The universe delivers… If you’re lucky 

I was listening to a podcast on the way into work. The host interviews various people in business and derives lessons to share with his audience. I stumbled onto this one because the host – who I’ve never met – is the husband of a former client – who I haven’t seen in years – but still get her updates on LinkedIn. Social media delivers interesting little nuggets… every so often.

I’ve listened to a few of these podcasts. I like the host’s style. Jealous of his ability to ask good questions generated on the fly. This particular interview was with a CEO. A CEO who was a property market money maker pre-GFC, now serial entrepreneur (did you know there was such a thing? I didn’t).

Intuitively, something about this interview didn’t resonate. I often have this sense with “success” stories. By the time it finished, I think I’d worked it out. The CEO’s world view that he uses to explain his “success” is at odds with my observations of reality.

I get it. Hard work, dedication and discipline are critical ingredients. I’m familiar with the concept. I like to think I put them into practise. But what irks me is that so many of these “success” merchants seem blind to the way their success cake has been so thickly sprinkled and dusted with luck.

Perhaps the key warning sign was the CEO invoking Paulo Coelho’s ”The Alchemist” as a book that inspires or motivates. I should probably read this book at some point, it’s been recommended more than once. But I cringe at the quote that this CEO (and everyone else who reads the book) uses. I cringe when people use it as some sort of meaning or force in life: “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” I remember offending Mary once when I chastised her for reading “The Secret”. It has a similar message. (I may have been more aggressive than simple chastisement).

This is without doubt another one of those potentially-helpful-but-I-fear-also-problematic false beliefs.

Granted most of the success merchants don’t imply that all you have to do is “believe” – that would be crazy talk. Their message is that you have to “believe” and work bloody hard. The problem is that this can lead you to think you’re self-made; that you have earned things in a way that others haven’t. It makes you blind to others’ poor fortune. Blind to your good fortune.

Now, I don’t want to detract from this CEO’s achievements in any way. Hard work, dedication, intellect were there in spades. Well done. And there’s a sense in which you need to believe that you control your own destiny in order to achieve. But you could also read between the lines and hear it in the spaces between his words; this guy had some very lucky breaks. But for arriving a few seconds late at Gwyneth Paltrow’s sliding doors, things might have been very different.

Without even getting to any of the specifics it’s easy to talk generally about the luck involved. He just happened to be born in the US and not in a war-torn-istan. He lucked-in when it came to the particular point in history that he happened to find himself in and was able to cash in on a property bubble. He got lucky when it came to genetics. His birth place and background allowed him to double down on the intellect with a good education. Of course he was also born a “he”. This is all before talking about some of the random connections that led him to where he ended up.

Some of this is dumb luck. Some is having the smarts and ability to seize the opportunities. But here’s the ultimate luck story: where did his smarts and ability come from? Isn’t that luck? Ok you can argue that he had to work to get the skills, but where did the drive to work hard and achieve skills come from?

Does this sound like sour grapes? It’s not meant to. The hubris and self righteousness worries me. Just last night I had a conversation with a friend (the real trigger for writing this piece) who was certain that the fact that he was where he was in the organisation meant that was exactly what he deserved. That may be a fine bit of post hoc rationalisation that helps us to accept our lot in life. But if we fail to recognise the broader picture and the role of luck, then aren’t we condemning the unemployed or homeless. Aren’t we effectively telling them you are where you are because you deserve it? You don’t have to take a big leap in logic from this point to find yourself sitting beside Pauline Hanson and agreeing that kids with Autism don’t deserve the same rights as those without. It worries me.

It worries me because in the politics of today’s world if you walk around with this notion (that those who have succeeded are deserving and those that haven’t are not) you start to get policies that favour the rich. That favour the lucky. The world may even start to look a little more Trumpian. If you’re on the right side of the equation then the luck you had on the way to becoming rich, just got compounded because it turns out that you “deserved” it, so here’s another helping of good fortune in tax breaks and other social policies which will make your life even easier.

There’s evidence to support this. In his book on success and luck[1], Robert Frank presents evidence that a failure to appreciate luck’s importance, is correlated with a reluctance to pay the taxes required to support the investments necessary to maintain a good environment. So while there’s definitely something positive about assuming that we have control over our destinies we lose something when we lose sight of luck’s role in our life’s story.

I wonder what experiences you’ve had to take this idea – that the universe will deliver if you want it and work at it – and have it resonate ? I wonder if the question should be what experiences haven’t you had to sustain this world view.

