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The Role of Luck

The Role of Luck

“Some men find oil. Some men don’t.” - John Paul Getty

“The reason so many miss opportunity is that it often shows up in overalls and looks like work”.  - Thomas A. Edison

How do you feel about the subject of luck?

It's a little old-fashioned, I know. These days most of us prefer to think of luck as something we make for ourselves. Something more along the line of the old Gary Player quote "the harder I practice, the luckier I get."

Others seem to dismiss luck altogether preferring to believe - publicly, at least - that their success was inevitable; that they deserve every bit of the good fortune they've experienced.

A lot of us feel a more than a little uncomfortable discussing the role of luck because it seems so "arbitrary". It's as if we think by acknowledging the existence of luck, we somehow diminish ourselves and our own efforts. Perhaps more than a few of us fear the loss of control that the concept of  luck implies.

And so we dismiss it.

But there are more than a few people who would argue the point.

With his plane on fire and disintegrating around him, the inexperienced young pilot reaches for the canopy and is thrown free of the burning plane. Falling from 20,000 feet, the young man finally finds the ripcord and pulls, but nothing happens.

Looking up, he watches as his parachute winds around part of the seat and refuses to open. No matter how hard he struggles, he can't dislodge the pack and realizes that without a miracle, he will die within seconds. He has been married only two weeks and actively flying for nine days.

A miracle is exactly what happens - with only a few feet to spare, a gust of wind blows open a flap on his chute and it begins to deploy - at 250 feet above the ground. He lands hard, but safely.

A year later, the same young man is stationed at an airfield when it comes under attack by dive bombers. Driving a truck, the man makes a split second decision and grasping the steering wheel, he turns it with all his might, wrenching the truck around and making almost a 90 degree turn.

Even before the turn is complete, a bomb detonates lifting the truck off the ground and leaving a crater sixty by thirty feet wide. Miraculously, the young man again survives. Had he not made that last second turn, the bomb would have hit his truck dead center - and him along with it.

At 94, Bill Green, the young man in our story, leans back in his chair and calmly recounts these events and others to his interviewer, Ed Smith, the author of Luck: What it Means and Why It Matters.

Smith's book makes the point that luck exists - no matter how many of us would prefer that it did not. By his own admission, his life is an example of extraordinary luck. He receives the gift of a privileged education purely by chance while his more talented and competitive sister (his own words) does not. His luck extends to a career in sports which brings him the lifestyle and acclaim that is part of the package as a professional athlete in these modern times - until he gets hurt.

Injured and facing a long rehabilitation, Smith begins to question his own feelings on the subject of luck and over the course of the next few years, becomes a convert of sorts. You see, he had always belonged to the school of thought which preached that "Luck is for other, less talented people" or "You make your own luck". "Nurture over nature" as he puts it.

Smith recounts his own strategies, methods of visualization, endless practice, and (as with so many successful people) a reliance on routine bolstered by superstition. He is uncomfortable with the concept of talent - which of course, is often a gift of luck.

How do you reconcile the belief that hard work is all that's needed when you're faced with people who are faster, stronger, and better athletes than you? Hard work, flawless execution, and hours of disciplined practice can't possibly explain everything.

The differences in our definitions of luck, chance, and fate are explored as well. Smith manages to snag interviews with both Nicholas Taleb (author of Fooled By Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile ) and James Watson (of DNA fame) among others.

Smith tells the story of an obscure British politician visiting family in New York City in December, 1931. Deciding to visit a friend's house one evening, the Brit hails a cab and is soon lost. Frustrated and thinking he could recognize the house should he see it, he leaves the cab and strikes out on foot.

Crossing 5th avenue, he is hit by a car speeding through the city street at 35 miles per hour. He is rushed to a nearby hospital where the doctor's announce that his injuries are surprisingly minor and that he can expect to recover fully in a few weeks.

Some months earlier, in August of that same year, several thousand miles away, another politician steps in front of a speeding car. His case too, is extraordinary.  In a matter of minutes, he is up on his feet seemingly no worse for wear.

Both men came to realize their good luck in surviving accidents which would have normally been fatal.

The Brit even even goes so far as to query a scientist friend as to the impact and energy generated in such an accident and received the following information: "Collision equivalent to falling 30 feet onto pavement, equal six thousand foot-pounds  of energy. Equivalent stopping ten charges of buckshot pointblank range. Congratulations on preparing suitable cushion and skill in taking bump."

Winston Churchill, returns home - after recovering from his accident - to become the Prime Minister of England, at the most crucial time in his nation's history. Certainly, Britain was lucky that day in 1931.

But luck goes both ways. The other politician experiences equally good luck in surviving his accident and also becomes the leader of his country. His name was Adolf Hitler.

Of course, there are "lucky" people in today's society too. Would there have been a Microsoft had Gary Kildall (creator of CP/M and founder of Digital Research) been home that day to sign the NDA (non-disclosure agreement) with the two IBM folks who showed up?

Would Bill Gates have been able to take advantage of the opportunity had his mother not sat on a corporate board with someone from IBM? This is not to say that Bill Gates wasn't (or isn't) talented, driven, and ambitious. But he was also lucky - and a little good luck never hurts.

And that's the subject of Michael Lewis' recent speech to a group of Princeton's finest at their graduation. Lewis the author of "Liar's Poker" and "Moneyball" is no stranger to good luck himself. Here is just a part of what he said:

"... don't be deceived by life's outcomes. Life's outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

I make this point because — along with this speech — it is something that will be easy for you to forget.

I now live in Berkeley, California. A few years ago, just a few blocks from my home, a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn't. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader's shirt.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He'd been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his. 

This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I'm sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.”

So, I guess I should ask you again - How do you feel about the subject of luck?

Like Smith, I was once a tried and true member of the "make your own luck" fraternity. That's changed a bit as I've grown older. Collisions with reality have often left my body somewhat the worse for wear over the years. Horses, helicopters, and automobiles have not been kind to me. My x-rays are often the center of attraction whenever I find myself in need of medical attention. Doctors of all kinds show up to "ooh" and "ah" over my "history" which is so clearly marked on the bones. Sometimes I feel like a schoolchild presenting a novelty item to a third grade class for show-and-tell. No matter.

So, if you were to ask me what I think about luck, I would have to say that my feelings have definitely changed. They've changed because I've changed.  Luck exists. I know because I've been lucky all my life and probably used more than my share of luck along the way.  Maybe I didn't deserve all that good fortune; in fact, I'm sure I didn't. But it came along for the ride anyway.

Get the book. It won't take long to read. You can easily finish it over a weekend. But you won't stop thinking about it for a very long time.  I promise you that. And maybe, just maybe, you'll begin to be more open to life's opportunities and experiences as they come along. After all, you can only control so much. And we all need to learn to let go a little.

Whatever you're working on - whether it's a new product launch, a business reorganization, or your kid's birthday party, I wish you much success.

May you all be lucky.

The video of the Lewis speech is here. Enjoy.


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