individual version with upraised fists.
Thankfully our capacity to expand our perspective doesn’t require more than being actively reminded. Rather than a focus on the rightness of one’s political identity or a belief in having successfully hit upon the right group and ideology to belong to, consider all the factors that went into the journey getting there. This is not a denial of one’s personal agency so much as a broadening recognition that where we end up, whether it be within a social movement or possessing a large bank account, has at least as much to do with factors outside of our immediate control.
We do not select which ideas to believe as if from a mental sample platter, any more than business success occurs purely from personal will and effort. Ideas and their acquisition work upon and within structures as much as any business. For every governmental and legal system in place, there is a cultural and familial background. For every road travelled and delivery system utilized, there are educational opportunities and temperament that support and direct our attention to particular ideas over others.
“Economists like to talk about scarcity, but its logic doesn’t always hold up in the realm of human emotion. Gratitude, in particular, is a currency we can spend freely without fear of bankruptcy” (Frank, 2016).
By reminding ourselves to look beyond our lucky-save stories, we can appreciate all that went into and continues to exist for us to be where we are.
© David Teachout
Frank, Robert. (2016). The Atlantic. Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think
Schacter, Daniel L. (2002-05-07). The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (p. 9). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.