The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Three: Luck
Posted on November 3, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 65 Comments
I’m a lucky bastard, and sometimes it annoys me when people don’t acknowledge that fact.
In most cases they mean well, because most discussions of luck around me come up in the context of my fiction career, when I note that I got lucky when Old Man’s War, my first published novel, was not only plucked from online obscurity by Tor Books but then became one of the big science fiction books of its year. This precipitates comments suggesting it wasn’t about luck at all, and that I shouldn’t underestimate my own efforts/skills/timing or whatever. My response, aside from thanking these folks for their upvote, is point out that of all the writers currently practicing the craft, in the science fiction genre or out of it, I really am the last one who needs to be reassured of his skills and talent. I’m good at what I do, both in writing and in marketing myself. Trust me when I say I’m not running down my skills or abilities. Indeed it’s because I am not notably neurotic about those things that I can say, with a full, clear and reasonably objective point of view, that aside from anything else in my life, I have been lucky. Extraordinarily so. It does nothing to minimize what I have done purposefully in my life to acknowledge that fact and to be grateful for it.
What is luck? At the end of the day, it’s the good things that happen to you that you simply don’t or can’t control. Stepping away from a curb the second before a car you didn’t see barrels right over where you just were. Finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. Stepping into a restaurant for a bite to eat and seeing an old friend you lost contact with years ago just before she steps out the door. These are all some obvious examples of luck. It works the other way too; you can step toward a curb just as a car you didn’t see plows into it and into you; then you are unlucky.
In either case the event is not something you consciously or purposefully controlled. You can argue left and right about how much “luck” has to do with any particular event: In the case of me getting lucky with Old Man’s War, I still wrote the book, and I still had, for the time, a robust presence online which meant it had a better chance to be seen than perhaps other similar novel presented online would have. Both of these had a significant impact on my luck. Be that as it may, ultimately I had no control over Patrick Nielsen Hayden going to my site, reading the entire novel on his own time, and deciding to make an offer on the book outside of the usual submission channels. Had he not decided to do just one of those things (and particularly the last one), it’s pretty obvious that my life would be a different one than I have now.
However, this is not even the best example of what an incredibly lucky bastard I am. The best example is me meeting my wife. Many of you know that I met my wife in 1993 when I was doing a feature story for the newspaper I was working for at the time. The story was on a local DJ; I followed her around all day, including to a gig at bar, at which Krissy and her friends chose to show up, and at which she saw me dancing with someone else and decided to approach me later that evening. We then danced several times that night and than made arrangements to see each other again, and everything went from there. It’s a nice story.
Here are some things to consider:
1. I was originally supposed to follow the DJ in question on an entirely different day, when she was supposed to do an evening gig at an entirely different bar in an entirely different city. If the story had gone as originally scheduled, I would not have met Krissy.
2. The bar we did meet in was in a city that neither Krissy nor I lived in; she and her friends went to that bar specifically because they liked the DJ. I don’t think I had actually ever been in that city before that night. If it hadn’t been for the specific DJ, doing that specific gig on that specific night, I wouldn’t have been there, and I wouldn’t have met Krissy.
3. Even if Krissy had decided to go to a bar in my town one night, I don’t drink, and as a result, outside of science fiction conventions (which I did not go to at the time, nor did Krissy), I never go to bars. If I had not been doing this particular story, which occasioned me being in a bar for work, I wouldn’t have met Krissy.
4. If I had decided that being on job meant I couldn’t do any dancing, Krissy wouldn’t have seen me on the dance floor and become interested in meeting me. And then I wouldn’t have met her. Note, incidentally, that asking random women to dance is not what I usually did at the time; in fact, I’m pretty sure that night was the only time I’d ever done it.
5. Krissy tells me that she saw me because she was getting a drink at the bar and I happened to be dancing at that time. If I had decided to skip that particular song — or if the random woman I had asked to dance had decided not to dance with me — Krissy wouldn’t have seen me, and given how crowded the bar was that night and the fact she was with friends and probably would have spent most of her time with them had she not seen me on the dance floor, it’s entirely possible we would not have met.
6. If Krissy had made the assumption that the person I was dancing with was my girlfriend, she might not have approached me. And then we might not have met.
7. And so on.
If you add all this up, the odds of me having met my wife, given who I was, where I lived and what I usually did with my time, are so infinitesimally small as to be almost completely non-existent. Pretty much the only chance I would have ever had to meet her was that one time, that one night. You know, there’s a word for meeting one’s lifelong love on the single night in either of your lives that you would have ever had the chance to meet. It’s called “luck.”
