What does it take to be deemed lucky? Who are these select few among us that get to bare this title?
To be lucky is to be someone to whom good happens to - by chance. But it’s not only that because something good, like being alive happens constantly for all humans — and we don’t consider everyone as a lucky person per se (although perhaps we should) .
So what kind of events are lucky enough to be given the title “lucky”?
Let’s go with a simple example like winning one million dollars. I think we can agree someone who wins it is lucky.
But really, when you are wishing for some good luck, you are wishing for something rare to happen to you. The odds of winning the lottery is one in a million (more, but lets go with this) its a rare event that you are wishing for.
We all know that when looking at a distribution of results they are not simply in a straight line, they are not evenly distributed. If you had a group of 10 people doing a test where they could score 100 points, an even distribution of this group would be something like, 1 person scored 10 points, the next 20, the next 30 and so on until 100. But in this simple example and through limited experience you will know that this is not “normal”.
What typically happens is what we consider a normal distribution — a bell curve. It is more likely you have 1 or 2 people score less than 20, 1 or 2 score above 80 and the majority (so remaining 6 to 8 people) score between 20 and 80. You would consider these 1–2 people that got a score of 80 and above to be the “lucky” ones.
In the Engineering world and particularly in process control we have in place Safety Systems. At a high level, when there is a process, like a manufacturing line or a power station or even a sprinkler system on a timer at home there is a controller behind it deciding when to take which actions. Now as systems and processes become more complex you need a control system to handle it.
The control system is designed to consider all the scenarios and information coming in from all the sensors to manage everything. But even a Control system can fail. Something goes wrong and unexpectedly. This is where a Safety System comes in. As Engineers we consider the expected scenarios and put in a system to cater for that (the control system) then we also consider when a system would fail and if it did, even if it is a rare event, how should the system fail?
In the 1 in 100 year chance something goes wrong, what would happen? And if it did happen what state do we want the system to be in? What actions should it take. That’s the job of the Safety System.
The next part gets interesting because we don’t simply whack on Safety Systems Willy Nilly, we make an assessment about the impact versus the likelihood of it occurring.
For example, should there be a Safety System for something that has the potential to cause death? Probably. Wait. What do I mean only probably? Well, you must look at the likelihood first. If it is an event that could occur once a year, absolutely. Once in a hundred year event? Yeah that’s every lifetime someone has to die, sure. What about 1 in 1000? Or a 1 every 10000 years this event may occur where it results in a death. Is this a risk we are willing to take?
Engineers use risk matrices and workshops and standards, experience and domain expertise to make this choice.
But as a human, and from an emotional standpoint, “you’re going to make something that has potential to kill? And you are not making it have 0 chance to kill?”
Well, you likely use one of these kinds of devices everyday, which would be a car. Any vehicle for that matter. Anything that harnesses energy has this potential so what do we do about it? Simple. We continue to use it if we can tolerate the risk of something harmful occurring.
Cooking has heat energy that has potential to burn. But you know what to do to cook safely. And the odds of an event occurring is low enough that you can accept the risk.
Okay, so what? What’s this got to do with wishing to be lucky?
Fair question and the answer lies in the fact that although an event may occur only once in let’s say 1000 years an engineers duty us to assume the flowing: let’s say that we are “lucky” enough for this failure event to occur, what’s the consequence? And when you are dealing with complex systems requiring a control system, for example a power generation system the consequence my not just be the of death multiple people on site but also loss of power to the grid, loss of millions of dollars, there’s many cascading events.
But this just the thing. You make a call on what protection and controls you will put in, but if your solution was the one “lucky" enough to be tested with the 1 in 1000 year event actually happening… that’s rare!
We use the lucky term here of course a little tongue in cheek. But wow, do we commonly wish for rare events to happen to us.
Sure a 1 in 1000000 event could occur by winning the lotto but when our family was informed that my mother had late stage cancer, that was a rare event we were not asking for. Then we got the odds for survival, then her beating the odds followed by regression back to low odds.
She fought for 2 hard years and we were told the odds of her fighting for as long as she had was rare in itself.
I remember at different points in my life whether it be hoping for a high score on a test, performing well, good weather, wealth, I was tired of being average and would wish to be lucky.
Shortly after the passing of my mother 3 months from the point of this writing, my son, Phoenix was due to be born -she was so close to meeting him! I remember so vividly on Christmas day December 25th my Wife was induced and began her labour. It was the first time that I wished and to be average. No more statistical rarities, no more being in the rare case, please just be average in this scenario. Healthy.
With every blip on the vital signs monitor and every extra opinion or pondering or hesitation I prayed for average.
If you are lucky for a rare event to occur, you could have won the lotto, or been diagnosed with cancer. Odds aren’t so simple to be playing with.
“But then, being lucky means a rare event occurs AND it’s good, so it’s even more rare!”
Well let’s say that we consider you may have 100 rare events occur and 50% of them are good and the other 50% are bad. Then to wish to be lucky is to with that one of the good rare events occur. Fair point. But my issue with this is whether a rare event occurring is good or bad is subjective. Like with Safety Systems and Engineering, we don’t discriminate against the events. We must deal with them based on their statistical merit. In order to mitigate risk this is necessary.
But furthermore and probably more importantly, the subjectivity on the supposed goodness or badness of an event is tricky. When exactly was it good? Is it good at all points in time?
Is the day you won $1000000 good? “yay, lucky", okay and if it directly lead to the loss of every single thing important to you? Not so lucky.