Do You Feel Lucky?

Posted on 03/14/2017 in misc

Dan Baird - SoLow

A couple of weeks ago the Techdirt podcast featured a fascinating interview with Robert H Frank, Professor at Cornell and author of the recently released Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. This is a subject I've debated a few times on various Internet forums, usually as the one guy in 50 that will admit to the role luck has had in my success. This isn't a book review as I haven't read it yet, although it is on my wish list.

However, it got me thinking about the subject again. Successful people, especially successful white males, tend to believe that their success in business or life is mostly due to their intelligence and hard work. That, in a word, is bullshit. There are tens (if not hundreds) of thousands or millions of more intelligent, harder working people than myself that don't have the financial or social capital that I enjoy at this stage of my life.

Without thinking about it too hard, I can quickly create a list of fortuitous events in my life that were mostly chance.

  1. I was born white, male, and Christian in the US. That alone gave me a huge head start over 90% or more of the world's population. I don't think I'd be writing this today if I had been born in the USSR, or Ethiopia.

  2. I was born into a stable, 2-parent family. We were not rich, probably lower middle class for most of my life. However, my dad was enlisted military so housing, food, school, etc. were things I could take for granted.

  3. My parents valued education, even though neither of them was a college graduate. They were pointing me at college from the day I was born. My father bought me an encyclopedia set before I could read. There was an expectation I would do well in school and go to college. It never even occurred to me to follow any other path.

  4. Because of my father's military career, I got to move around a lot, both within the US and outside of it. I got to experience foreign cultures from a young age, and attend a high school with Native American kids from the the Skull Valley Reservation. I got to graduate high school on a freaking South Pacific island with a very high-achieving high school. Just growing up on military bases put me in the most integrated sector of US culture in the 70s and 80s. All things that made it easier for me to operate in the big bad world as an adult.

  5. I applied to Purdue University on a lark, not realizing until after I was accepted that it was arguably the best public engineering school in the US.

  6. I met my wife on a fluke occurrence that never happens if I'm delayed even 30 seconds on the way to that particular party. If we get there 30 seconds earlier there is a good chance our paths do not cross that evening, or ever. Seriously, 30 seconds at age 19 determined the most important outcome of the rest of my life.

  7. I missed a final my sophomore year and got to retake it because the professor had done the same thing as an undergrad, and took pity on me. Otherwise I fail that class and maybe flunk out of Purdue. (I was on academic probation, don't remember if failing that class would have pushed me below a 2.0 that semester or not.)

  8. On NYE 1995 I taught myself HTML because I was up alone and bored because my pregnant wife had gone to bed early. I had no plan to learn HTML, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to make a web page that changed the course of my professional life. 3 months later I had a job with the first of too many dot com start ups that I would work for.

  9. I've never been seriously ill. I've broken two bones in my entire life, both before the age of 12. I was in a serious car accident in college, and walked out of the hospital the next morning.

  10. Both of my kids are healthy. My career wasn't derailed by caring for a child with a serious, life threatening disease. My finances were never ruined by that same thing either.

I could go on, probably for 5000 words. I've been one lucky SOB throughout my entire life. And so has just about everybody else that has any sort of personal or professional success. The things we think made us successful, such as graduating from college, generally only happen because of countless lucky breaks along the way that we had no control over (like who our parents were.) Sure, there are stories of people rising from single mom home with a dad in jail for murder that work their ass off and become successes. Most of those people surely did "earn it" more than I did, but they were still born in the USA and not Somolia. If their parents weren't there for them somebody was, a relative, school counselor, or maybe even a total stranger. None of us are self-made men, or women. We all had help. Successful people do generally work hard to get there. But not-as-successful people also work hard, but don't get the breaks that the successful people get. And many of the breaks aren't earned.

Why is this important? Well, people that think they are self-made successes end up as Republicans with no empathy. Trump inherited his wealth. He'd be far richer today if he had simply taken Daddy's check and put it in an index fund. Instead he has basically failed up for his entire life, ending up as the least qualified President in the history in the US. And he got there by playing on the prejudices and fears of people who have been left behind in the last 30 years. Most of them don't deserve it any more than I deserve to be moderately successful. I've been lucky, they haven't.

Put another way, if Paul Ryan had been born to a single mother in Techwood Homes in Atlanta he would not be Speaker of the House today. He probably wouldn't be such an asshole either.

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