When I want to drive myself hair-pullingly crazy, I think about all the ways it would have been so easy not to have met my wife. And then I call up my wife and tell her just how happy I am that she’s in my life, and that I love her and that when she comes home I’m totally gonna rub her feet.
So when I tell you that in my life I have been blessed with an extraordinary amount of luck — more luck than one person should probably have, in fact — don’t rush to assure me that luck has nothing to do with where I am in life today. I do appreciate the thought, to be sure. And I know you mean well. But I know the truth. I’m a lucky bastard. I’m thankful for it.
(P.S.: Wanna hear the first song Krissy and I ever danced to? Go here.)
Such a sweet story! I agree: it’s amazing how much our life can be changed by very unpredictable things.
What I really like about your story is that it illustrates how good fortune in life can be due to luck, but also how you still need to capitalize on your luck. Many people would have pulled a Prufrock and would have been too nervous to ask a person they just met at a bar for a date.
Well, since she asked me to dance and then continued to dance with me all evening long, I figured I had a pretty good chance. Also, she was the most gorgeous woman I had ever laid eyes on, and bear in mind I was interviewing movie actresses at the time. I wasn’t going to let her walk out without at least letting her know I would love to see her again.
Aw, this is such a sweet story! Clearly your wife is just as lucky as you are.
Hmmm. You know, the odds that I would buy the particular coffee cup that I did out of all the coffee cups in the world, AND that I would have the one particular coke can on my desk that I do, and that they would be there AT THE SAME TIME, are so incredibly low that they are practically 0. And yet, there they are. Manufactured at completely different times, in completely different countries, sold to me years apart (on different sides of the United States, no less). There is no way that anyone could have EVER predicted that THAT coffee cup and THAT coke can would ever be in the same room together, let alone sitting on the same desk. But, like I said, there they are.
It’s just amazing.
I am freaking out right now. I just had that Cure song in my head before clicking the link. I don’t know why. I even searched this page to see if the title of the song was here somewhere and I had seen it without noticing, but it looks like that’s not the case. How did you do that?
Nice treatise on luck, BTW, and it’s a good thing to appreciate. It’s also good to remember that having a lucky streak doesn’t mean that you’ll continue to have a lucky streak. Luck doesn’t replace effort, but it can sure compliment it on occasions.
I can’t deny I’ve had my share of good fortune come my way, too, otherwise I might not be where I am today. Of course, you’ve not only got to recognize when your shot comes, “you’ve got to grab on with both hands and hold tight,” to quote the old man from The Last Starfighter. This you did, and you’ve enjoyed the well-deserved benefits thereof ever since.
Oh, and in the words of Eric Cartman: “Robert Smith kicks ass!” :-)
I sure hope that you intended to be silly.
Luck plays a huge part in all our lives. If you start analysing all the minute details that could have been different, you’ll just go crazy. I prefer to just accept luck and just enjoy the ride.
A nice story, for sure. And I’ve been quite lucky in terms of my wife as well.
As for the writing part, I think you’re a very good writer. But I give you kudos for acknowledging that luck plays a significant part in your success. I read a lot in the mystery and thriller genre. I write in that genre. I know personally numerous authors who make a living and are, as a matter of fact, bestsellers in this genre. I don’t know if they themselves believe that luck had much to do with their success.
But I can reasonably say, because I’ve read so many books and was a reviewer in the genre for years, that although they all pretty much exceed the baseline for published books in the genre (one I’m drawing, anyway), they are not necessarily so dramatically better than all the other writers in the genre who are just damned lucky to have a contract or be published at all. Some of them have a really nice hook and niche and are consistent and/or have really strong marketing skills, but I haven’t met anyone yet whose book that sells a million copies that is a thousand times better writer than someone whose book sells a thousand copies.
If it helps with the next hair-pulling crazy moment, those first two unlikely points do kind of offset one another: you and Krissy were both following the same DJ, so it’s not entirely out of the question you could have met on a different night.
I imagine you aren’t suggesting luck as some sort of active force. That would be superstitious. Obscenely so for a fan of science. :)
Scott, I was about to make a similar analogy with the dealing of cards, but what John is saying that you seemed to miss (and that I almost missed, too) is that there are some events that are “good” and some that are “bad.” While a specific hand of cards is highly unlikely, if you are playing poker some hands are desirable rendering only a few hands good and most, however unlikely it is to get them, unlucky. I should also point out to John that what seem “good” improbable events are only good subjectively. Getting hit by a bus might be a good thing if you were on your way to the doctor to learn that you had a week to live from a violently aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. Instead of dying in agony, you die quickly. Scott’s can of cola becomes significant if the particular can has a rat in it (or parts of one). One can is bad, one is good.
