last updated: 5 September 2019 (approximate reading time: 3 minutes; 615 words)
There's a quote that's widely attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte which has always fascinated me: “I know he's a good general, but is he lucky?”
There's another quote which is attributed to any number of golfers (from Arnold Palmer onward): “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
I think we can all understand this notion…but does practice alone explain luck or are there factors beyond pure skill and hard work that play a part in success?
He's Just Unlucky…
If some people are lucky, then maybe others are unlucky. I'm sure we've all met people who think they're unlucky or for whom bad luck seems to be a regular feature of their life.
When we look at people who are regularly unlucky, we tend to see patterns. The most obvious pattern is unpreparedness for the situation where the individual is “unlucky”. This unpreparedness may be a matter of laziness or stupidity, or may simply reflect a lack of understanding of the task (where they have been “unlucky”). The individual may also be acting with an unreasonable assessment of their own competence (for the task where they have been “unlucky”).
Alternatively, these regular misfortunes may arise due to a persistent habit of provoking an unfavorable reaction in other people. That provoked reaction then leads to an “unlucky” result. And often, “unlucky” people have no one telling them to stop what they're doing or helping them to make better choices.
Of course, there is bad luck, but so often it is fairly obvious for the outsider to connect regular behavior to bad luck. And if you can make your own bad luck, then you can make your own good luck, which brings us back to practice.
Fictions vs Reality
In fiction, readers are—rightly—skeptical of luck.
In fiction we find reality—the reality of the story—more plausible. A reader will suspend their disbelief provided they can believe in the world of the story. The world of the story must therefore be plausible and as part of this, characters cannot simply “be lucky”—that's not believable. Instead, luck has to be earned.
By equal measure, a character cannot simply be unlucky. The unfortunate series of incidents that must befall a character—and the peril in which a character finds themselves—must be a reaction to a previous action.
A character can be unlucky once (a car crash, crossing someone, being a victim of crime), but not twice. Often that one unlucky event is the protagonist tripping into the situation that becomes the story.
After that one misfortune, the good luck or bad luck that befalls the character is a matter of the consequences of previous choices. In other words, a character can then make their own luck—they can make a choice or do something that leads to a situation where the character can catch a lucky break. Looked at another way—as the golf professionals suggest—a character can practice some more and get lucky.
Are There Lucky Generals?
In real life and in fiction, what is perceived as good luck is a combination of three elements:
- hard work
In order to have a chance of being lucky, one first needs to work hard (at the specific task) and be skilled (at the specific task). And when there are the inevitable setbacks, the “lucky” people will take those setbacks in their stride, minimize the difficulties that occur, and work around the problem.
So was Napoleon onto something? Did he have lucky generals, or did his just choose hard working and skilled generals?
I suspect that Napoleon found skilled generals; looking for apparently lucky generals was an easier way to find his most skilled leaders among an already talented and proven group of individuals.