It is hard to imagine a life where luck plays no part. Imagine the luck in the recent news cutting you have just heard: you spend £42,000 on a painting you like and it turns out to be a Carravagio worth £10m. Imagine the luck of the seller: you sell a painting for what you thought was a fair price of £42,000 and later find out that you should have received £10m for it. It must have felt exasperating. We can all think of stories where luck has had a part, significant or otherwise, to play in shaping people’s futures. On a global level, consider the fact that in 1931 both Churchill and Hitler were knocked down by cars. Either, or both, could have been killed; neither were. And on a more trivial level, Colin Montgomerie has hit more holes in one than any other golfer, despite claiming that in his view a hole in one is often the result of a mistake. Balance that by the famous phrase of a fellow golfer, Gary Player, who was once accused by a journalist of being the luckiest golfer in the game. His response was that “yes, I am lucky; but you know what, the harder I practise the luckier I become.”
Life seems to me to be part chance, part design. The buyer of the Caravaggio knew his Art; he had an eye for a Caravaggio that had been honed over years of hard work and interest. The seller, arguably, was not so skilled. A car crash relies on luck, but it also relies on people not paying attention. A hole in one can be considered lucky, but it is a truth that the better you are at getting consistently close to the hole, the more likely it is that the ball will fall in. For me it is how you view this balance, between chance and design, which (to some extent at least) determines how happy you are as a person. Take another illustration from the world of cricket.
As a batsman you can only control the controllable. Someone else has the ball. You have no idea where they will bowl it (and sometimes nor do they). But the best batsmen take as much chance out of the game as possible by preparing endlessly for different eventualities – they visualise the possibilities, they think about potential responses, they hone their reactions, they groove their technique. The very best even seek to impose themselves somehow on the bowler, thus taking some measure of control, however tenuous, on the very thing which had been deemed to be most uncontrollable. But as much as the very best may strive, even they can score a century one day having been dropped three times and then be brilliantly caught out for nought the next: this element of chance is the essence of that wonderful game, and something which helps to mould the human being as well as the batsman. Some cricketers learn to accept this over time; others, perhaps Trott and Trescothick spring to mind, never really come to terms with it. Ed Smith, who played 3 test matches in the 1990s, even wrote a book about it, simply entitled “Luck”.
In our daily lives, and perhaps rather bizarrely, we are like the batsman; we seek to place order on chaos, to take the element of luck out of our own existence and to control as much as we can. Schools are built around this, with its highly structured day, its idiosyncratic rules and carefully devised exam systems; religion is not dissimilar – aiming to make a coherent sense out of things which are difficult to comprehend; and so, possibly by extension, is all human life. The human being likes order, even, believe it or not, the teenage human being; yet a lot of the fun, the interesting, the challenging, the innovative, the quirky, the romantic, the disastrous, comes about by chance. It has always seemed to me that to be happy one must seek only to control the controllable, and to learn to accept from time to time that there are some things which chance alone can bring about. I pray, very simply, in my life, even as a Head Master, that I can understand that not everything in life is controllable, and that I can take the good fortune and the bad fortune with an equally level head.