I caught an uber a while ago. It was a longer fare, just under 30 minutes. Plenty of time to chat. The poor driver was only looking for a quick fare to keep his uber driver status current. I apologised. Not that he made me feel unwelcome. He was pleasant. His car – as ubers almost always are – was clean, and we kicked off with some small-talk. The standard “how long have you been driving for Uber” question. Not too long, just part-time. He told me his story. He was from India. Most of his extended family was still there. Back in India, he had run a very successful pool building business. It was obvious from the way he talked that this work had been his passion. I have a small sense of envy when I hear people talk this way about their work, but a much larger sense of how lucky they are. He had a dream to move to Australia and bring his passion here. He’d start a pool building company, replicating the model for success he’d built in his home country. But things didn’t work out. He moved, he started the business, the business failed. He kept at it for a long time. It was clear to me that this guy had worked exceptionally hard. Years of yakka. He impressed me with his grit. Some people exude their key characteristics. It seemed obvious that this guy was dedicated and disciplined. Ready to do the hard work. He wasn’t the type to give up easily, or at all. If you believe the success stories, if you believe in the Alchemist or the Secret, then this guy should have achieved his goals. Instead he was driving an uber and making a feeble attempt to sell me insurance (his other part time job). I was way more likely to buy a pool from this guy than his insurance product.

You could see he felt stuck. Life in Australia was objectively good. Good schools, good climate. But he also missed his family and friends. That brought a smile back to his face. His kids were slightly older than mine. His life is definitely not over. But, here was someone who had worked hard, he’d asked the universe for something, in his own way, but the universe hadn’t listened.

By the time I left the cab I felt sorry for him. Mostly because he had a dream – the dream wasn’t to change the world, or anything particularly significant – but the dream had failed. That’s how he saw it. Now there might be all sorts of ways for this guy to think himself through his problems, and that’s fine. There are important points to be made here about how we define success or how we can choose to accept things the was they are. They are points for another time.

My point, using the stories of the CEO and the uber driver, is that “success“ stories are all too often blind to luck. The universe may deliver for you in the same way it delivered for the CEO, if you’re lucky. But the universe doesn’t give a shit about hard work, justice, rights and entitlement.

There’s actually a natural bias that occurs when we only listen to the success stories. Sure, these stories tell us something about what the successful did to succeed, but it doesn’t actually tell us about the other side of the coin. What did the people who didn’t succeed do? What if they did the same things, and it didn’t come off for them? Should we worry about this?

The “successful” people who share their stories on podcasts are simply the people who (a) believe their work will pay off, (b) worked really hard and (c) turn out to be successful C-suite executives. Thanks in no small way to Lady Luck. It’s a pretty small group of people in the scheme of things. I wonder whether there isn’t a much larger group of people who (a) believe their work will pay off, (b) work really hard and (c) turn out to have run of the mill average lives.

Whether my uber driver believed the universe owed him or not, I’m not sure. But so far for him it hasn’t delivered. I suspect there are many, many, many stories like this out there.

Yes dedication and perseverance is important. Grit is important. Hard work is important. All these ingredients in the CEO’s story can be seen as prerequisites. Luck plays a role. There is no law that will see the universe simply deliver. In many cases it won’t. There’s something so much more human about people who graciously acknowledge the role that serendipity has played in their lives.

To be clear, here’s the logic I’m trying to explain

  1. The belief that, if you really believe and work hard for what you want, then the universe will deliver, is not aligned with reality.
  2. Because (at least in part) this belief is blind to the role luck plays.
  3. And this belief may have negative consequences for the way we treat others less fortunate.
  4. But (and this is a point I’ve haven’t highlighted) I suspect you need to believe that you’re the author of your success, that you’re in control, in order to find the will and motivation to succeed.

The interesting part here is that the last point is in potential conflict. As F. Scott Fitzgerald is often quoted though: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”.

David Brooks (a writer for New York Times) gets to the heart of my point and resolves this conflict, responding to a letter who’s author seemed confused about the source of his success[2]. David’s final piece of advice could well have been written for the CEO…

“As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense”

The whole idea of deserving is dangerous when it comes to success. Actually it’s dangerous generally, in a life where luck plays such a role. And where was this ever more true than in the stories of the American wild west. I love Clint Eastwood’s line in the Unforgiven. Will Munney’s last words to Little Bill who’s protesting that he doesn’t deserve to die this way:

“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

[1] Frank, R.H., 2016, “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy”, https://www.amazon.com.au/d/ebook/Success-Luck-Good-Fortune-Meritocracy-Robert-Frank/B017I2M8ZC/

[2] Brooks, David, 2012, “The Credit Illusion”, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/03/opinion/brooks-the-credit-illusion.html?

2 Responses

  1. Siri

    Couldn’t agree with you more Trent. Also share your envy about being able to ask great questions on the run – as an ex-journo, this was a skill I was desperate to master! Love your insights.

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