Our lives are the product of history, luck, and intention. These three factors interplay so much that it can be impossible sometimes to tell which one is the force at play.
The movie “Recount” was actually the catalyst for this post. The film recounts the debacle of democracy that happened in the presidential election of 2000, and I was livid at the end of it. I was angry that so many lives, mine included, were changed by the appointment of W to the American presidency. How different would the world look had things gone differently? How different would my life be?
Had Bush not been appointed, I’m almost certain we would not be in Iraq. We may not even be in Afghanistan if we had a president that spent more time at work than in Crawford in the months prior to 9/11. Not paying for an expensive war may have given different outlets for money flow, thus affecting the current economic faceplant that the American economy has taken.
Of course, had the U.S. not been in Iraq, then neither would I. I’d probably be much further along in my dissertation, and we’d be seriously preparing to leave Nebraska.
That things would have been different doesn’t mean that they’d be better. I wouldn’t have had the formative experiences that have now made me who I am, like it or love it. We would be in a completely different (probably worse) financial situation, and I would not have had the requisite skills to get the job I currently have. I’ll pause on this last one for a second.
I’ve said before that I started PF as an outlet for creativity and a way to help others become more productive. A lot of it came from having entirely too many responsibilities, but the reason I have entirely too many responsibilities is due to my performance and achievements from my visit to Iraq. Since apparently it’s common knowledge that you give challenging jobs to busy people, I ended up getting more and more responsibility, which made my urge to blog even higher. I’ve picked up many skills by blogging and designing in a year – so much so, actually, that had the particular job I applied for and got came up the year before, I would not have been competitive and able to do it.
The brute fact is that I don’t know whether I’m better off now than I would have been had the election of 2000 been different. But I can say with absolute certainty that my life is much different than it would have otherwise been.
I’ll transition from this autobiographical backdrop to the more general train of thought that all of our lives are like this – our history guides our intention and creates opportunities for luck, our intentions create new histories and luck, and luck gives us new intentions and possibilities.
None of us are born with a clean historical slate. We are each born into a particular society with its particular rules for how different people interact with each other. Some of us are born poor, some rich. Some men, some women. Some in thriving cities, and some in dumps.
Our original positions in life determine a lot of the opportunities we have at the outset. Were I not born into a poor multiracial family, I would have had different opportunities than I did. Had I been born a female rather than a male, my orientation to the world would likely have been much different.
There are a million ways in which you can analyze your history and weep or rejoice about your fortune or misfortune. Most of this can be an utter waste of time, for, in the end, we can’t tell whether our misfortune has made us fortunate, or whether our good historical fortune has been a misfortune.
That seems counter-intuitive, but think about all of the silver-spooned people you know who are worse off for being so. Think about all of the people you know who have faced adversity or tragedy, and those struggles have made them better people.
The important thing, as far as history is concerned, is to recognize the impact that your history has had on you. It’s important to understand where you come from and to recognize that the times you live in have a very strong role in determining what you’re able to do. But history is changed by…
Were we rocks, then our history would determine our future. Rocks are formed by certain forces and acted upon by other forces, but they’re passive.
Unlike rocks, we have the capacity to change our futures. We are born into certain settings, and, at different levels of capacity, can change those settings. Humans and higher mammals are distinct in the world because we intentionally change our environment to match our desires.
Few things are more pitiful than when we see people in bad situations refuse to make any positive changes in their lives. Few things are more inspiring than to see people in horrible, tragic situations daily will themselves to a better future. The capability and responsibility of choice is the hallmark of the human condition, yet so few people understand this and instead let history act on them as it does on rocks.
We are not merely leaves in a breeze, destined to go where the invisible forces push us. But from the nexus of history and intention, we get…
You can think of luck as one of those metaphysical forces that makes life interesting. You can think of it as divine will that’s beyond our cognition. Or you can just think of it as the result of untold forces, choices, and interactions. But we all recognize that odd moment when we are exactly in the right place at the right time for a meaningful event to happen.
A few weeks ago, Angela and I were backpacking and ran into a family that was lost on the trail. This man and women and their lovely five (!) kids had gotten lost and had been hiking for four hours or so in flipflops. It was about an hour before sundown.
We had made a few wrong turns ourselves, and had we not made those turns, we wouldn’t have ran into them. We were five or ten minutes off course, but had we not been, we would not have ran into this family.
The parents thought their car was just a half-hour or so south of where they were. Since Angela and I weren’t familiar with where they were talking about, we told them were we had come from, talked to them for a little bit, and let them go on the way.
But it didn’t sit right with us, so we ran back to them and told them to come with us to our car since we knew where we were going and we’d drive them to their car. They agreed, since they were so lost and disoriented that they’d do about anything to get them off their trail.
It was only when we started walking with them that we realized had bad off they were. Their feet were blistered and sore and they hadn’t drank anything the whole time they were on the trail on this hot day. I happened to be carrying additional water for training weight and, honestly, the only other time I’ve seen people so thirsty was when I was in Iraq. They had a son that was having surgery on one of his legs the next day, and they still had a few hours’ drive ahead of them.
We led them back to our car, piled them all in, and had them direct us to where they parked. It turns out that they were six miles south of their van – had they kept going the way they were going, they would not have reached their van that night.
I tell this story because there are so many just purely coincidental features of it that converged that it makes it utterly unfathomable. Our wrong turns. The exact point on the trail where there were two side by side. Our having extra water. Us sensing that our decision to let them go wasn’t right.
For whatever reason, we were in the right place at the right time. It goes beyond pure history and intention.
This is one small story, but our lives are invariably enriched or soured by these types of events. In my own life, I was lucky enough to be embraced by my best childhood friend’s family, and their influence on me was critical for my development — it really did change my life. Not to mention that that friend ended up saving me from drowning in a flooding river, which kind of negated the fact that he shot me in the groin with a BB gun a few years earlier.
Our Complex Lives
I get tired of people saying you can do anything you set your mind to. It’s not true, and it causes a lot of unhealthy thinking about our lives and prospects. It’s not purely about intention.
But I also get tired of people letting their environment and history define them. Within each of us is the power to make small improvements in our situation, which, over a lifetime, leads to our flourishing. We flourish through our habits and choices – we are not defined merely by our history.
Lastly, too few people take seriously the role that luck plays in our lives. Sometimes you really are just in the right place at the right time. But even during those times, there are choices and a historical background at play. Luck gets you through the moment, but choices and history get you through your life.
These three factors are so interwoven that any analysis that tries to reduce to one or the other will fail. Life is not that simple.
But you can understand and respect your history and social settings and learn to recognize which constraints are beneficial and which aren’t. You can intend to make the world better through your choices and actions. And you can harness good luck and learn from bad luck.
Take the weekend to think about it. How are you embracing and/or overcoming your history? How are you spreading value in the world? How are you opening yourself up to luck?