Monday, August 29, 2011

Why You're Luckier Than You Think

Everything I know about life I learned from Warren Buffett. Well, not quite, but they don't call him the sage of Omaha for nothing. One of the things I love about the legendary investor is his acceptance  of the role that luck plays in his life. Despite his undeniable brilliance, proficiency with numbers and unparalleled discipline over many years, he maintains that his success is due to being in the "right place at the right time with the right skills".

Although there's a pervasive mythology that he's entirely self-made, his father was actually a stockbroker who was elected to four terms of the United States Congress. Had Buffett's father been an uneducated coal-miner, would he have risen to the same heights? Perhaps, but he never underestimates the role of good fortune in his life.

Buffett's approach appeals to me not just because it's incredibly gracious but also because it's in such stark contrast to the opinions of many mildly and fabulously successful people who believe they are 100 per cent responsible for everything they have. This phenomenon is not limited to the super-rich. It exists at every strata of society, including that lowest rung on the ladder of success, reality show "stars" who have parlayed being born into privilege into a "career". In fact, it seems to be a particular human failing that, once some people achieve any kind of success, they start to believe their own PR and before long, they're telling everyone how hard they've worked to get where they are. Maybe they have worked hard but that doesn't mean they haven't also been lucky. Luck is everywhere and everyone benefits from it whether they realize it or not.

I have spent many years working with and managing other people, seven of those running my own business. Most of the people who have reported to me over the years have been hard workers and some of them are so talented, adaptable and resourceful that they would excel in any situation. Others did well but part of their success was due to the efforts of managers who set them up for success by playing to their strengths, giving them assignments they could handle, rearranging their office hours to suit their family demands, and so on. And now that I have some perspective on things, I can look back and see the many ways that the stars aligned for me in my career even though at the time I believed it was all down to me.

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell explores the importance of luck in his book Outliers,claiming that "the biggest misconception about success is that we do it solely on our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard
work". Gladwell delves into the background of several of the world's most successful people, and reveals factors, unrelated to innate talent or hard work, which greatly benefited them. As an example, he states that the majority of high-level Canadian hockey players were born in the first few months of the year. Since youth hockey leagues are organized by calendar years, kids born on January 1st play on the same team as kids born on  December 31st, which means they are often stronger and faster, pegged as promising athletes early in life and more likely to be chosen for advanced teams. He also reveals that, not only did Bill Gates come from a wealthy family, he was also fortunate enough to attend the only middle school in the entire country
with a computer lab. Gladwell doesn't suggest that Gates wouldn't be successful without that early benefit but wonders if he would be worth $50 billion if he didn't have access to a computer at a time when they weren't commonplace.

When speaking of luck, Buffett often talks about the 'genetic jackpot" whereby "the right endowment of vocal chords, anatomical structure, physical strength, or mental powers" can result in massive success or wealth.   And while we're on the topic of anatomical structure, is there anything more annoying than a supermodel who shares insights on how she is personally responsible for her achievements?  If ever there was a profession based on pure dumb luck, it's that of the supermodel.

One such creature, stunner Gisele Bundchen, frequently infuriates ordinary women with her pontifications such as this post-pregnancy quote: "I think a lot of people get pregnant and decide they can turn into garbage disposals. I was mindful about what I ate, and I gained only 30 pounds." She was back to a fabulous, pre-baby figure and strutting on the catwalk just weeks after delivering her son. I'm sure she did eat healthy. I'm sure she exercised and did yoga and all of that stuff but guess what? Millions of women do that and they don't look like her.  Wouldn't it be wonderfully refreshing if someone like her said, "I am extremely fortunate that I have become a millionaire based solely on things that are completely beyond my control and I get to live this life through sheer luck".

Regardless of how hard you have studied or worked in life, luck has played a role in small and large ways. Here are some ordinary ways you might have been lucky:
  • You were born and/or raised in Canada. This alone gives you more opportunities than most of the world's population.
  • You have ever gotten a job without going through the application process
  • You have a parent who used connections to help you get an "in" somewhere
  • You have been given a car, home or home down payment as a gift
  • You don't have student loans
  • You grew up in a large city 
  • You showed early proficiency in something (e.g. music, art, sports) and your family had the financial resources to help you explore your talents
  • You are more attractive, tall, intelligent, etc. than most people
  • You grew up in a household where you were loved, nurtured and encouraged
  • You have parents/in-laws who are willing/able to provide free childcare relieving you of a huge financial burden
These are small bits of luck that people in this country experience every day.  They might not seem like a big deal but they have helped give you an edge.  Luck is good. We all have some. Some have more than others and we all go through periods where we seem to have nothing but bad luck.

So next time you're feeling unlucky or congratulating yourself on being totally self-made, think about the role of luck in your life and show a little gratitude.  The more you appreciate your good luck, the more of it you'll have.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article. I have been feeling down lately. For once, I counted my blessings. Despite my unfortunate circumstances in a few areas, in many more I am truly luckier than most. I need to be reminded of that sometimes. Things are indeed better than they seem sometimes.