Bad Luck and Poor Planning

My previous post seems to have been somewhat prophetic.

I have not been able to find much time to write for this blog recently, and since the last entry, my life has taken a few sharp turns. December is usually a busy month anyway, and looking back to last year, I see that the month was entirely silent. This year, we had one project that was slipping and, thus, impacting another project. With two family birthdays early in the month, the holiday season, and an upcoming vacation, it was fairly difficult to maintain focus. It was stressful.

Then, in the midst of this, an event occurred and put everything into perspective rather quickly. My wife’s father died suddenly, albeit not unexpectedly, and really put a damper on both productivity and our ability to enjoy the holiday season. This bit of bad luck is not something that one can control, and when it happens in this manner, one is almost instantly thrust into what seems to be an alternate world.

During the ensuing confusion, I was able to observe the results of poor planning on the part of my father-in-law. Although he had been fairly clear about his wishes, and had put many of his important papers in a single place where we knew to look, he never actually wrote any of this down or made it official. Instead, those who are most affected by and emotional about the death, and least likely to be fully rational, are forced to be making important decisions based on “what he would have wanted”. Suffice it to say that despite his best intentions and a reasonably simple estate, the aftermath is somewhat messy.

The practical lesson to be taken from this is that one should always have a proper will prepared and filed, if only to relieve grieving relatives from the burden of making decisions. We are going to take care of this ourselves, just as soon as I can get my wife back here, physically and otherwise.

Normally, our office closes for the two weeks around the end of the year. Due to the placement of the holidays this year, the scheduled closing does not correspond with school vacation times, so we have split between having a vacation this week and next and (me) having next week and the following week off. The last day before the break is traditionally a half day of work (if even that), with the afternoon devoted to a party and games. Today, though, my development ran into the afternoon, and when I had completed that, I was forced to recognize that I am the only one left here. (Even the cats are away visiting, though I do have the bird.)


Anyway, before I exit stage left (at least for today), there is a seasonal quote to share:

Games, Spirit! Games!! — Patrick Stewart, as Ebenezer Scrooge
[from A Christmas Carol (1999)]

Alas, Charles Dickens omitted these precise words from the original book, though the games themselves were certainly included.

Luck and Planning

Let me expound on the relationship between planning and luck.

In response to my Marketing experts post, Scott commented:

“Great advice, and I think you’re largely correct. The point I question is how you listed ‘Good Luck’ as a separate point. While luck in the sense of getting things to go your way is real and important, I would consider coupling that with your ‘Good Planning’ point, as good preparation and foresight is usually what leads to “improved karma’, as you put it.”

In other words, as the 1st century Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I certainly agree with that, and I would be in no position to argue that point (and neither would Seneca, for that matter). Planning and luck are definitely related, as good planning allows one to take advantage of opportunities and adjust to setbacks. This gives the appearance of simple luck, when a significant portion of the outcome is due to preparation.

The best real world example of this that I can think of is the game of Backgammon. Moves in the game are based on the random roll of a pair of dice, and expert players have the ability to optimize their position for any outcome. Novice players often believe that expert opponents get lucky rolls, when the truth of the matter is that experts work towards having more good rolls and fewer bad ones. This phenomenon is so pronounced that one can read the newsgroup and regularly witness accusations of fixed dice, whether the alleged cheating is by computer program, online game site, or even another human player.

However, that “luck” is based on situations for which one can plan and prepare, whereas in my posting, I was referring to the type of luck over which one has no control at all, or may not even understand. For example, economic factors affect sales in unpredictable ways that vary by product type, whether that be by leading, following, bucking, or even ignoring a trend. One also has little or no control over the competition or the direction a particular market goes. This type of luck can be either good or bad.

Let me provide real examples of both bad and good luck that occurred to us at SophSoft in rapid succession. To set the stage, during August and September of 2001, we were developing a self-funded game title. Around that same time, as a contingency plan, I had scheduled a meeting about another job, and it went very well. The game, which had building demolition (as with a wrecking ball) as its theme, was progressing, too.

Then, on September 11th, the world changed as a result of a terrorist attack. Suddenly, a game about tearing down a building was absolutely not entertaining, and we could not bring ourselves to work on the product, much less publish it, in the wake of the tragedy. With the contingency job, which had almost been a done deal, that company immediately froze all hiring indefinitely. Some general preparation helped mitigate damage to our company, but there was no way we could have planned for an event of such global magnitude.

In the following days, we all mourned, and then our company set about to assess the situation. We had little funding with which to build a new game, and contracting prospects were bleak. The only solution was to work to re-theme the existing game prototype on a shoestring and hope that everything would work out decently. After a few weeks of moving in this direction, I received an email inquiring whether I (specifically) was available to do contract work in a game genre I knew intimately. To make a long story short, that unexpected contract saved our company. Sure, we had a plan in action and had prepared the groundwork for receiving such an offer, but the fact that an unsolicited contract offer arrived when we most needed it was absolutely lucky.

To clarify one final point: my advice for improving ones luck was “work to improve your karma“. Fundamentally, the items that I chalk up to luck are those over which one has no control, that basically happen as a result of (mathematical) chaos in the universe. By definition, one cannot exert discernible influence over these occurrences, so instead of suggesting that one hope or pray, I inserted my own version of Pascal’s Wager:

Strive to be a Good Person; it may or may not influence luck in your favor, but in any event, you will always feel good about yourself, and others will tend to help rather than hinder you in your endeavors.

You make your own karma.

Quotes of the Day

Here are a couple of quotes that caught my attention.

Me, too. I’m In-de-pen-dent.” — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
[from Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)]

I was doing these visualizers for WinAmp, this plugin where you have 3D dancing girl at about 10,000 polygons. Back in 2000, that was pretty respectable. There were lots of bounce physics on those. I came up with the proper solution to the breast bouncing one night over seven Guinnesses with a waitress. I showed her my laptop, and what I was working on, and she happily jumped and bounced for me.” — Paul Steed
[from recent Gamasutra interview]

Keep smiling.