How To Improve Your Luck

In September 1928 a bacteriologist name Alexander Fleming came back from a "holiday" (vacation) to find a set of petri dishes which had been "necessarily exposed to the air" had become contaminated by various micro-organisms. One of those petri dishes had grown a mold that appeared to be inhibiting the growth of a colony of Staphylococcus aureus. (You can read the original paper here)

To quote Dr. Fleming: “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer."

You've probably heard this story before. However, there is a second part to the penicillin story that is told a lot less.

What happened following the discovery on the part of Dr. Fleming was practically nothing. He published a paper on his findings, and that was pretty much it. Sure he did some more research in the area, but he ultimately concluded that his discovery wouldn't be useful for treating infection and wasn't worth pursuing further. Effectivity his part in the story stopped right after publication.

I want to pause to let that sink in for a second.

Not many people realize that it is entirely possible that the publication could have been the end of the story... or worse it might not have even made publication. If that were the case no one would would have benefited from perhaps the greatest life saving discovery in the 20th century.

What did happen (a decade after publication) was that an Oxford Scientist named Dr. Howard Florey was reading back issues of The Journal of Experimental Pathology and ran into Fleming's article. It interested him enough to try and reproduce the work, eventually culminating in a streptococcus study of mice in 1940 with Dr. Ernst Chain & Dr. Norman Heatley. That study produced verifiable results that the production of antibiotics were indeed possible (though engineering efforts were required to make mass production viable).

How narratives shape our perception

Dr. Fleming's story is clearly in the genre of "dumb luck" (supposedly he even used the most famous phrase in all of science: "Huh. That's funny..."). Sure, he was a trained bacteriologist, and he had been working on infectious disease studies for a long time, but the mold literally fell out of the air perfectly into his petri dish.

Dr. Florey's is on the other side of the "narrative" coin. He built a top lab at Oxford through hustle and grit. According to a PBS article on Florey he was "a master at extracting research grants from tight-fisted bureaucrats and an absolute wizard at administering a large laboratory filled with talented but quirky scientists." His "discovery" of the Fleming study was the result of searching, learning, and accumulating resources to be able to leverage.

These two versions of the "luck narrative" form a dichotomy for the way people like to look at luck. Either 1) serendipity is out of our control and "the gods will gift who they deem worthy" or 2) we can make our own luck through hard work, and determination.

What is luck anyway?

So the following is what is called the "Probability Mass Function" (one way of defining "luck"):

function $$ f(x,n,p) = \frac{!x}{n!(x-n)!}p^n(1-p)^x-n $$

# Defined
p = probablility of success
x = is the number of attempts
n = the number of winning attempts / successful attempts

To be "lucky" in the mathematical sense is where an agent achieves a successful (or unsuccessful) outcome that exceeds its probabilistic expectation given an environment. (link)

"Luck", in the colloquial sense, is the result of chance. It's a surprise, an unexpected event. You have "bad" luck when bad (unexpected) things happen to you or "good" luck when good things happen to you. Luck in this sense is all around us, impacts us all, with the only difference being how much it effects us.

[This colloquial luck has powerful psychological effects too... Higher socioeconomic status is correlated with lower belief in luck and vice-versa (e.g. research). ]

How can one improve their luck?

So how can you improve your luck?

...Well, you can't. Thanks for reading my article! (just kidding)

That is to say, you can't improve your luck in a "mathematical sense." Luck in that sense is actually random... otherwise it wouldn't be luck.

"Luck" in the colloquial sense however is arguably more about narrative than probability. The magnitude of the outcomes in "colloquial luck" create the perceived "luckiness." Receiving an "asymmetric payoff" makes you appear to be more lucky. So if you are interested in improving your luck in the colloquial sense you can accomplish this by exposing yourself to environments that have outsized payouts.

...Ergo the process of "Improving your luck" is simple. Marry together what we know about mathematical luck and colloquial luck.

Start by finding environments that can provide outsized payouts. I cannot stress enough how important it is to FIND THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT, as it will basically be the single largest influence on your probability of success. Searching for these sorts of environments takes work. You need to figure out as accurately as possible what your probability of success will be, so that you can commit to working in that environment... which is no easy task.

After you have chosen the right environment you want to search for ways to improve the probability of being successful and execute them. More often than not the simplest way to improve the probability of a successful outcome is just to increase the number of attempts. But similarly, there are often ways to decrease the total number of attempts needed to be successful- basically influence your environment in a way that is favorable to you.

And of course the last piece of the puzzle is to figure out ways to increase the narrative value when you are successful. Being perceived as being lucky is a powerful attribute and can help you improve your "luck" for future opportunities.

Hundreds of millions of lives saved...

When looking back at Dr. Howard Florey, his search through back issues of the Journal of Experimental Pathology was effectively his way of choosing the environment he wanted to work in. He was beginning in a place that already had some level of success and he knew he could increase the chances of success by starting with something that was already somewhat successful. The work of Alexander Fleming wasn't just a starting place- it reduced the total number of attempts it would take to be successful... all Florey had to do was put the work in and there was a good chance that luck would find him. The final piece of the puzzle was that Florey was choosing to work on something that had an outsized payout or impact.

...If you want it distilled, here's your recipe for improving your luck:

  1. Select what you work on carefully.
  2. Make sure that you can be successful and that the payouts are outsized.
  3. Try to find ways to reduce what it takes to be successful.
  4. Be focused and work hard.

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