So some things are “lucky” or “fortunate” but there is no such thing as “luck.” There is no providence driving good events to certain lucky people. I recommend a read of “The Luck Factor” by Richard Wiseman, PhD.
Not really. I was following the DJ because I was doing a story on her. When I was done, I was unlikely to do to another even just because she was there. Also, most of my nights were already spoken for as a movie critic, watching films.
Be careful. Don’t push your luck.
You know, Krissy looks pretty darn close to how she does in that photo. Dude, what happened to you? :)
Thank you for the insight, and reminder, of just how lucky we all are, even when we don’t take the time to realize it. And thank you also, for having the one site where I know I can safely click on a YouTube link, and not be rickrolled.
Lucky on meeting my husband, too. We had many near shots before, though. I was working in construction (electrician, not any more) and was looking at moving to Australia for a job, his family was looking at that about the same time. Didn’t happen on either end. He amost got married, I almost got married (for the wrong reasons). He joined the military, got delayed, I joined the military, met him my first day at tech school in the laundry room. We were in different schools, different shifts. Here was this guy playing an RPG, I like RPG’s. I asked him about it. We have been married for 23 years. (I have backwards good luck.)
Excellent first dance song.
Incidentally, my “meeting my spouse” story involves good luck for me and lots of bad luck for everyone else: She was the +1 for a bridesmaid at a wedding I attended. Normally the bridesmaid (who was a college friend but had moved to Texas) would have brought her own husband. But he was away. In Iraq. Dismantling roadside bombs.
So if it wasn’t for George W. Bush, the guy never would have signed up for the military and been sent to Iraq, the bridesmaid would have brought her husband to the wedding, and I probably would have gone home to my anemic eharmony.com profile. And with the only mutual connection between us back in Texas, I can’t see a way we would have connected again.
Because of the enormous number of things that happen every day, a small fraction of which are highly improbable, the world is filled with improbabilities. Which can make it seem either miraculous or precarious or both.
People are still rickrolling? Ouch!
My spouse and I were so lucky, we got to meet for the first time *twice*.
And a good thing, too.
It’s refreshing to see someone as successful as you admit to how much of a role luck has played in that success. We see too many people today who become successful and take all the credit for it, refusing to acknowledge how others–and luck–helped in their success. Everyone with some success has been lucky in some way, or at least not unlucky. The ones who do get to the top have had some luck along the way. This in no way negates their talent or drive; they made the most of their opportunities. There are far more people qualified to reside at the top of any professional pyramid than there is space for them.
And a second thought … because some events are good and some bad from the perspective of the individual (leaving aside the question of how they assess their own events and those of others), you can at least rank people roughly by what you perceive as their luck, and someone will rank first. In that sense they are the luckiest person you know, just as the one who ranked first in height is the tallest. The difference is that the tall person has a very high probability of still being tall tomorrow; the luckiest person, in a purely random drawing, doesn’t have any more chance than the unluckiest. (However, there’s also preservable luck. I have a couple self-made millionaire friends who are wizard investors; I’m a dolt about money. Every time they get “lucky” their skills, knowledge, mindset, etc. preserves and extends their ability to exploit their luck the next time around. In that sense, a financial break is luckier for them than it is for me, in part because they’ve saved more luck from the past. Your odds of rolling a six on any one die are the same regardless of whether you’re the luckiest or unluckiest guy in the room; but if you can win two more dice every time you roll a six, or lose a die every time you roll a two or a three, then fairly soon there will be a few people with most of the dice, and a lot of people out of the game. If you then declare that by rolling two sixes you receive the privilege of changing the rules … the exercise is left to the reader.
I met my wife on Halloween 20 years ago at a costume party at my apartment complex. And it was lucky we met. It was the third party my friends and I went to and only ended up there early because the other ones were boring. She was supposed to go to a different party and ended up changing her mind and going to this one with friends at the last minute.
Then we met…and moved on. Later a buddy told me to come with him to meet a couple cute girls. He then ditched me halfway through and started to talk to someone else. I turned around and started talking to this girl I had met before. Two hours later I had her number and a date for the next night.
It was pure luck that we met and there is no two ways about it.
A million babies is a statistic; a single baby is a miracle.
Never underestimate the power inherent in being a good dancer.
