Do you play lotteries in your life, or you have control over it?

Chance plays a significant role in our lives. At our birth, chance determines what genes we get (which in turn determines some of our physical abilities, disease predisposition, etc), as well as what family and country we are born in. Chance determines, for sure, almost entirely the first 10-15 years of our childhood. Before we can acquire skills to take control of our life by making mindful choices (which might happen, at best, when we are 15-20 years old), our life is left to the mercy of chance. The chance influences the important period of our early development and therefore shapes us as human beings. That is also exactly the time, by the way, when our beliefs and habits are being formed, at least for the first time.

Once and if we start making choices ourselves, we get some control over our life. Ideally, we would like to have a total control over our lives. That is, we would find a good job which makes us happy, brings us good compensation, and that compensation would increase from time to time gradually. In addition, the people who surround us are caring towards and they are also loved by us. Then, we die happily or even don’t die at all.

However, that process is limited by two important factors. First of all, it is limited by the amount of resources we have. For example, if we have a lot of money, we can make a lot of choices relatively quickly. We can choose and change where we live, what education we get, what job to choose, what diet to have, how to keep our body in shape, and so on. The less resources we have, let it be money or willpower, the less choice we have or the harder and longer it takes to make it. The second factor of why we have limited control over our lives, is the uncertainty in the world.

That uncertainty exists because of other two reasons:

  1. Each human being is only a tiny bit in this world. There is so much else that is controlled by others and by nature itself.
  2. There is so much we don’t know. That is, even if could control it, we often don’t know or are not trained how to do so.

In other words, the ideal scenario of us controlling our life is not possible. We can do it only up to some extent.

Uncertainty or chance affects not just some parts of our life, but it affects every moment of it. To describe that effect, we can use a word lottery. A lottery is a situation when the success or outcome is determined by chance. As we figured out above, any action we do is a lottery and bears uncertainty, and the case for that is the two reasons listed above.

There are two types of lotteries: the lotteries with positive and with negative outcomes, on average. A positive lottery is a lottery which if you (and others) play many times, will bring some positive net returns. For example, if you study hard and work hard, most probably you will be able to grow professionally and increase your compensation. There is no guarantee that your particular study or job right now will bring something positive (e.g. there is always a small chance that you might be fired any time, or the company you work for will bankrupt, or you will get a very hard question on the exam and fail it), but if you keep doing it many times persistently and with optimism in your heart, you most likely will get there (although, again, no guarantees). There are also negative lotteries, which if you play multiple times, will lead to you “losing” something. Often we don’t know whether the lottery would be positive or negative: e.g., historically the stock markets usually bring positive returns long-term outcomes, but there is no guarantee that will be the case in the future, even “on average”.

There are many reasons why we, people, play negative lotteries. You could argue that the biggest lottery everyone is playing is the life itself, with a very big loss so far guaranteed for everyone which is called death.  Obviously, it depends on what and how you measure the outcome. If you measure it as your family or community or ideas and projects succeeding after your end, there are good strategies to ensure your positive returns and legacy, on average. Another example of a negative lottery is something like being hit by a bus, killed in an aeroplane crash or being innocently put into jail long-term, or even worse, life-term. It is most probably why any news about that are so important for all of us, and that is why we, as the society, are trying to minimise unfair sentences and aeroplane crashes: none of us wants to get the “winning” “lottery ticket” on that one.

The important thing is to appreciate that there are some “negative” lotteries no matter what we do or no matter how we try to control it. It is important to just accept them and their outcomes. There are things that might happen to us all that are out of our control, at least partially. All you can do is to appreciate that such “lotteries” exist and happen to us every day. The acceptance helps you to be mindful and focus on another important thing, which is to continue looking for and participating in the “lotteries” with good positive outcomes or, at least, with minimum negative outcomes.

