The East Values Heroic Effort over Luck

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

In Eastern languages such as Korean or Japanese, there is no version of "good luck." When someone is taking a test or about to go into a job interview, an American might say "good luck." But luck isn't something we can control, we're either fortunate to have it, or we're not. Koreans and Japanese do have a sense of luck, or a more accurate translation would be "blessing." (As opposed to blessing someone every time they sneeze.) It's not something that is often used unless it's for something that is considered beyond your control, like a winning lottery ticket.

If someone were to ask how to say "good luck" in Japanese, a native speaker might say "ganbatte" (頑張って) as proxy, but literally, it means “give it your all.” The East is ostensibly known for blending spirituality into daily life, but in this instance, it would be the Western beliefs that have more to do with superstition and the Eastern tenets that have everything to do with what is actionable — determined by the self. (In actuality, one could argue it is the West that is full of superstition and religion, but since the traditions are Western in origin, the West is blind to them. Since Eastern culture is foreign to Westerners, Eastern traditions stand out. In more human terms, it's only weird when someone else is doing it.)

In English, if someone were to tell you "good luck," a typical response would be "thank you." In Japanese, you would typically respond with "Hai, ganbarimasu!" ( はい、頑張ります!), which means, “Yes, I’ll do my best!” — an indication of action rather than an appreciation for a blessing. Consider that, rather than saying, "Yes, I'll try," you were to say, "Yes! I'll do my best" — what a shift in thinking.

The Chinese would say "jiayou" (加油) which literally means "add more fuel." Refuel and put in an even greater effort. This word sounds very similar to "jai ho" (जय हो), which is a Hindi and Nepali phrase that means "prevail" or "must triumph." The Korean version would be "pil seung" (필승). These are all forms of encouragement that are based on extreme effort and heroism. What is desirable is character, that is heroic, not more superstition. This is closer to the original meaning of "encouragement," Old French for "push into courage." We somehow forgot its intended usage and use it to say "be nice." We have countless ways to say "be nice," including "be nice," but it is not appropriate in all situations.

Is it a matter of luck or is it a matter of effort? Whether you are taking a test or playing the slots, people will tell you "good luck." They are treated the same when common sense tells us these things are different. If an actor doesn't get a role they auditioned for, they were just unlucky. It was out of their control. This absolves one from working harder and taking control over their life.

Koreans take it a step further. They often say "sugo" (수고), which is a cross between great effort and toil. They may also say "goseng" (고생), which is a cross between suffering and a long, slow, arduous journey. It helps to set realistic expectations in an encouraging way.

If a father is struggling at work, a Korean child might hug her daddy and tell him with a smile, "him-nae-sae-yo" (힘내세요). This is one of the most touching and precious of encouragements a child can give to a parent. It means "apply more strength." This might sound strange to a Westerner, but it is less strange than telling someone who is struggling at work, "good luck." The child believes her daddy has extra reserve to apply, she believes in him, just in case he stopped believing in himself. And for the love of his daughter, he will find that reserve, he will apply more strength.

In more modern times, Koreans have appropriated an English term that is used in a uniquely Korean way. When someone is about to take a test or go for a job interview, they say "fighting!" You will see it on banners during Korean sporting events and on headbands during exams. It is understood that the journey will be tough but the belief is, one can be victorious if they try hard enough. You are "fighting" to get the result you seek. In that way, it is much more encouraging (supporting of courage) than "good luck," which offers no encouragement. Compare for example during a child's soccer game, yelling, "You can do it!" vs. "Good luck!" Which offers encouragement and which offers no support of action? You are either telling someone they can control their luck, or that everything is beyond their control. What is "good luck" but an underlying belief that we are powerless yet should still expect great results. It is nonsensical and unhelpful.

Luck requires no courage, no discipline, no effort, and no perseverance. This is why the idea of "luck" is so seductive. With no amount of effort, we can achieve results. We "believe," even though experience keeps telling us otherwise. This is how we repeat the same mistakes while expecting new results. Good mental health involves doing those things we don't want to do. Unproductive thoughts can alter our mental well-being and lead into descents.

In Korea, luck is mostly used in a sarcastic, insulting way. "Jal natdah" (잘났다), which literally means "emanating something special," or born lucky. It's a sarcastic way to say, "good for you" or to call someone out for thinking they are better or more special than others. Things that are out of our control, that aren't earned, are not things to envy. If someone were to brag about their inherited wealth, the response would be "jal natdah," you've done nothing to achieve that.

Old Wisdom, New Audience

In philosophical terms, it's a case of self-determinism vs. fatalism. If we are talking neuroscience, it's incremental learning vs. entity learning or as Carol Dweck wrote in Mindset: growth vs. fixed mindset. Really it's old wisdom with new jargon. The strategies for growth has mostly remained unchanged, they are ageless. We merely have more scientific evidence proving them correct.

Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.
— Seneca

Classical philosophers believed that the first step in creating a healthy society is to focus on the internal life. Individually it's about creating those good mental habits. The second step in transforming society is to change external circumstances — through self-determinism, great effort, and self-discipline. This was what philosophers taught their students and what therapists teach their patients. (It is also the central tenet of martial arts.)

We fear the possibility that we might try and it will not be good enough. In not trying, we look to preserve the ego. We avoid facing our fears. "Katas" are a type of scripted movement that a martial artist does alone. She is sparring an invisible foe — herself — her self-doubts. The "fight" is a metaphor for defeating the ego. The art is mastery over the self. To overcome oneself is not a matter of luck, it takes great effort, and no innate ability will make this easy. This is what makes it a heroic achievement, what will flow into all other achievements.