“We Too Often Tell Stories As If Luck Doesn’t Exist”

By Barnard Law Collier

Toward the end of the hour we spent discussing the proposed book, Bezos leaned forward on his elbows and asked, “How do you plan to handle the narrative fallacy?”

—From Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Little, Brown and Company, 2013).

Jeff Bezos asking Brad Stone how he might deal with “the narrative fallacy” is a question I’d expect from Bezos. He’s asked such questions almost all of his intellectual life and without those questions there would be no Amazon.

What also caught my fancy in Stone’s prologue is the riff about luck.

Luck is considered by many editors and writers a non-starter in the construction of stories.

I’m writing a book about good luck and bad luck, a subject I’ve found fascinating ever since my early days as an academic anthropologist, when newspapering was simply a way to pay college tuitions. I taught several classes about luck and how human a concept luck is. Many Chinese revere good luck and demonnize bad luck. 祝你好运,运气不好 Zhù nǐ hǎo yùn, yùnqì bù hǎo

Recently I listed for myself the 50 teeter-totter moments in my life, when things went well or badly, and 100 percent of the good times were purely lucky.

The bad times had everything to do with a lack in the smart department. The good luck was that my timing wasn’t any worse.

It is wise for writers and editors to consider “the narrative fallacy” as they too often tell stories as if luck does not exist. We have relatively few available words adequately to describe luck and how all lives are affected by it. There are lots of words about smarts and trying to get smarter, but far fewer on how and why to get lucky.

One of the good things about taking luck into consideration in your thinking is that you may recognize good luck in time when it pops by, and the same with trying to avoid bad luck when it steps on stage.

Good luck makes the dangers of unpredictability less threatening. Bezos warned Stone that chaos is present at the birth of every worthwhile and lasting enterprise. To ignore the role of luck is not at all smart.

Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.


  1. Edward Kosner says

    Anyone who’s ever worked, fallen in love, had children knows that luck—or, at least, inadvertence— is more responsible for much of one’s success in life than most people want to admit.


    Dear Ed ~ Might “Anyone” be a bit over-optimistic? In my reporting for “Good Luck Bad Luck” I’m finding that many people who have done the trio ~ work, love, and children ~ attribute their success to their canny ability to see from myriad perspectives in order to take the best paths and make the best decisions. They claim to do nothing inadvertently, and when they fail, which they all do at times, they often say simply that they’ve been distracted and bad luck was uninvolved. I am not yet sure why people won’t admit the starring role luck plays (except in “Guys and Dolls”) in life and in good stories about true life. Perhaps to give luck any of its deserved credit seems to take away from one’s delusions of intellectual superiority and potency.

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