Luck, Skill, and Choosing Your Reactions

I read an article recently about the concept of luck in games. Some people don’t like games that involve luck, because it makes winning and  losing seem out of your control, like your skill and effort don’t mean anything. But while all that can be true, the article said, luck can also be a test of skill, because part of that skill involves knowing how to react to unexpected circumstances.

A few weeks before this, I was thinking about something entirely unrelated—the car accident I was in back in December. “People like to talk about how it’s better to act than to react,” I mused to my husband, “but when it comes down to it, a lot of life is about reacting. Everyone likes to think they’re completely in control of their lives, or that they could be if they tried hard enough, but a lot of the big things that shape our lives are things that are entirely outside our control. All we can do is react.”

That article about games stuck in my head, and I wasn’t sure why—until it occurred to me that those two lines of thought weren’t so unrelated after all. What, after all, was my car accident—and the flu that made it all but impossible for me to work for most of January, and the benign but alarmingly large tumor I needed surgery for last year—except luck? That’s the definition of luck, both in games and in life: something either good or bad that affects your life but isn’t under your control.

But we’re told that everything is under our control. We’re told that we should always be acting rather than reacting. And we think that’s what we’re doing as we go about our lives. And yes, of course our actions affect the direction of our lives. (If I hadn’t chosen to take a chance on writing as a career, my life would look very different today.) But the truth is, life is as much about our reactions as our actions, if not more so. From the time and culture you’re born into, to global events, to the events that only affect you personally, life is largely about responding to things you can’t control. There’s no getting around that.

And it’s an uncomfortable thing. It feels unjust for something bad to happen to us when we haven’t done anything wrong, or for something good to drop into the lap of someone who doesn’t deserve it. It feels like we should be able to avoid all the bad stuff and bring all the good stuff down on our heads as long as we just try hard enough. It feels inconvenient, like our lives would be a lot better if life didn’t keep intervening. Just like in games—how dare that unlucky dice roll interrupt my victory??

Just like in games, some people take this to mean it doesn’t matter what they do, or that the world is simply unfair. But that’s not really true, when you think about it—while some things actually are stacked against you or in your favor (see: racism, sexism, wealth and poverty, and myriad other things that give some people a leg up over another), the universe itself is not unfair. The laws of the universe apply equally to everyone, with everyone having the same chance of good or bad luck. A random dice roll that goes against you isn’t a sign that the game is inherently unfair, just like a random dice roll that goes in your favor isn’t a sign that you’re good at the game.

And just like in games, the point isn’t choosing our actions so well that we never have any bad circumstances to react to. All the skill in the world can’t stop a bad dice roll. The point—and the challenge—is in choosing your responses. That, I suspect , is largely what life is about: not fending off bad circumstances with the power of our actions, not giving up and letting fate determine our lives for us, but shaping our lives through how we respond to the things we can’t control.

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