Fate and Fortune


“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. “ Ecclesiastes 9:11

A recent study from Cornell confirmed what I had long suspected about the role of luck vs talent in success. The bottom line is that having the greatest talent is not the prime determinant of success but rather it is a combination of luck (being at the right place at the right time), and having sufficient talent to recognize and exploit the opportunity.

From a Stoic perspective, this reinforces the fundamental principal of what little we control. I can only control what I think and how I act. I can attempt to find the right places and be there at the right times, however whether I am successful is up to fate, and I should not berate myself when the opportunities do not show up.

This also relates to the Buddhist concept of desire as the root cause of suffering. As long as I hitch my emotional wagon to the idea that something external must happen in order for me to be “happy”, I never will be.

Yes, I can get lucky and the wanted event can occur, but this just feeds the monkey in terms of wanting further reinforcement for what are ultimately random events.

My lesson, do the best I can, try and recognize opportunities when they arise, but in the end realize it is up to fate what occurs and what my path will be. Even the fortune I was seeking could in the end have had undesirable consequences (winning the lottery but then being hit by the bus on the way to collect the prize). I must always remind myself that I cannot foresee the future, I an only make predictions based on what I know, and as predictions my chances of being correct are only probabilities.

Focusing on improving myself through living my virtues is my only guaranteed path to success. The message of modern society, that my successes or failures are all attributable to my efforts, with all the attendant psychosis when I don’t achieve my goals, is shown for the lie that it is.

Push and Pull

In examining my actions and those of others, the motivations behind them seem to fall into two broad categories, that which I fear and wish to push away, and that which I want and seek to draw to me.

In the category of fear are all things that threaten me, both physically and emotionally, and my default instinctive/emotional response in these instances is either to run from the threat or attack it.

In the category of wants, the most fundamental are all the things I need to survive, including basic survival needs (food, shelter), sex (or the desire to reproduce), and socialization (the desire to be around others).

Knowing what motivates my actions is the first step to rationally controlling them, as opposed to being a meat puppet and being controlled by them. Without this awareness, I fall victim to rationalization rather than rational thought.

My body will react to its needs and threats and I will be aware of these needs through my senses and my emotions. The actions I take without thinking in response to these I will rationalize after the fact in order to justify my actions, fooling myself into thinking that I was the director when in reality I was only the actor reading the script written by my emotions.

If these processes are the default “what” of my life (and most lives it seems), the ability to interrupt the processing of emotion into action and apply rational thought beforehand instead of rationalization after, is the “how” to the start of living a virtuous life.

Recognizing but not instinctively reacting to my fears, senses and emotions allows me to apply the virtues of justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude to my decisions, instead of taking the default path of “what’s best for me in this moment”.