How to Avoid Bad Luck: Check Your Gas Tank and Keep It Full

November 24, 2020

Four years ago, I drove across the country from New York to Portland with my friend in his Prius. After a smooth-sailing, fun-filled week, the car ended up breaking down in the Columbia River Gorge—just an hour and a half outside of Portland. We had to call a tow truck and wait. A few days later, he called: he’d heard back from the repair shop.

My friend Nick and I, waiting in the Columbia River Gorge for the tow truck. (Nick is trying to get out of the photo.)

We ran out of gas.

The morning we “broke down,” we were at a rest stop for coffee. I recommended getting gas. We didn’t need it, he explained, because we were in a Prius. There was plenty of gas. But… wouldn’t we need gas eventually? We were already at a rest stop? Even though the tank wasn’t close to empty, why not keep it filled?

99% of advice about success (or getting lucky) focuses on going towards the wins: getting a raise, another round of funding, getting stronger, being faster, getting more clients, sending out more resumés, going on more dates, getting that part…

But if you only pay attention to that, you’re ignoring half of the story. It’s more important to avoid bad luck. Bankruptcy, major illness, depression, divorce, losing your home, burnout, major fallouts, going broke, losing your connections, or even just finding yourself alone and hopeless can derail you—for years, at best. (Or an hour, if it’s just about waiting for the tow truck.)

It’s possible to bounce back from a major catastrophe (and we all love a comeback story). But why do that to yourself? Taking the steps to avoid bad luck will only help you get closer to those wins. You can’t completely prevent bad, random things, but taking an “active” coping style is associated with better life outcomes, less stress, and less burnout.

Bad luck happens when we reach the end of our rope, or when we find ourselves depleted on some resource. Never miss an opportunity to keep your tank full. Stay in touch with people, and see what you can do for them—when you don’t need to ask for help. Keep your savings account padded—before you need to dip into it. Stay healthy—so you can recover from illness faster. Don’t wait until things get messy. Don’t ignore how much you have left in the tank.