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Do You Believe In Luck?

September 4, 2013


My friend Dave Brady doesn’t.

Rodney, I hated “And Sometimes You Just Get Lucky.”

Really? . . .Okay. . .I guess.

And by hate, I mean I loved it up until the end where you claim luck helped you solve the problem. I literally yelled at my screen, “How do I learn from THAT?”

Dave hated it so much he wrote an entire blog post telling me I was wrong. (Luck Is Not A Factor) You should go read it. I’ll wait.

Yeah, it was a little long for a blog post, and I have NO idea why he threw in all that stuff about me and tiger fighting. I did write a column a few weeks ago on “The Danger of Inviting In the Tiger.” I’m pretty sure that’s not what he had in mind. We’ve worked together over the years, and we’re also friends.

His contention seems to be

Lucky people relax more, and tend to be more open to noticing things even while they are focusing on accomplishing a task.

He had science and stuff to back up his belief. But, the problem with this idea is that in the example I cited, I was at a customer site and I was specifically not relaxed. I was very uptight. I wanted to leave. I was mostly just going through the motions of working on the problem so that I could . . .Okay, maybe this part is not exactly true.

I enjoy technology. I like the challenge of figuring out why computers do what they do. Because, unlike people (or even tigers) computers do things for a reason. Sometimes you can’t actually find the reason and you simply reboot your Windows computer because it’s a Windows PC. But, especially if you have access to the source code, as I did, you can often figure out the why.

But, was it luck? or was it that, as Dave suggested, years of training had turned me into a ninja warrior and my zen like mindset resulted in a certain inevitability of events? (Actually, I don’t think he said that, but I like the image.)

Even the blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut.

However, even with vast amounts of training and preparation I still think that luck plays a role. When I was managing the email team for a large non profit. We worried about protecting our users from spam and viruses. We implemented a technique I called “AA. Canary.” It was a mailbox that sat as the first entry in our 30,000 name address book. The purpose of AA. Canary was to catch any spam messages that might hit our network. The thought was that if a spam engine ever got to our servers, it would start at the top of the address book when it started spamming. AA.Canary forwarded mail to our security team and our engineering team.

Eventually the day came that we got attacked. A spam bot started hitting our address book. Because security knew about it within minutes of the start of the attack, we were able to limit the damage to just a few hundred users.

So, what does this have to do with luck?

It was lucky that the spam bot writer chose to start at the top of the address book. He (or she, but seriously how many women do you see in computer science? Not many, so the odds that some are hackers is pretty low). . .he could have started at the B’s or really any place in the alphabet. From a programming standpoint, it’s easier to write a simple

While not EndOfFile

But, was it expected that the writer would do it this way? Maybe. Maybe not.

Were we lucky that he did? Absolutely!

In case anyone is thinking of implementing the AA. Canary idea, I should add one caveat. AA. Canary wasn’t actually the first name in our address book. Oh it was at first, but we eventually added AA. Blackhole. See, certain of our users had the habit of sending copies of their email to the first name in our address book. The first few times it happened, we rang the alarm bell and braced for a spam attack. What we got was

Martha, I just wanted to let you know that we arrived safely in South Africa. We'll be settling in over the next few weeks and I'll let you know when we have a permanent address.


And only a single copy. No massive spam attack. Eventually we figured out that users were opening the address book and then “closing” it by pressing ENTER. That, of course included the first name in the address book. So, we created AA. Blackhole and told it to delete everything it got.

Sometimes you have to work around the users.

But on the luck thing? As the ancient Roman Seneca said, “Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Seneca may have believed that those were the only two ingredients. I choose to believe that when those two tangibles come together is where you’ll find the third intangible: luck. Because after all the preparation, when you’ve put yourself in a great position to succeed, and you’ve done everything you can to put the odds in your favor, sometimes the only thing left is to hope you get lucky.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, blogger and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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One Comment
  1. Awesome post. I agree completely. My point was, to paraphrase an old saw, that good luck comes from experience… and experience comes from bad luck. You can improve the rate at which you gain that experience, and you can improve your ability to access your own experience, by “relaxing into it”, but yes. You can manipulate the odds, but you can’t not roll the dice.

    Great post!

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