A Series of Fortunate Events

12 August 2013 · 9 comments

Last Tuesday, I was cleaning the apartment when I noticed that my A/C was producing severe condensation once again. I knocked on the neighbors’ door. “Have have had problems with your A/C unit?” I asked.

“No,” said Jan. “Ours works fine.”

“Would you like a glass of wine?” asked Sheila, his wife.

I held up the half-finished beer in my hand. “Not yet,” I said. She laughed. “Well, at least sit and talk with us while we drink our wine.” And so I did.

Jan and Sheila are both seventy, and for the six months I’ve lived in this building, they’ve been asking me to drink wine with them. The timing never worked until now.

I joined Jan and Sheila at 4:30 in the afternoon. For four hours, we chatted about travel, motorcycles, and more. Sheila drank sangria. Jan drank beer. I took a little of both. When Kim arrived home from work, Sheila made us a lovely dinner with a tomato-basil salad, fried cheese, and corn on the cob.

The food was great, but the conversation was better. My favorite thread of discussion revolved around the role of luck and good fortune. I told them I’d recently written about accepting responsibility for your life and the things that happen to you, which led quite naturally to a discussion of Portland’s booming homelessness problem.

“Do you think the homeless are responsible for their situation?” Sheila asked. We talked it out, deciding that some homeless folks are responsible for their plight — and others aren’t. (Somebody mentioned the following quote, which I like: “It may not be your fault, but it’s your problem.”)

Jan and Sheila also talked about their friend, who’d just undergone open heart surgery that day. We talked about other people we know who have had bad breaks or fallen on hard times. At one point, I tried to draw a comparison between a couple of situations. Jan stopped me.

“You can’t compare misfortunes,” Jan said, an insight I believe is profound. You can’t compare misfortunes. Bad luck is bad luck. It sucks, no matter what the situation is. (Jan’s comment reminded me of the opening line to Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”)

A while later, Jan was talking about the twists and turns his life has taken. He’s a curious man, and always has been. He’s willing to try new things and to talk to new people. As a result, good things happen to him. This reminded me of one of my favorite books, Luck is No Accident [my review], which encourages readers to open themselves to “happenstance” by embracing life head on.

“Most of my life has been this way,” Jan told me. “It’s a series of fortunate events.” I liked that statement too. I feel like my own life has been a series of fortunate events over the past few years. And the more I share, the more open I am, the luckier I get.

I think I should drink wine with Jan and Sheila more often.

1 Tyler Karaszewski August 12, 2013 at 16:49

Everyone occasionally falls on misfortunes of one nature or another, some more serious than others. I think one thing that sets successful people apart from others is how they handle this. I sort of split up the reaction to a problem into one of two major categories:

1) Blame. Something bad happens to you. Maybe because of your own failure, maybe because of someone else’s, or maybe because of the failure of no one in particular. Reaction 1 is simply to assign blame for the failure and whine about it. Say you failed a test. This camp will blame it on the professor, their ill health that day, the fact that they missed the bus because it was snowing, or whatever else. They may even fess up to not studying enough. None of these things helps with passing the class, though.

2) Repair. The other reaction is to try and fix the problem. You ask the professor if you can retake the test. You ask for extra credit. You put in extra effort studying for the remainder of the course to repair the damage to your grade. Worst case, you retake the class to replace your grade. It doesn’t matter why there was a problem so much as it matters that the problem get fixed.

Certainly, you can combine these reactions. You might for instance assign blame and then fix the problem. Or you might have some other less common reaction. But usually, once there’s a problem you can see within a few minutes how someone is going to handle it. If you come home and find the house flooding, you might start by saying, “What the hell, who flooded the house?” or you might start with, “I need to fix this or find someone who can!”

I find the people with the second (repair) reaction to problems tend to be more successful overall. Blame only matters insofar as it might help keep you from repeating the same mistakes. Being able to fix a problem is always useful.

2 Jennifer August 12, 2013 at 19:01

Great post, J.D. Over the years I’ve found some of my most enjoyable, thought-provoking conversations have been with people generation or so older than me. Your neighbors sound like great people with whom you will establish a great friendship.

Tyler, your comments are spot on perfect! Sounds like you’ve got the mental tools and maturity to help you make it through the difficult times you’ve found yourself in over the past year.

3 Caelan Huntress August 13, 2013 at 10:51

Wow. You can’t compare misfortunes – so true.

But you can compare fortunes, up to a point. Your fortunate events, and Jan’s fortunate events, both get you to the same place: happiness.

4 SavvyFinancialLatina August 13, 2013 at 11:57

Great wisdom in Jan’s words. I try to remember this as I continue with my life. Focus on the positives of life, and figure out a way to get rid of negative aspects.

5 Edward Ferguson August 15, 2013 at 10:53

I need to compare and generalize misfortunes in order to steer clear of them. I don’t believe there was any type of broad tragedy not covered in a Shakespearian play, and that only adds up to about 12 stories. Though your life may have been a series of fortunate events, JD, I really believe that you’ve steered it in that direction. The actual “fortune” comes when you know what your goals are, actively towards them and other things which make you happy, and succeed. That you had the insight to do this and not walk blindly through life is what’s fortunate. …And that’s all you. No luck involved.

6 Buy & Hold Blog August 16, 2013 at 13:45

Great post JD. My first job out of college was a total happenstance. I went for a job interview at a small company whose owner was being visited by a friend who was the CEO of another company. The company I interviewed for didn’t offer me the job, but the other one did. That job turned out be one of the best job for me. I got this job at a time when I was going nowhere during 2000 dotcom recession and it would have forced me to leave this country if I had not found a job in the next couple of months. I was on an international student visa at that time.

7 Sheri August 18, 2013 at 17:53

How absolutely wonderful for you. If only more people would open themselves up to our wiser generation. They might just learn something :)

8 Gerard October 26, 2013 at 06:54

Thanks for this. The post, and Tyler’s comment, solidify a bunch of stuff I’ve been thinking through, but haven’t been able to put into words very well.

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