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The Role of Dumb Luck, Coincidence and Happenstance in Life

A Personal Perspective

Key points

  • Try to remain open to experience, realizing few know the immediate and long-term outcome of most decisions made in good faith.
  • You can't live your "whole life" every day; too many factors interfere in totally achieving your ambitions.
  • Only in hindsight can you realize what choice points made the most significant difference to current circumstances.
  • Timing is a major factor in everything; it is pretty easy to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and at the right place at the right time.
 Copyright by MaxPixel
We make our destiny often through sheer luck, coincidence, and happenstance.
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The tale of the terrorist train.

We crawl through life, as W. Somerset Maugham said, on the "razor's edge." So much of life is random.

On August 21, 2015, our Paris Express train from Brussels to Amsterdam was late. My wife and I were tired. We had just completed a day trip to Brussels returning to Amsterdam. Concerned, I approached a trainmaster. I showed him my ticket. He cursed in French then said in English, "Your train and car number match a reported terrorist attack. It seems like this is your lucky day."

We later learned that three U.S. citizens prevented an attack by a terrorist gunman holding an AK-47. A movie by Clint Eastwood later dramatized the incident. Here is fate: The gunman would have been in the row behind us if he had not acted just prior. I have no idea what I would be: dead, injured, or a hero. I doubt we were "destined" to be safe, but I guess it was our lucky day through happenstance.

There is a cue ball theory of life.

The situations in which individuals find themselves are partly a function of factors they have no control over. You also can't live your whole life every day. We all think we have life down pat, but we don't. All events are positive and negative, short and long-term outcomes.

Life is like a cue ball impacting a closed pack on a pool table. On impact (from a significant life cycle event), the colored balls scatter. Often after one such occasion, your life is never the same. For example, at a graduation, that mass of students will never coexist again. The ceremony is over, and everyone scatters or marries. Social spontaneity decreases.

Certain events impact the rest of your life, using myself as an example. On June 12, 1969, at 11 am. I remember sitting in my fraternity house living room before boarding a bus to the football stadium graduation ceremony. That was that. The pace of daily life would never be the same. Friends would soon scatter to graduate school, relationships, jobs, war zones (The Vietnam War was in full swing).

Graduation is a happy-sad, bittersweet occasion. Please take advantage of now, knowing it will change, an area of mindfulness. Appreciate the moment.

We are all forced into life paths around age 18, too young to know better.

My college acceptance was on February 8, 1965. Through coincidence, my father had graduated in 1939 as an electrical engineer and went on to help develop RADAR.

It was dumb luck I applied given "legacy." If I had an "in," why not use it? If I had attended any other school, my life would be different. This story would be different. We all have many life paths whose origin is usually around age 18.

How one decision, one word, changed my life.

The course load (43 credits) and pledging caused me to flunk my Freshman year. How do you study for a final after Hell Night?

In late June 1965, I sat with my father with the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers College.

This meeting would, in hindsight, become the new origin of my life. I had to beg for a second chance. The Dean said to my father, "Your son has to either take Introduction to Economics or Introduction to Psychology in summer school and have at least two B's to be re-admitted. This is unusual, but let's do it."

My father, an engineer, turned to me, empathetic, and without thinking, I said, "Psychology." That word changed my life. The consequences of that utterance would play out over the next 56 years, changing my career and personal life.

The Introduction to Psychology course started July 5th, 1965. Little did I know that at 8:59 am, again, my life, again, would change forever in a minute.

The classroom door opened. It was my future wife. I said to myself, "I am going to marry her." We just celebrated our 53rd anniversary. If I had said, "Economics," who knows, and she attended another university during the Fall and Spring semesters and probably would never have met.

Fear is a blessing motivating you.

My sophomore year began on academic probation. I also lived in a fraternity house and all the craziness that entails: think "Animal House."

I was under the gun and stressed. Many of my high school buddies were in Vietnam. I could soon join them after losing my 2-S student deferment. The stakes were high to succeed academically. I had to act in my best interests.

The secret passage.

Dumb luck meets coincidence through happenstance. The main psychology buildings were behind my fraternity, only off our parking lot, by an alleyway only known if you lived in my fraternity––a secret passage––connected to the main street. If I had pledged another fraternity, who knows? No secret passage. My impulsivity to make things happen might have been thwarted and extinguished.

The next hour, again, forever changed my life. Impulsively, I used the secret passage to access the psychology building quickly. I entered it as if being pulled, as I belonged there. The first floor was empty. I walked upstairs and into the office of Arnold Buss, Ph.D., who was and became quite famous in the world of psychology. He might not have been there. Was that fate?

I had nothing to offer Dr. Buss except my time and enthusiasm in exchange for learning more about psychology. That one chance incident led to my working with him for three years as an undergraduate research assistant. After a year or so, we became friends.

Once on a roll, I remained on a roll, but I pushed the ball.

After years of working side by side with Arnold Buss, he wrote a glowing graduate school recommendation to Marvin Zuckerman, Ph.D., then known for his budding work on Sensation Seeking. As it turned out, the two were old buddies. Who knew? Dumb luck? Coincidence.

My doctoral research linked this new sensation-seeking personality trait to gonadal hormones. This research was the new area of behavioral endocrinology. I could not have completed the thesis without an endocrinologist on my doctoral committee. My wife was taking an endocrinology course. Coincidence?

I learned steroid biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania then worked with her professor. This biopsychology research (and a major dissertation award from the APA) culminated in being offered a position at a prestigious medical school. Soon after that, we moved to Connecticut, where I opened a series of behavior therapy clinics. That opportunity emerged from a chance encounter at a convention that culminated in a constructive career move.

We have all muttered, "You never know," and it is true. Regret is a poor life teacher. Instead, take what life offers and hit the accelerator. Make things happen. Don't wait.

A life path is a revolving see-saw.

What is the meaning of luck, fate, happenstance, and coincidence? No one knows what will happen tomorrow. We all wing it believing we are in control, but we are not: for better and worse.

We create thematic patterns (stories) in our lives but only exist to connect the random dots. No one can plan their life like a blueprint.

What have I learned, and perhaps the takeaway? Never regret what brought you to the present moment. It took your entire life to get here. Remain open to experience, get into "good trouble," expect some bad blood and rotten apples along the way. Don't threaten a person's beliefs and dreams. Remain within the white lines in life's highway.

If your good days exceed your bad days, you have it pretty well. There are no such things as mistakes, only new opportunities. Mental health is resilience, so wander around, enter some empty buildings, make instant choices, network, take rational chances, and take it from there. Don't fear success, ambiguity, or failure. Embrace it.


Krumboltz, J.D. The Happenstance Learning Theory. Journal of Career Assessment. Vol 17, 2. 2009.

Das, S. A Scientific Theory of Destiny. Global Journal of Science Frontier Research. 2013.

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