A Little Happier: Winston Churchill’s Life Proves that We Can’t Know What’s Good or Bad Luck.

A while back, in an episode of “A Little Happier,” I described a teaching story that my mother often invokes to illustrate the idea that we can’t know what’s good luck or bad luck. Here’s the episode, if you want to listen.

As I was recently recording the audio-book for my book Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill (find the audio version here and here), I was reminded of this famous teaching story and its lesson, because Churchill draws the same point from the colorful events of his own life. I write:

As Churchill himself noticed, even seemingly chance events played their role [in helping him to achieve his destiny]. In his memoir My Early Life, he reflected on the 1896 accident that dislocated his shoulder and prevented him from using a sword; the injury bothered him until he died, but perhaps also saved his life.

“You never can tell whether bad luck may not after all turn out to be good luck. Perhaps if in the charge of Omdurman I had been able to use a sword, instead of having to adopt a modern weapon like a Mauser pistol, my story might not have got so far as the telling. One must never forget when misfortunes come that it is quite possible they are saving one from something much worse;  or that when you make some great mistake, it may very easily serve you better than the best-advised decision.

In the same disguise, Churchill’s banishment to the political wilderness during the 1930’s was lucky. He’d warned of the dangers;  he’d been ignored and scorned;  in 1940 he bore no responsibility. As Churchill explained later, “I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it”—or, as he put it more poetically in his book The Gathering Storm, “Over me beat the invisible wings.”

We don’t always know what’s good luck, or bad luck.

LATEST episodes



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.