Dissonant Notes

Thursday, January 28, 2016

If You Want To Be Lucky, Be Lucky!

I gave a short speech at a Toastmasters meeting during my time at Prime Digital Academy, an academy that teaches computer programming. It got a really positive reaction so I thought I'd put the text up on my blog. Here it is.

A strange tension exists within the tech community, and elsewhere, in terms of how a person can achieve success. On the one hand, we are told that certain personality traits help a person flourish: hard-work, determination, curiosity, and adaptability are seen as the prime factors in terms of accomplishing your goals. On the other hand, we are told that most people find a job through knowing a person who works for the company in question. In other words, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. So it’s not really hard work, it’s luck. We were lucky to have come into contact with a person who worked for a company that was hiring. We were lucky to have bumped into an old friend who told us of a position available that we would love. The American Dream is built on the notion that we all have the opportunity to do better. The shadowy underside of this statement is the idea that those who are struggling must somehow deserve to be in their position, that the poor have simply not tried hard enough, that they are just not smart enough, that poverty is not a problem but a natural destination for those who do not possess the correct qualities.

To imagine that those who are more successful are simply luckier is dismissed by many as nonsense. Yet what is the alternative to that belief? That the universe is a perfectly functioning karmic machine which dishes out punishment and reward in exact proportion to effort? That this very machine functions best when no rules and regulations are applied? At that point we have crossed over from politics or philosophy and into metaphysics. To believe that the universe is alive with a judgement system closely tied in with the Protestant work ethic is a leap of faith, and one which makes unprovable assumptions about literally millions of people who live in poverty and despair. It also obliterates any moral concerns we may have about how lucky we are to live in relative comfort when so many struggle in the world. You see, we aren’t lucky. We deserve all we have. We earned it. The quickest way to kill compassion and empathy are to conveniently forget all the times in our lives we have been lucky.

Many will go through life not knowing what it’s like to live in a culture where your skin colour, or sex, or gender, or sexual orientation are subject to constant scrutiny. Those born into wealth will often minimise the extent to which their personal circumstances have helped them to achieve their aims. You may win the genetic lottery when it comes to physical appearance, physical and mental health, or intelligence. You may believe your struggles are comparable to those of others, without acknowledging how much family, friends, or a supportive partner have allowed you to move beyond situations which others are still mired in. In the American Dream, luck is minimised while the grit and determination of the individual are celebrated. Once a person becomes successful, it is taken for granted that they must possess a remarkable set of characteristics that set them apart from those who struggle. Imagine if the most important element of success were merely luck. In truth, we don’t need to imagine.

Over the course of several years, Duke University carried out a survey that asked the financial officers of major corporations to estimate the returns of the Standard & Poor’s stock index during the next financial year. Overall, 11,600 predictions were collected and duly examined by Duke University. The results were startling. These highly paid corporate employees appeared to know absolutely nothing about the stock market. Not only were their predictions wrong for the most part, they were actually worse than random. The more they predicted a positive stock outcome, the more likely it was to be negative, and vice versa. It would have been better to flip a coin when making a decision than take their advice. To the average person, the corporate employees who took part in this survey would be seen as accomplished individuals. Yet their success was built on nothing other than bluff and overconfidence. These were immensely lucky individuals who chose an occupation that rewards people handsomely even if they fail. If only minimum wage employees had such a safety net.

Now imagine a coin toss game. The coin is tossed by a mechanism that produces random results. Those taking part must call heads or tails while the coin is in the air. Each person does not know what the other calls. If they call the same thing, they must play again until somebody wins. Once you win a round, you play again, and again, until there is only one person left. Now imagine 10 million people playing that game. No matter how high the number of participants, somebody has to win. It is impossible for there to be no winner. Some person must win through thousands of rounds to be crowned champion. What skill did they posses? Luck. Nothing more. What if we lived in a society that was more like the coin toss game than any of us are willing to admit? Acknowledging this would result in less talk of having truly earned anything, and more feelings of gratefulness at being one of the lucky ones. You might even want to help out those worse off than you, knowing that only luck stops you from being in their shoes.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, French philosopher Camus equates humanity's condition to that of Sisyphus, the Greek king punished by the gods by being forced to push a great boulder up a hill for all eternity. To Camus, the boulder is not truly a burden, but is in fact our reason to live. In an absurd universe, without a reason to strive we are left devoid of purpose. It seems that many of the most successful among us have managed to push their boulder to the top, and in doing so they have overlooked the fact that others continue to strive, while also forgetting that their own boulder was somewhat lighter, and that their slope was not as steep. It is through such acts of forgetting that we slowly lose our humanity. So why get out of bed if we are ruled only by luck? Well, if we are lucky, we can create luck. We can find ourselves in a coding academy surrounded by like-minded individuals. With a bit of courage, we can push ourselves into social situations that allow us to connect with other humans, and in doing so increase our chances of being lucky. Cities are great luck generators on account of the sheer volume of variables that are contained within them. More variables means more opportunities for luck. Hermits don’t tend to experience much luck. To those of us tied to our burden, rejoice in the purpose this hardship gives you. It will teach you sympathy if you let it. So go into the world happy to carry your burden, and whatever you do, be lucky.

Inspiration (and facts) taken from:

The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Daniel C. Dennett

Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman

The Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant. Thank you. This reminds me of a comic I saw recently that traces the paths of two individuals of equal intelligence but of differing means. Their paths to their college degrees were completely different due to this sort of lucky duck proximity to people who could help. My favorite laugh out loud statement made by the lucky is, "I work hard for my money!" LOL do you work harder than say, the fry cook at the McDonald's? I am willing to bet you don't end up sweaty, and frazzled and smelling of trans fat after your day, do you?