In Patagonia’s breathtakingly beautiful annual magazine (catalog), I was reading a story abut three guys who attempted an unclimbed mountain in Alaska only to barely get down with their lives. The day was too warm; the ice was melting between the rock, sending boulders flying down a rock field. The author, Jack Cramer, writes about how good luck — not dying, losing a climbing partner, or being seriously injured even though a climber has made some pretty poor choices — might lead a climber to take more risks, not to be as wise and conscientious in the face of reality, as a climber who has had bad stuff happen on a climb. He writes in “A Partial Ascent of Mantok O”
“There is a belief among some gambling addicts that the luckiest someone can get the first time they visit a casino is to lose all their money. For those fortunate enough, the pain of an initial loss can be so severe that it steers them away from the tables and slots for the rest of their lives. By that logic the first decade I spent in the mountains was extremely unlucky. Year after year, I enjoyed consistent success against ever-slimmer odds. And the feeling of that success fostered an insatiable appetite for more. For a while, this was possible as my skills grew in step with my goals, but eventually they could not keep pace. To overcome the deficiency, I substituted risk-taking for skill, and that allowed me to enjoy success a little longer. It’s an easy substitution to make.”
It’s a narrow chasm between luck and not luck, I guess. It isn’t easy to define “luck,” anyway, and our world likes attributing success to hard work, preparation, etc. when a lot of time, it’s just a matter of being at the right place at the right times with the right person/people. It’s true that the heart-felt effort can throw itself against the world time and again and “get” nowhere while the other? If a person’s risks never pay off that’s a kind of lesson (for the person paying attention and of course if the person doesn’t die).
I know I have been lucky. My “luck” happened in 1999 when I got hired by San Diego State University but that “luck” wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t sent my resume and then following up with a visit to the department office to see if they needed teachers. BAD LUCK led me there. I lost a class at San Diego City College, and I didn’t know how I’d hold body and soul together without it. Was that bad luck or good luck? I don’t know. After the luck of discovering that San Diego State had called me that morning (home phone, back in the day) and then me showing up at their office (they concluded I was responding to the phone message they’d left but I wasn’t; it was a coincidence) it was up to me to keep the job. Then, luck again — a teacher in another department lost both her parents (very bad luck) and a new teacher had to be found ASAP and that was me. More classes and a new career direction? Her bad luck = my good luck. I was completely unaware where it would lead. I knew I’d make more money. I didn’t know that ultimately it would give me a pension and health benefits I have today. Was that luck? It depended on my doing good work for them for 14 years. That wasn’t luck.
The climber guy had some bad experiences — like rocks falling on his climbing partner’s head (helmet) without injuring the partner. These are, I think, small warnings from life. “Dude, this could have been a big-ass boulder and your friend could be dead.” The thing is that, in reality, it wasn’t a big-ass boulder. Still, the climbing team was climbing in conditions it knew were a long way from optimal. Risk. The greater the risk the greater the dependence on luck?
How does luck figure in when people insist on challenging reality? In this story, the climbing team turned around, and went back down the mountain. On the bottom they toasted their effort with champagne and mixed feelings. Climbers like this guy “tag” summits and want to “tag” unclimbed summits, so their failure to do that was a disappointment, but that they had returned safely was a success. He concludes, “How would have that mood (their return) have been different if we had escaped the rockfall and tagged the summit? Likely the aura of success would have masked any concerns about our decision-making.”
I think that’s the whole point with this luck thing. We don’t decide everything. The reason I lost my class at San Diego City College was because the Department Chair was having a baby, someone had taken over for her for 3 months and didn’t know about the multitude of part-time teachers who were usually put into Saturday morning class slots. My boss’ good luck (baby) led to my bad luck (lost class) which led to my good luck (San Diego State Job) which led me to The Big Empty. There’s something Panglossian about this luck thing, here in the “best of all possible worlds” luck probably features more than we know and too much “good luck” might — as the author of this article ponders — lead to carelessness and very bad luck.