The Big Secret

I recently came across an inspiring essay by one of my heroes, Harlan Ellison, an insightful commentary on the 2004 movie The Butterfly Effect. Coïncidentally–or not, as may become clearer a bit farther along–he cited Louis Pasteur, using the same quote I picked for the by-line of this blog:

Fortune only smiles upon the well-prepared mind.

La chance ne sourit qu’aux esprits bien préparés.

In a much more skillful fashion than I, he drew on this reference to answer the question he frequently encounters: What is the secret?

In some way, a book I just finished reading, The Prince and the Zombie, by Tenzin Wangmo, addresses this question too. It’s a transcription of a version of Tibetan stories told to the author by her grandfather. These stories were traditionally passed from generation to generation in spoken form, but Tenzin Wangmo wrote them down both to preserve them and to introduce them to a wider audience. The tales convey a message similar to the one in Harlan Ellison’s essay, the often under-estimated extent of cause and effect.

When I was younger it was hip to refer to Buddhist teachings in conversation, telling friends who were having good luck or doing something altruistic that they had “good karma,” or if they were having bad luck, “bad karma.” Knowing nothing about Buddhism, I took the word “karma” to refer to some kind of mystical state in which someone was favored or disfavored by mysterious forces.

Karma isn’t just a synonym for luck though and the forces involved aren’t mysterious. Karma is about cause and effect–through our actions we are able to influence luck, to maximize the probability that the outcome of a set of circumstances will be good for us–to create our own good fortune, if you will.

The lesson The Prince and The Zombie, Louis Pasteur and Harlan Ellison give us is that our actions, what we do and how we go about it, have a profound influence on our fortune. Yet, like The Prince, we are constantly becoming engrossed in distractions that take advantage of the proclivities of our very nature, and it is this distraction, this inattention to the situation at hand, that leads to our downfall.

Intuitively we know this to be true. Instinctively most of us ignore that knowledge. As Captain Picard said in Samaritan Snare, “Wishing for a thing does not make it so,” and some things are possible while others are not. We can however maximize the likelihood of being able to achieve the thing we wish for, and this requires consideration of our actions and a diligent attention to their consequences to ourselves and their influence on others and the world around us. This is true for success at all levels from the classroom to everyday life to world-changing ideas and discoveries.

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