Another important thing is to appreciate that people become or not become very successful partially due to a luck or chance. We aim to become successful, we do our best for it, but it simply might not happen for some of us. I know it is a depressing thought and I don’t suggest to focus on it too much every day, but it is important to be mindful about it. Even if we play in a “positive outcome” lottery where each of one hundred people willingly and with awareness puts in extra 10,000 pounds (not necessarily in a liquid form of money, but e.g. in the form of labour), and there is a 1 in 100 chance to win 2 million pounds (let’s say the product of our labour has been sold to a customer for 4 million pounds, with 2 million being distributed to us proportionally as our wages and 2 million being distributed to us in a “lottery” manner as far as everybody was willing to do so), then only one of us will become a millionaire in such “lottery” but everybody else will “just” receive 20,000 pounds of wages. (Note that it is a different topic of why and how fairly the profits are distributed in business and society. An example above just illustrates that all you need to have a chance becoming a millionaire, is to participate in a £1,000 lottery with 1,000 people, or a £10,000 lottery with “just” 100 people.)

As for the positive lotteries, there are obvious ways to find them and increase your chances of winning them. The ways include good education (both informal and formal), good connections (which you can acquire and grow), good health and mental health, and of course the optimism in your heart and desire to innovate.

As for the negative lotteries, it is the best to avoid them of course, but sometimes it is not possible or not desirable. The obvious example of a lottery which has the negative average outcome (i.e. “negative expected value”) but which is played by the most of us is a “regular” lottery like national lotteries, EuroMillions in Europe or PowerBall in the US. While we are well aware that it is almost impossible to win a jackpot or any huge piece of it, we play anyway. In some sense, it is justifiable, because for many of us it is the quickest and most realistic way to get a hold on a such huge amount of money. It brings us some hope and a tiny possibility of huge wealth. While probably it is justifiable to play a lottery like that from time to time, it is more important to be focused on seeking and working on winning a positive “lottery”, be it a salary increase, start-up success, revenue from a book you authored or a spiritual happiness you get by serving the community.

If you decide to play a regular, “negative average outcome” lottery, that is fine. Just make sure you carefully allocate a specific, small part of your income for that, and keep to that. Also, choose wisely what lottery you would like to play. For example, do you really need a jackpot of 120 million pounds but your chance of winning it is like that only one of 150 million people will get it, or you would rather suffice and boost your life by a chance of winning 100,000 pounds with a chance of 1 in 150,000 people? Another question is whether you would rather play a roulette game in a casino with the house taking only 3-10% of players money, or you would play a scratch card or a state lottery which takes 40-60% of gamblers’ money. That is, if you decide to play it, why not to pay from your pocket for the smartest option? (Obviously, there is an important psychological catch of playing in a casino: people are probably more likely to get addicted and spend much more there rather than by buying a lottery ticket in a grocery shop on spare change every week.)

Is it okay to play a lottery? Probably, yes in a responsible way. It is, anyway, the “fastest” possible route to a huge wealth (even to becoming a billionaire with the recent trends of PowerBall in the US), which is a dream of almost anyone. Is it the best way? Probably not: there are so many other ways to get resources which you need by studying and working smart and hard, being healthy and happy, being mindful and optimistic for the rest of your life. If you want to increase your chances, you always can improve your skills, look for an opportunity for a professional or spiritual growth, write a blog post or a book, or start carefully doing a real estate business.

A good reminder of the importance of persistent, long-term growth is a well-known example of the compound interest. In a table below, you see that if you invest 8,500 pounds every time for 5% annually (which is hard but possible, even if the inflation is taking into the account), then in 40 years you will get a million pounds:

Alternatively, if a family (or a group of people like an organisation) finds a way to invest 10,000 pounds for 3% annually (again, after the inflation is taking into account), then in 505 years that family dynasty will be a trillionaire:

Obviously, it is not easy at all to maintain both the structure of a group of people as well as average growth at 3% average for such long amount of time, but it is definitely not impossible. It is also important to stress out that in any long-term investments it is expected to have some months or years of negative outcomes; all you need to do is to ensure that the average return is positive.

So, to answer the question in the title of this article, we do play lotteries every day in our life. The only difference is whether we wisely choose what lotteries to play or we don’t.

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Thank you very much.