Luck, Choice, and Self-Deception

self-deceptionI am often struck by the way we use the word luck in everyday conversation. By definition, luck is something that benefits or hurts us by chance alone. Luck has nothing to do with our choices or effort—luck is accidental.

Sometimes we have good luck: we correctly use the word to describe positive situations in which we benefit by pure chance. For example, we are lucky if we are born healthy and able-bodied. We are lucky if we get perfect weather on our day off so we can enjoy a day outside. We are lucky if a stranger buys us coffee out of the blue and tells us to “have a nice day.” We are lucky if we put $5 into a slot machine and win a big jackpot bonus at the casino. In these moments, we are truly benefiting from occurrences that were completely out of our control.

Conversely, sometimes we have bad luck: we correctly use the word to describe negative situations that harm us by pure chance. For example, we are unlucky if we get a flat tire on our way to work. We are unlucky if our flight out of town is cancelled and we sit at the airport for 6 hours hoping to get a seat on the next flight. Of course, if we get a seat on the next flight, we will undoubtedly be sitting at the back of the plane next to a crying baby! In these moments, we are truly experiencing the negative consequences of events that were completely out of our control.

Yet, oftentimes we incorrectly use the word luck to avoid taking responsibility for our choices. In this way, we lie to ourselves by blaming good or bad luck for a given life situation. For example, perhaps you are interested in becoming more physically fit but do not make time to exercise. When you run into your very athletic friend at the grocery store, you say to him or her, “You are so lucky that you get to workout. Between my work schedule and family commitments, I never find time to go to the gym.” In this situation, instead of accepting responsibility for your choice not to exercise, you blame your inability to get to the gym on bad luck.

In fact, most of us lie to ourselves by blaming luck with regularity. Most frequently, we do this in situations or around people that remind us of a truth about ourselves that we do not want to admit. For example, when we are uncomfortable with our financial situation, we are often reactive around people who are financially secure. Consequently, we think and say things like, “They are so lucky that they can afford to go on vacation.” When we are not happy at work, we say things like, “You are so lucky that you have such a great job,” to people who like their careers. When our children struggle with behavioral problems, we say things like, “You are lucky that you have such well-behaved kids” to other parents.

The truth is that luck doesn’t get us to go to the gym—it is a choice to make time to go and exercise (especially on the days that we really don’t want to get out of bed). For most of us, going on vacation is not only about luck; it is about such things as saving money and scrimping on some desired things today so that we can enjoy a trip in the future. If we love our career, part of it may have been because of luck: we may have struck up a conversation with our boss at a random cocktail party, which lead to our current job. However, the rest was probably not luck—we probably had to work hard and develop strong skills in our given profession to be competitive for the position.

The Naked Truth is this: We must not allow ourselves to defer our responsibility for our choices by blaming luck. I encourage all of us to notice the way we use the word luck in our own thinking and verbal dialogues. When you use the word luck, ask yourself: Is this really about luck or is this about self-deception? Am I blaming luck to avoid taking responsibility for my choices?

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D.

Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP

Exposed to a diversity of cultures and lifestyles from an early age, Dr. Warren was intrigued by the ways cultural and environmental conditions affected the psychological well-being of individuals, groups, and even whole societies.

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