Totally. Appreciating ones good fortune/good luck is a sweet thing and your story is seriously dear. I love your love story and wish you’all a long healthy lifetime of it.! (also loving the other commenters ~connection~ stories)
So many people charge through life never reflecting nor appreciating the bigger picture of just how they’ve been gifted. In my personal observation of life’s blessings I tend to credit the Gods of Odds. They’ve been very good to me for the big ticket items. Of course there’ve been those crappy moments like when those damned fuzzy tailed rats ::cough:: squirrels chewed $2000 worth of metropolis building under the hood of my car. =/
I met my husband through match.com. It wasn’t until after we met face to face (in the hospital, with my mother present, while I was recovering from surgery) that he told me we used to hang out with the same crowd in college, and he’d seen my profile on several dating sites in the intervening fifteen years. I still give him a good-natured ribbing about “why couldn’t you have said something when we were in college?”. His answer? He wasn’t ready. Looking back, I doubt I was, either. We’re both atheists, but the best we can figure is that we were meant to be together–but not until we were old enough to understand what we had.
We’ll be celebrating seven years of marriage this March.
You know at this very point in time, there are two others having a similar chance meeting except the song in question is Rebecca Black’s Friday. Knowing this causes another small part of me to die inside.
Certainly agree with you on this one; I think that Social Darwinism is one reason why some people hate to admit the existence of luck.
Of course, if you are unlucky you’l be inundated by commenters who want to inform you that dancing well is clearly an adaptive trait which ensures the perpetuation of the genes which make people dance well…
That is a cool story.
As far as the luck with OMW being a big hit, how influential was the Glenn Reynolds pimping? That is what sucked me in, and I could never tell if he was hopping on after the bandwagon was already cruising, or if he was one of the guys that helped jumpstart it.
Matthew in Austin:
Glenn’s promotion of the book was huge for me.
Beautiful story to make your point.
Sometimes I wonder about the other side – the moment I was too late, the conversation i just missed, the left turn instead of right….
In the end though, I found my girl in vaguely similar conditions, and am among (if not) the luckiest guy on earth.
What day of the week was it? Was it a Friday? Because that would make it REALLY scary.
That’s a really great story, John. And now I miss my husband, who is the best thing that ever happened to me, and the only thing in my life I got by luck and not hard work.
I loved reading this.
Your wife looks just the same in that picture as she does in recent pictures you’ve posted. How’d that happen :)
(you look a bit different… ;)
I clicked on the music video link this morning. Then proceeded to pick a new music video from the YouTube sidebar. A few hours later, I emerged from my nice little 1990s flashback.
Serendipity can work in other ways too. When I was involved in journalism (at a large Big 10 university daily) I met a woman with whom I felt an instant connection, sensed that we might find real happiness in each other, etc., as the result of a sports section delay caused by a game running late; otherwise we might never have met although we were both on staff, because production and editorial were then in different buildings. I soon learned – after she had moved in with me, of course – that she was a raging alcoholic, as well as bisexual and non-monogamous. A few years later I was introduced to my wife-to-be in exactly the opposite way: by a mutual friend.
You are indeed very lucky. Krissy could have married that guy in the picture…
Oh wait… that’s YOU?!? Never mind.
Seriously, your good fortune in re OMW was a combination of both luck and talent. Because if what you had posted online for PNH to read was crap, he likely would not have read the entire novel, let alone made the offer that he did, and you would have gone on doing whatever you were doing at the time. As it was, it was quite good, and PNH had the wits and editorial chops to recognize that talent. For which we are all thankful. :-)
John at 2:55 pm: Fair enough. Maybe the kudos go to your wife, for being willing to ask a stranger to dance.
Did you just disguise a love note to your wife as a blog entry about luck?
I don’t think it’s particularly disguised, do you?
When you talk about “luck” it is obvious you mean “good luck”. Unfortunately there is no way you can evaluate the “goodness” of a random event unless you can see the result of all possibilities. By meeting your wife perhaps you did not meet another woman who would have been an even better match for you. All you can do it compare the results of your random events to those of someone else. If my results at the moment are better than most then I have good luck. This means what you perceive as good luck might actually be the worst of all your possibilities. You may have missed a life more wonderful than you can imagine.
Aww, I like this story.
One of the reasons that I follow this Blog is because you are such a positive person, John. You try to hold yourself to positive and high standards, encourage the rest of us to do so, and celebrate effort, success, judgment, compassion, and intelligence. Amidst the cacophony of the public conversation it is refreshing to come to a place where the focus is on people acknowledging things for which they are – or should be – thankful rather than on posting strident jeremiads about the aggravations that plague life. A great story. I have been known to break out in the shakes when I look at my wife, children, and grandchildren and think of how all that depended upon a used car salesman with a name like a private eye.
Oddly enough, when I first saw the photo of you and Krissy, I thought, “Huh. John looks a little like Rick Astley to me.”
