You Have No Idea How Lucky You Are

Of all the bad and dangerous ideas in the world, perhaps none is worse and more dangerous than the idea that there is no such thing as luck.

Whenever you find some instance of a large group of humans treating another large group of humans very badly, there is usually some philosophical basis for believing that those who are suffering must suffer because they deserve it. And the only way to get there philosophically is to believe that those who are suffering brought it upon themselves, or that they are lesser in some way that justifies their suffering. That the child starving to death, that the family facing the firing squad, that the people in chains, that they have some sort of character flaw that makes it right for them to be where they are.

When there is no such thing as luck, or when we believe that luck only plays a very small role in life, everyone’s status in the world is exactly as it should be. And so almost invariably, the argument “that there is no such thing as luck,” is proposed and defended by the wealthiest people on the planet. The wealthiest and most statusful would like to believe that their wealth and status comes not from good fortune and happenstance, but through strength of character—through an inchoate will to power or some such thing.[1]

From a philosophical and a scientific perspective, the opposite argument is much easier to defend. Namely, that everything that happens to us is pure luck.[2] Our lives are a product of our genes acting upon our environment, nothing more and nothing less. There is no overarching “self” that guides and steers the ship. There is no ghost in the machine. The notion of libertarian free will is an illusion, and the idea that we can somehow make decisions independent of our genetic and environmental precursors, is generally viewed with derision among serious scholars of neuroscience and the philosophy of the mind.

But among popular psychology and folk philosophy, the opposite argument is much more prevalent. That there is no such thing as luck. That our lives are a blank slate. That if we all woke up at 4:30 am every day and meditated, took cold showers, wrote 1,000 words every day, and recited positive mantras, that we could all be multi-millionaire life coaches.[3] The search results for “there is no such thing as luck” are equal parts plentiful and intellectually vacuous.

And it’s not just popular psychology bloggers who believe this mantra. This kind of talk is fairly popular among the VC crowd, too. To name just a couple of bigger names, Peter Thiel and Keith Rabois are famous for advocating a strongly anti-luck position. Peter Thiel’s position is much more sophisticated than the lifestyle blogger’s, but it still treads along into the territory of might = right. Slightly less nuanced is Keith Rabois, who this summer posted on twitter his belief that, “survivorship bias is something losers say.” If you follow this and his other arguments, his position is clear—he’s ludicrously wealthy because of his work ethic.[4]

Of course, the least fortunate among us tend to be stronger believers in luck. In that vein, I recently finished a book called “The Great Hunger,” about the Irish Potato Famine, from 1845-1849. Here is one first-hand account of what that era was like.

Having for many years been intimately connected with the western portion of the County of Cork, and possessing some small property there, I thought it right personally to investigate the truth of several lamentable accounts which had reached me, of the appalling state of misery to which that part of the country was reduced. I accordingly went to … Skibbereen… and on reaching the spot I was surprised to find the hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause, and the scenes that presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner of filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found with a low moaning they were alive—they were in fever, four children, a woman, and what had once been a man…. My heart sickens at the recital, but I must go on…. I found myself grabbed by a woman with an infant just born in her arms and the remains of a filthy sack across her loins—the sole covering of herself and the baby. The same morning the police opened up a house on adjoining lands, which was observed shut for many days, and two dozen corpses were found, lying upon the floor, half devoured by rats.

A mother, herself in a fever, was seen the same day to drag out the corpse of a child, a girl about twelve, perfectly naked, and leave it half covered with stones. In another house … the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying unable to move, under the same cloak. One had been dead many hours but the others were unable to move either themselves or the corpse.

Account by Nicholas Cummins, as quoted in The Great Hunger, by Cecil Woodham-Smith.

The reaction of the British government, which was Ireland’s government at the time, was that the best course of action was to do nothing. That the poor were left to the “operation of natural causes,” to use Lord Trevelyan’s phrase. During the potato famine, Ireland was actually a net exporter of food. But the Irish peasantry who grew wheat, barley, and other food used that money to pay the rent. Their own diet consisted of potatoes and potatoes alone. When that crop rotted because of blight, they had nothing to eat. Even though there was plenty of food available in the market, rents on Irish properties at the time amounted to 80% and then to in excess of 100% of Irish incomes. If the Irish ate the food that they sold to pay the rent, they were condemning themselves and their families to a slow death of starvation after eviction. The choices were immediate starvation and slow starvation.

In four years, about 1.5 million people died and another million emigrated. The population of the country shrank by nearly 30% in less than half a decade.

Many in the British government felt that this was for the best. According to Nassau Senior, economic advisor to the British government, “I heard one of them say that he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.” Time and again, high-level British officials rejected opportunities for intervention. While some attempts at assistance were made in 1846, with public works programs, the political will for intervention quickly faded. By 1847, British policy was to simply allow nature to take its course. After two years of mass starvation and emigration, a small and pitiful insurrection occurred in 1848, with a few dozen Irish conspiring with one Minister of Parliament to rally support for Irish independence. After this, British attitudes further hardened against assistance to the Irish poor. The tone of British Parliament was one of an extreme “rage against Ireland on account of its faction, its mendacity, [and] its ingratitude.” In their minds, the Irish had brought this great famine upon themselves.

