The Hidden Role of Chance in Life

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Article by: Henry Onyango

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Can we talk about the randomness that is life? Hard work and sometimes talent has been widely portrayed in books, movies, blogs, and motivational speeches as the key determinant for “success”. While I do not discount the huge role these two factors contribute towards how our life turns out, the role played by luck and serendipity is often overlooked.

It’s been said that Christiano Ronaldo’s career would have taken a different turn had it not been for his teammate and long time friend Albert Fantrau. The story goes that even though he had an opportunity to score, Fantrau decided to pass the ball to young CR7 allowing him to score his second goal of the match, landing him his spot in an unnamed sports academy. Fantrau says he saw a brighter future in Ronaldo than he did for himself and although he never played professionally, he is currently living a lavish life all thanks to his Christiano.

Now, we can all argue how all those are inconsequential and that Christiano deserved his spot. And maybe he did. But we can also appreciate that things turned out pretty good for both of them in the end.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page had to continue building Google after unsuccessful attempts to sell it, Apple’s founding was by chance and Michael Jordan’s Nike deal was fluke despite AirJordans being one of the most sold pairs of sneakers in the world to date.

I’m a smart individual, or at least I’d like to think I am. I am also extremely competitive and don’t shy away from expressing my desires and strengths. And yet I landed on my career path by mere chance. It was never a conscious decision or something I thought about growing up. I met my co-founders by chance, started a company unintentionally, won a competition I never applied for and landed a 6 figure job through a Tweet.

As humans, we all want to feel like we are in control — to believe that our actions truly have a direct consequence around how our lives turn out and that our destinies are really in our hands. It gets worse if we have a few successes to back that belief up because then, the God complex kicks in. To admit otherwise would be admitting to chaos, to the possibility that we might not be in control of anything.

Almost all consequential events in our lives are unpredictable. Life as a whole is unpredictable. And the best we can do is to try and move through the storm. We cannot tame or control it.

No one more than Nassim Taleb embodies this philosophy. In his book, “Fooled by Randomness”, (which I implore you to read) he discusses the fallibility of human knowledge. He sets forth the idea that most of us are unaware of the existence of randomness. Ergo, we insist on rationalizing random outcomes as non-random. He goes a step further to explore survival bias, skewed distributions, and Monte Carlo simulation... 

So the next time you look at that friend or relative who has no job or doesn’t seem to have figured out life to your expectation (especially now that more and more people are losing the livelihoods, businesses and doing their best to keep sane), I hope you recall the words of John Roberts and become a bit more empathetic.

I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.

This article was also published in Henry’s personal blog

Also read: Henry Onyango on Failing Your Way to Success