And then someone mentioned “rickrolling” in the comments.
When I hear about meetings like this, it reminds me of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Granted, you were happier than Rick was when he uttered that line, but I think it still describes the same general idea of how many machinations have to take place to get two people together. Pondering that for too long makes my head hurt.
If you’d written that that particular Cure song was the first song you danced to, I’d be all, “Pfft, too obvious.” Life being stranger than fiction and all that jazz.
Dude, you can dance AND you give foot rubs? Krissy is pretty damn lucky herself, if y’all don’t mind my saying so. May you have many happy decades together.
hmm….. If you multiply the “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world” probabilities, I wonder if you end up with what sort of probability that “she walks into mine”
#1: about 1 in 10,000 cities in America for you to be in the right city
#1b: say 100 bars in the city
#2: another 1 in 10,000 cities for her to be in the right city too
#2b: and another 1 in 100 for the specific bar
#3: Chance that you will be in a bar on any particular night: 4 out of 365 (guestimate) or 1 in 100
#4: odds of you dancing/goofing off while working: 50/50 (You did tape bacon to a cat ya know)
#4b: odds of you asking a random woman to dance, Once in all times you’ve been to a bar. 1 in 200
#5: Odds that Krissy spots you dancing, 3 minute song out of a two hour window, 1 in 40
#6: Odds that Krissy would have let a possible girlfriend stop her, zip
1/10000 * 1/100 * 1/10000 * 1/100 * 1/100 * 1/2 * 1/200 * 1/40
That works out to be….
1 in 1,600,000,000,000,000,000
That’s so many zeroes that I had to look it up:
1 in 1.6 QUINTILLION
dude, could you buy me a lottery ticket?
Luck is pretty awesome. Me meeting my wife didn’t seem like luck (we were introduced by her uncle, who apparently had the specific intent that we get married…) but getting to that point was still amazingly unpredictable…a random comment made at a barber shop on a bad day, and 3 months later I was engaged.
By the way, in that picture you really have a Bruno Kirby thing going on there. Not a bad looking feller, you know.
John, this made me step back to remember how lucky I’ve been.
My very first day of college, in a program that I would ultimately go on to fail out of, the freshman orientation staff came by everyone’s room at my dorm and demanded a necktie. They took that box of ties over to a girl’s dorm. We were instructed to find the girl with our tie and try to be civil to her for the next 3 hours over soft drinks and a bouncy castle.
That was 8 years ago. 15 months ago I married the girl who picked my tie out of that box.
Good grid, Shawn. It’s really not necessary to be on Superstition Patrol at all times, careful to root out the slightest hint that somebody might not be sufficiently skeptical. Scalzi didn’t talk about Luck as a Mysterious Force or a personified anthropomorphic figure or anything else that might give one Dawkinseque vapors. “What is luck? At the end of the day, it’s the good things that happen to you that you simply don’t or can’t control” is not a statement that the universe is conspiring to manipulate your life, it’s an observation that we are not omniscient masters of our destiny.
I believe it’s a wise thing to keep in mind because it also steers us away from the sin of defensive attribution – the belief that all the good things that happen to us come about because of our own virtue and effort, and therefore we are shielded from bad things (which only happen to those whose cleverness and good works were insufficient, and thus deserved them).
I love your blog. Sometimes my sides split I laugh so hard but it is posts like these that make my day. I’m a sucker for sweet, romantic luck. I collect adorable “how we met/got married” stories as it would happen (from friends and family).
Huzzah for the luck in life!
Kind of like “How I met your mother”. Oviously, in my mind there’s a confusion between Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
You are just adorable. If you were within arm’s length I would pinch your cheek! (I liked your story so much I transformed into my grandmother!)
You lucky bastard.
That song was played at our wedding, since it was on a Friday. :)
@ John at 6:43 – If John (Scalzi) missed out on some unimaginably grat future by meeting his wife instead of some other woman, well, that’s bad luck anyone would be lucky to have.
Lovely post, luck and its opposite are very peculiar beasts…. one that makes a life interesting and better, though many do not notice it….
Man hits a golf ball. Ball lands on a blade of grass. Man is _surrounded_ by grass
(hey, it’s a golf course). Probability of ball landing on that blade of grass is very,
very small. Therefore, ball must have been _aimed_.
(For extra marks, spot the SF reference).
That picture is way too adorable. You look like – I can’t believe it – this hot chick really digs me! And she looks like – you bet I do.
So, if I step on a butterfly in the mesozoic, almost *certainly* you wouldn’t be married.
Geoff, if you have the ability to squish bugs in the mesozoic, we have other, more interesting things to discuss.