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How Much Luck Do You Need?

Written by Andrea Shaw Nevins

“How much luck do you need?” Not a question most of us ever consider but one that could be profoundly insightful. 

At work I have a vase on my desk with some bamboo stalks growing in water. I had placed them there to add greenery to my workspace and maybe even bring myself some luck (bamboo’s legendary function). 

The other day my colleague, Stephen, came into my office after his long summer break, and as soon as his eyes landed on my bamboo stalks he smiled and threw back his head. “Wow, these have grown so much!” he chirped.  

I in turn sighed, rolled my eyes, and quite sarcastically responded: “I wish my luck was growing as well.”  

It had been a long day, in fact a long week full of meetings, presentations, mishaps and emergencies. To make things worse, the next morning I was flying to California on a 6:30 a.m. flight to drop my daughter off at college and return a couple days later to begin teaching the next morning. I was not feeling lucky. 

Stephen, not unknown to be dramatic, opened his eyes wide as his jaw dropped and he took a few steps closer to my desk. He looked back and forth between me and the bamboo, a strain of disappointment and surprise on his face, then he asked a bit indignantly, “Just how much luck do you need?” 

 What kind of crazy question was that, I first thought. We need all the luck we can get. But before I could answer, Stephen responded, “You have beautiful kids who are doing well, a good husband, a job you like, a nice car, and a beautiful home. What more do you want?” 

I was flummoxed.  I paused for a moment to gather myself and take a quick inventory of all the gaping holes in my life—the places where luck was missing. I’d tell him about the extra money I’d like to have so I could vacation on that fancy train that takes you on safari in Southern Africa. Oh, and I want to go for two weeks. That’s right. Not my usual how-short-can-I-make-this-vacation routine so I stay within budget.   

I’d also tell him how I’d like to walk into a restaurant and not begin my meal by peering at the menu to know if I can stomach anything more than an appetizer.  

I’d also tell Stephen that I don’t have the year’s worth of living expenses I and everyone else should have sitting in the bank in cold hard cash—not in a mutual fund or 401(k), thank you. I’d tell him how I want to have enough money so I am recession-proof, relatives-in-crisis-proof, and medical-emergency-proof.   

I’d also explain that I want to exterminate all the yucky money-crisis monsters lurking around every corner of my life, just waiting to pounce.  

I may have started to mumble something, but after a few moments I stopped. Stephen had made a good point, actually an excellent point: I already had quite a bit of luck.  

In fact, many of us with fairly ordinary lives like mine, a loving family, good friends, a job we like—no fireworks just ordinary—are quite lucky indeed. And for people like me who think they need more luck, what exactly would that luck be like? I think most of us presume that luck brings us happiness. So would more luck—like the safari and the year’s worth of living expenses—really make me feel more happy? How much luck is enough? 

Stephen went on to say that he just did not understand what some of us wanted since nothing ever made us satisfied. And he’s right; we seem to always have a gripe. While a few of us do have urgent and tragic situations coping with, a lot of us (like me) complain without adequate reason. What if life did what some often parents threaten and really gave us something to complain about? 

What would we do if all the cars, lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners were destroyed by some fire-breathing monster while we slept tonight? Can we even fathom what a washing machine would have meant to a great-great-grandmother who spent hours laboring over a washboard? We now have all the stuff she could only dream of: a huge box that keeps everything cold all the time, clean water from multiple little pipes throughout the house (including the big cold box), a smaller box that makes cold food hot in just minutes. But with all this so many of us are still moaning and groaning about how bad life is and envision ourselves as somehow unfortunate.  

Now, on one hand the desire to have more and do better is a great driving force. It is what has inspired all the wonderful advances we’ve made throughout the history of mankind. Without wanting more and wanting better, where would we be? Probably without all those things our fore parents would have given an arm to own. But can we somehow want things and work towards them without feeling a constant sense of underachievement? Are we doomed to perpetually feel as if we are chasing after Lady Luck—that our life is inauthentic? Incomplete?  

I say a resounding “No!” We can be working on getting the spouse of our dreams or the job we’ve always hoped for and yet feel satisfied and lucky from the place where we are dreaming and hoping.  

So how exactly do we get to the point that we can say, “You know, I think I’m pretty lucky”? I believe the answer has to do with us claiming agency over our happiness—choosing to make our own luck.   

The process is quite simple—we just pick a point in our lives and decide if we are going to allow ourselves to be happy, to feel lucky, or if we want to continue living in the shadow of our real life, crouched uncomfortably in limbo between the life we have and the life we want. From this spot where we are never settled and at ease, we keep waiting for our “real” life to begin—you know, the one full of luck and African safaris.  

And when, you may be wondering, is it okay to begin feeling lucky, to really experience contentment and dare I say bliss? Is it after you return to college and finish that degree you started ten years ago? After you find a job you like? After you own a house? Get a dog? Get a spouse?  

My suggestion is both the easiest and the hardest—you don’t wait on anything. You decide that you are lucky right now, no matter what is going on in your life. No matter which bills you owe, how many years you have left in school, how much money you lost on the stock market, how disappointed you are in your children, or, God forbid, no matter who is sick (even you).  

Now is the best time because…because it’s the only time.  

Why delay contentment? Why put off feeling lucky? I can’t think of any good reason to wait. Some of us may still hold to the idea that if we feel satisfied we will be unmotivated—“worthless,” as my father would say. But I have come to believe that worthlessness has more to do with being unhappy and feeling unlucky than most of us imagine. Often faith in ourselves and the world—the belief that we are lucky—is just what we need to get us moving along in the right direction. 

Speaking of moving along, while writing this article I decided to check how much it would cost for my husband and I to take the luxury South African train Safari I’ve been pining after for years. The trip lasts two weeks, begins in South Africa, and ends in Tanzania. The numerous stops include locations like Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Mount Kilimanjaro, in Zambia—places where you can hold your breath and breathe through your eyes. All this we could do for the modest sum of $23,800! And if you thought I said $2,380, you thought wrong. It’s $23,800! 

While I still want to take this trip and I think that one day I may (I have no idea how I’ll pay for it), I sure as heck am not going to sit here feeling unlucky because I can’t do it right now. You know the saying, “Life is what happens while we’re making plans for later.”  

So what state does your life have to be in for you to be happy, for you to feel as if Lady Luck has smiled on you? Exactly how much luck do you need? You need just as much luck as you have in this moment—no more no less.

About the author

Andrea Shaw Nevins