This particular event in history had a strong impact on me because my father and all but one of my grandparents were from west Cork. The living conditions of Skibbereen were those that my not-so-distant ancestors somehow managed to survive.[5] All of my genes come from this part of the world. All that is me came from that time and place.

The only difference between my life of comfort and luxury now and their life of penury and misery then is that I was born 130 years later, in another part of the world.

I like to think that I have worked hard for what I have achieved in life, but I am not so smug as to believe that the difference between my living conditions and theirs is all a result of hard work or skill.

It was mostly (if not entirely) dumb luck.

I was born in a time when a reasonably intelligent person with a decent work ethic could cultivate a lifestyle where he could consume goods from around the world, with a click of a button, with sufficient resources in the bank to live without any fear of hunger or deprivation. My great-great-grandparents, my great-grandparents, and even my grandparents were raised in a time where they often had to share one meal a day with their enormous families, consuming just enough calories not to die of starvation. My ancestors couldn’t own land, they couldn’t read or write, and they couldn’t vote. What’s more, my great-great-grandparents had no incentives or opportunities to improve their lives. If they built a nicer home for themselves, the landlord could kick them off the home at any time, for any reason. Their status was essentially set in stone from the day of their birth.

The game was rigged from the beginning. There was no way for them to win, and they knew it.

Those of us who started life with a winning lottery ticket prefer to minimize the notion of luck and good fortune as a way to justify the way we live. We have to devise an explanation for why we have ten times or 100 times as much crap as we need. Because we have so much, and others have so little, we need to convince ourselves that we have some virtues that the poor and the destitute do not possess, and that’s why we are living the way we do, and that they are living the way they do.

Here are the greatest virtues you possess: your parents and your birthplace. Congrats! Excellent work!

Of course, those who work hard and have discipline have more success, all other things being equal, than those who do not.[6] But when you look at the distribution of wealth and opportunities around the world, the multi-million-dollar high status positions are available to those who already started in the top few percent of the talent and fortune pools.

And the kind of wealth and prosperity that Americans consider customary, those chances too are inconceivable for all but a small fraction of the world’s population. If you make $50,000 year, you are among the top 1% of the world’s global wealthy. And if you are there or somewhere close, you probably often take for granted how lucky you truly are, simply because most of the people around you are relatively wealthy too.

But as my grandfather was careful to remind me when I was a child, none of this is a given. It’s a result of a fortunate mix of time, place, and circumstance. Almost all of which is totally beyond our control.

The purpose of this post is not to criticize those who take pride in their accomplishments or to discourage hard work. It’s to try to give pause to those who think that those who have less than us are somehow flawed or unworthy. When you make that leap, you’re falling into Lord Trevelyan’s trap: That the English aristocracy deserves four courses for luncheon followed by port and brandy and the child born in Skibbereen deserves to die of starvation or Typhoid fever. That the ingenuity of the former and that character flaws of the latter not only make it so, but make it righteously so.  

Most forms of genocide, mass cruelty, and human abomination adopt some derivation of that logic—that the destitute and wretched are responsible for what has befallen them. And therefore not only should we not do what we can to prevent and ameliorate their suffering, but that it would be wrong to do so. That the best thing to do is to let “nature take its course.”

But it is my belief that I am no more responsible for my own good fortune than my ancestors were responsible for their own misfortune. That’s it’s basically luck all the way down.

So to the extent that I have any responsibility, it’s to not turn my back on the least fortunate. To not convince myself that I am somehow superior to those who are starving and poor. To recognize that the only thing separating me from them is a little bit of luck.

[1] There is some research that belief in free will is correlated with propensity to do good (Baumeister 2014), so if believing in free will makes you want to do more good and help people more, then by all means, believe away!

[2] If you don’t believe in free will then the belief that everything that happens to us is luck follows logically. But I don’t think you have to believe this argument to follow the rest of the blog post. Even if you don’t believe that everything that happens to us is pure luck, I would hope that you could be persuaded that at least much of what happens to us is pure luck. We can allow for some fuzziness in the boundaries and still follow along.

[3] FWIW, I meditate > an hour every day and occasionally take cold showers. All snark aside, I think that both of those are very healthy habits.

[4] Perhaps worth noting is that both Thiel and Rabois graduated from Stanford Law School in the early ‘90s, just before the Silicon Valley tech explosion. They are smart, hardworking people, who just so happened to be at the right place at the right time to become tech magnates. There have been a lot of great painters in history, but only a few were connected to the Medicis in 16th-century Renaissance Florence.

[5] One of my great-grandparents, my mother’s grandfather, was a child in West Cork during the potato famine.

[6] I agree with Thiel and Rabois that hard work matters, and that most people don’t work hard enough to reach their potential. But talent and circumstance matter more. If you don’t possess a 98th-percentile intellect with 98th-percentile resources (on a global scale) as a starting point, you have no chance of becoming a tech magnate or a VC or any other equivalent super-high-status position. There are not a lot of Nicaraguan peasants who become Silicon Valley startup CEOs.