This semester the Philosophy department has been running a module entitled ‘Chance in the World’. The title alone thrilled me; finally someone was acknowledging the role of luck in philosophy, rather than relying on lifeless, hard-and-fast algebraic laws. Of course the module deals primarily with our understanding of the universe and our subsequent worldview – it’s all chaos theory and natural selection – but it prompts one to consider chance a little closer to home.
Have you ever really taken a step back to look at the huge influence chance has over our personal, and perhaps even professional, lives? In his recent film ‘Match Point’, Woody Allen invites us to look at the role of luck in one’s life, making a clumsy, cruel analogy between life and a tennis game. The plot revolves around a tennis coach, who is not only lucky enough to marry a millionairess, but to also successfully copulate with her brother’s fiancée until she becomes a nuisance, and then murder her. The real twist is that the item that threatens to incriminate him by failing to drop into the Thames, a ring stolen from a neighbor, becomes the one thing that saves him from arrest as it is retrieved by a real thief, who then takes the flack for the tennis coach. Genius, or fancy?
Now I invite you to leave cinema behind, and think about how much chance has affected your own life. How many lifelong friendships have been forged by chance meets and misplaced one-liners? In a stable social climate like university, there may be some people on your course who you are bound to bump into time and time again and form subsequent friendships, but what about your other friends? If you hadn’t been swimming that day, been standing at that bus stop (because it was raining), and hadn’t said that thing about that band you’d never even heard of … you might not have found your way into her bedroom. Please, I invite you, take a step back for a minute and look at your close relationships at uni and elsewhere, and see how lucky you were to even converse with them in this wacky modern world that’s spinning too fast for most of us. In the words of Britpop sensation Pulp: “I could have stayed at home and gone to bed/I could have gone to see a film instead/
You might have changed your mind and seen your friends/ Life could have been very different but then, something changed.”
OK, so granted, everyone you know you probably know through chance alone, but you probably guessed that already. But if we really believed chance had such a great presence over our professional lives, we wouldn’t be spending countless years and thousands of pounds studying. If our prospects were entirely in the grips of chance then there would simply be no point, and yet there surely is. It would ludicrous to say that your average refuse collector has as much chance of getting a job in marketing as, say, a Nottingham University graduate. But that’s all you’re buying by studying, a better chance. All our hard work guarantees nothing. Some pretty imbecile with a Mickey Mouse degree from a ‘less academically respected’ uni may walk into your interview and blitz it while you’re busy worrying about your sick cat and your running makeup. All you’re buying into in pursuing a degree is a better chance at succeeding, in whatever way you please.
But then, it’s not like degrees are doled out in a fair way anyway. Looking at a degree as a functional tool, a hoop-jumping exercise to prove our ability to apply ourselves and to trade in current needs for future rewards (which, aside from very strictly vocational courses, they are), it’s hardly like good marks go to the hardest working, or even the most able. It’s all about whether the thing you revised comes up, and whether you are confident and coherent enough that day to get something down that makes it seem like you know your thing, even though it was all ripped off Wikipedia the night before. I’m not saying hard work won’t get you a long way at university, nor talent, but let’s face it: where years of study come down to a few key hours in the exam hall, you’d be a fool not to credit luck with a good foot to stand on.
There’s not much we can do about luck, except acknowledge it. Feel free to indulge in as many luck-increasing rituals as meet your needs. But me, I’m just content to let it all wash over me, using bad luck as an excuse, and good luck as a blessing. We can’t control luck, so don’t try. Oh, and stay lucky.