“The man who said I would rather be lucky than good saw deeply into the world”
The line is the first uttered in Woody Allen’s film “Match Point” which, while a great film, is not a good first-date movie (a quick perusal of the synopsis of the plot will reveal why). It deals with the unsettling truth that a great deal of what happens in our lives comes down to nothing more than pure chance. Fortunately for me, since I am rather well-endowed (with luck at least) I do not suffer the common narrative fallacy where most people ascribe where they are in life to some combination of their hard work, learned knowledge, or talent. Obviously these are all important things, but luck, which in many cases would be the most important of all, often doesn’t even warrant a mention, or at most is only a footnote.
It has occasionally been hypothesized that I have what is called “Impostor Syndrome“. In a nutshell, it is a condition where a person has trouble internalizing their own achievements and ascribes their social/professional/academic standing to having fooled everyone around them into believing that they are in fact, better than they really are. While it is generally true that my own assessment of my abilities falls well short of where most seem to place me, and while it is also generally true that I feel like I’m an impostor who is continually being given opportunities which ought to be reserved for those with greater potential, I don’t believe that I have impostor syndrome. I merely have a more accurate view on the narrative which has governed my life, and led to where I am now. A view more accurate relative to the general population, especially with regards to luck.
You see, while most people believe that they got to where they are because they were talented, and worked hard, and were determined etc. I know that I got to where I am by a combination of those things and a very, very, very generous dose of luck. Almost every single significant event or achievement of my life, those turning points where I truly felt a different person afterwards, were the direct result of very large doses of luck. Luckily for me, a few of them were obvious enough that I was able to easily see the role that luck played. An obvious example is my crash in a formula ford racing car at Calder park raceway. Long story short: I lost control at the end of the main straight at 240km/h, spun out of control, and hit a concrete wall at about 170. I woke up in an ambulance with no recollection of what happened, a few scratches, (one of which needed stitches and passed perilously close to my Achillies tendon) and a fracture in my shoulder that was small enough that I didn’t notice it until weeks later. The car was obliterated. No amount of skill can control an open wheeler spinning at those speeds. If I had impacted the wall at even a slightly different angle, I would be dead.
At a brunch recently I learned that in the British military when two officers are competing for promotion, in cases where both the candidates are extremely closely matched on all regular criteria, they look back over the candidates history and choose the one who is “luckier”.1 This got me thinking (and is actually the real reason I wrote this article) and I think I know the reason for this. If one thinks for a moment about the stereotype of a British army officer (think of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Modern Major General) one can’t help but imagine a person with an inflated sense of entitlement. Daddy owns a lot of land, therefore I should be an officer etc. The infamous “charge of the light brigade” lay bare the very worst shortcomings of this brand of thinking and I believe the use of the “luck measure” may be an attempt at eradicating it.
Say you have two cows. One of them is promoted to public office by way of competitive written examination. The other is promoted to public office by way of a lottery. The cow that took the exam is going to (rightly) believe that he deserves to be there and that it is his right. The cow that took the lottery, on the other hand, will have no such illusions. He will enter the job with a mentality similar to that of a person starting a business with a large loan, while the other cow will be starting with a sum of money that was given to him as a prize. Two distinctly different mindsets which would result in, presumably, slightly different results.
Perhaps this is where I get the feeling that I’m always living on “borrowed time”. Samurai used to enter battle with the mindset that they had already died. Strange as that may sound, the idea is actually very similar – you have nothing to lose. Curiously, if you are afraid of dying, you are more likely to die than if you fight with the kind of reckless abandon that a person who already believes their time is up would. So in fact maybe I am an impostor, but so is everybody else – I’m just much more acutely aware of it than others.
What does this all mean? I don’t know. It would be silly to suggest that everything happens because of luck. But it would be even sillier to suggest that everything happens for a reason. We really must learn to embrace randomness a little more. If we don’t, we risk being ambushed by it, but if we do, we can prepare ourselves for it. When I say “prepare ourselves for randomness”, what I’m really saying is to accept that luck plays a huge role in your life, don’t beat up on yourself too much when things don’t go right, and also be prepared to seize opportunities when they do come along.
There’s a great line from a film called “Good Will Hunting”, the screenplay of which won an Oscar. “I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winnin’ lottery ticket. And you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in, and that’s bullshit”. It describes the situation the lead character, Will Hunting, a genius mathematician, is in when his best friend confronts him and challenges him to recognize his abilities and use them. Meanwhile, he is facing a similar situation with a girl where he is afraid to confront the fact that he has feelings for her. The film is great, although the line bothers me slightly in that the kind of luck I’m talking about isn’t like a lottery ticket in that lotteries are fundamentally zero-sum and very predictable kinds of luck. For any given lottery, you can make a reasonable guess at the upper-bound for the prize because it will always be lower than the total taken from tickets sold.
Even though the kind of luck I’m talking about is fundamentally impossible to predict, it can still be harnessed. If I roll a fair die, I’m going to get a six about one sixth of the time. In other words, the chances that I won’t get a six will be five sixths. If I have ten dice, then the chances that I won’t get a six will be five sixths to the power of 10. As I keep adding dice, it quickly becomes almost impossible not to get a six. Where am I going with this? The real reason that I like living in big cities. The scope of human interaction is so much larger in a big city, and the rate at which “stuff happens” is just so much greater, that the chances that an unbelievable opportunity will come up, while still quite slim, are much greater than if you lived in a small town in rural Holland (just to throw an example out there).
And that, your honor, is why I want to move back to New York – to get lucky.
- I don’t actually know whether this is true, it could be an urban legend. ↩
Awesome – my anti-spam word was fish (spelled ghoti).
I have long liked the concept of god, as a non-Christian entity, who is largely a random number generator, rewarding those who believe in luck more than others. It helps to be a lucky person.
well, if God can generate a random number that God cannot predict, then God is not all-powerful… and if God can’t generate a random number that God cannot predict then…
“you have nothing to loose” – “lose”, Daniel.
Plus I got distracted picturing cows in public office.
Also, why are your CAPTCHAs misspelled words? It pains me.
I think the anti-spam words are misspelled so that it’s harder for a bot to figure them out. Such a bot would probably be coded to match up images to words in the dictionary, and always come up short for this reason.
Nassim Taleb believes in the free market–not because it rewards skill and efficiency (though I believe it rewards those to some extent), but because it allows people to maximally get lucky. I think his insights are fascinating and expose the kind of narrative bias most people have for what it is. No, I don’t think you have Impostor Syndrome, I think you have your head on straighter than the rest, so they look at you like your head is on crooked.