When both genotype and environment are held constant, 'chance' variation in the lifespan of individuals in a population is still quite large. Using isogenic populations of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, we show that, on the first day of adult life, chance variation in the level of induction of a green fluorescent protein (GFP) reporter coupled to a promoter from the gene hsp-16.2 predicts as much as a fourfold variation in subsequent survival. The same reporter is also a predictor of ability to withstand a subsequent lethal thermal stress. The level of induction of GFP is not heritable, and GFP expression levels in other reporter constructs are not associated with differences in longevity. HSP-16.2 itself is probably not responsible for the observed differences in survival but instead probably reflects a hidden, heterogeneous, but now quantifiable, physiological state that dictates the ability of an organism to deal with the rigors of living.