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Chinese culture

If you study Chinese culture you will inevitably come across the concept of 'luck'. In fact, there are all sorts of things concerned with increasing the likelihood of being lucky. What is this all about?


Despite an enormous amount of superstitious hokum, there is such a thing as luck. Although we may prefer to think of ourselves as being the 'masters of our destiny', this is in fact quite naive.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Luck literally means "success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions".

The unforeseen

No matter how thoroughly we research or how extensively we plan ahead, there will always be factors we can never allow for. Human beings only possess a limited grasp of things.
The unforeseen, the unknowable, the incomplete will always hinder or help us in ways we cannot anticipate e.g. context.


We will always be limited by our lack of perspective. This is the way of things


We can choose in some circumstances. We are not always offered a choice. Even if we can choose, do we choose from a standpoint of wisdom or confusion?
Will you agree with your decisions in 10 years time?


If you really in control of your fate, did you get to choose your birth place? Your family? Whether or not your family are wealthy or poor?
Whether your parents cared about your education, your psychological and emotional welfare? Your home town? Did you get to pick your appearance, your height, your predilections?
Were you born into a war-torn region?

Job interview

Imagine a job interview...
It can be tempting to believe that hard work and preparation pays off. Sometime is does, sometimes it doesn't.
Your CV, work experience, knowledge and skill may precisely match that of the other candidates. You may even have better abilities to offer. Yet someone else gets the job...
Is this because they are better than you in some manner? How do you know? How can you tell? Will anybody tell you? What if there was a 'preferred' candidate all along?


You cannot prepare for things you cannot see. At a job interview there are countless unknowable variables involved e.g.:

  1. How hungry the interviewers are

  2. How nervous they are talking with strangers

  3. Whether they are interested or bored

  4. How much you impress them

  5. Their personality

  6. Their likes/dislikes

  7. Their mood

  8. Do you represent a long-term threat to their job?

  9. Your voice

  10. How you speak

  11. The bias, opinions, preconceptions and prejudices of the interviewers

  12. Time of day

  13. Does your face fit?

  14. Personality

  15. Emotional vibe

  16. Sense of humour or lack of (yours and theirs)

  17. What is the unspoken criteria?

  18. The salary at stake

  19. How eager you seem

  20. Whether they like you

  21. The cost of training a new starter

  22. The likelihood of long-term commitment from a candidate

  23. How flexible you are seen to be

  24. Whether they are attracted to you

  25. Is the company looking for a particular candidate? Do they have a pre-conceived notion of who they want to hire?

  26. Friendliness 

  27. Are they a bully?

  28. Whether they would want to work with you

The list could go on indefinitely...

People often are unaware of their own motivations and may not choose rationally (e.g. gut instinct).
Ultimately, you could perform circus tricks to impress the interviewer or agree to anything they suggest... and still not get the job. And you will never know why.


You may work really hard at your job only to be laid off the following week or somebody else is promoted instead of you or your boss takes credit for your work.
Alternatively, you may have tremendous success throughout your working life. Is that because you are the best? It might worth reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers before answering...


Unlike the Chinese tradition, you cannot slew luck in your favour. (If you can, please e-mail us immediately).
What you can do is simple: do your best with what is known to you, but recognise that you are unlikely to be seeing the 'big picture'.

A larger picture

Often you can expand your horizons and broaden your perspective with research, digging deeper, studying. This may help to reduce the variables. But it cannot remove them.

Adapt, change & improvise

Consider: a tai chi teacher turns up at the hall early in order to prepare the room for class... This is their income for the day. The hall is closed. It is filled with decorator's equipment.
When you phone the Hall Manager, they politely apologise for not telling you. You have to choose between turning away your students and losing pay, or improvising.
One student suggests a nearby park so you run an outdoor class.
Is it successful or not? Is it raining? Is it warm or cold? Are you disturbed by local children?

Finding a tai chi class

When a student looks for a tai chi class to attend, they are in a conundrum. They need to find a class that corresponds with a free night (or be prepared to change other arrangements).
Even if the person locates and enjoys a class, how do they know that the tai chi being taught is even vaguely authentic? Self-gratification has nothing to with authenticity.
The answer is simple: do a heavy amount of research, try out a few different classes, read The Tai Chi Classics, do your best to gauge what is being taught.
Accept that if you were truly capable of judging an instructor, you'd be an instructor already and not need lessons...


Preparation does not mean that you can make the right choices in life. We will always be blind to many factors. Often we simply make the best choice we can with the information that we have.


Can you read the minds of other people? Can you foresee the future? Unlikely. A productive way forward involves being clear-headed, sensitive, alert, mindful and adaptive. There are no guarantees.

Wu wei

Taoism recognises the presence of luck in our lives and encourages people to learn how to flow with what is taking place. Instead of fighting, resisting, blocking or becoming upset, we change.
We blend with the moment and work with what is taking place. This is how tai chi deals with the experience of combat.

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer who lost a horse; it ran away.
 All his neighbours came around that evening and said, "That's too bad."
 And he said, "Maybe."
 The next day the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it,
 and all the neighbours came around and said, "Isn't that great?"
 And he replied, "Maybe."
 The next day his son was attempting to tame one of the horses and was thrown from it and broke his leg, and all the neighbours came around and said, "Well, that's just too bad isn't it?"
 And the farmer said, "Maybe."
 The next day the conscription officers came around looking for people for the army,
 and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg.
 All the neighbours came around in the evening and said, "Isn't that wonderful?"
 And he said, "Maybe."

 (Alan Watts)

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Page created 18 October 2006
Last updated 16 June 2023