Friday, December 02, 2011

Luck

I have a long walk home from work every day (2.3 miles according to my Fitbit), and that gives me plenty of time to think (sometimes too much time). Lately I’ve been thinking about luck. Maybe it’s because I read a story about a guy who just won $1 million in the Georgia Lottery – for the second time.

I like to say the luckiest day of my life was the day I was born: happy, healthy, and whole, into a large and loving family at a propitious time and place in history. That’s a lot of advantages right from the get-go. You’d have to work pretty hard to screw that up (and don’t think I haven’t tried).

But that’s not really luck. More like an accident with fortunate consequences.

In my senior year of college, I met with the head of the folklore department to discuss the (admittedly limited) opportunities in my chosen field. His name was Henry Glassie. He was tall and lean with an unfashionably bushy mustache and a seemingly endless supply of plaid shirts. He looked exactly like the head of a folklore department should.

(As an aside, Professor Glassie is truly one of America’s greatest living folklorists. His first book, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States, is a seminal work in the field. In researching it, he visited every county east of the Mississippi River. Every county. Think about that for a minute.)

In his wonderfully untidy office, Professor Glassie warned me that folklore was not a particularly lucrative pursuit. This did not come as a surprise to me. “The only way I’ll ever get rich is if I win the lottery,” I said. “And I never play the lottery so I’ll never be rich.” At this he laughed and said, “What a marvelous syllogism!” I laughed back and pretended I knew what the hell a syllogism was.

Life comprises two things: the choices we make and everything else. And everything else is out of our hands. If you choose to play the lottery, you might win. If you choose not to, then you won’t win. So even winning the lottery begins with a choice. In the end, luck has nothing to do with it.