About luck

I was 40 when I got cancer.

I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink excessively, was reasonably healthy, but still managed to end up with a malignant lump on my kidney that was as heavy as your hand-luggage allowance. I’m fine – I was lucky to have a good surgeon and lucky the cancer hadn’t spread, and lucky that I’m having wonderful care in a first-world country with a marvellous health system.

It was just luck.

Of course, getting a massive, rare cancer is also quite bad luck. I’ll give you that. Granted.

But all of this plays into my thesis: luck is an incredibly important factor in life, and we tend to underestimate it. We especially underestimate good luck, or at least we ignore it and assume we deserve good things that happen to us: it’s down to some attribute of ours which others simply don’t have.

If you’re a generous spirit, you might say, “hey everyone, this wonderful thing happened to me, so it can happen to you”. But that’s disingenuous, and the same kind of lie the National Lottery uses each time it says “it could be you”. Yes, it could. There’s a 1 in 14 million chance, and you’re 5,000x more likely to be murdered by your wife. But it could be you.

But most people aren’t that generous or well-intentioned, and tend to start acting like twats as soon as they get a bit of cash. They are better human beings than you, and you’re all layabout scum who need to have their benefits scrapped and their children pushed up chimneys.

The sheer, enormous, gallumping good luck of being born in Chipping Norton to a stockbroker father who sent them to Eton doesn’t occur to the fortunate: they got there by the sweat of their smooth, egg-like brow.

But it’s not just the rich. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for class-war, especially as the rich have been winning the class war for a generation, and it’s about time we fought back a bit, rather than voting against our interests because we’re idiotic enough to believe we have a chance of being let into the exclusive club at the top. But this isn’t a dig at the entitled, landed gentry. This is a dig at those who attribute their success to skill, rather than chance.

My brother is an example of misattributed good luck. We work in the same industry (web stuff) but he’s so rich he spends his evenings making paper-aeroplanes out of £50 notes, and throwing them into one of his many solid gold fireplaces. Whereas I earn the average salary, rarely get paid on time, and spend most evenings scraping burned cheese off a baking tray so I can have some sustenance to gnaw on as I warm my fingers around a guttering candle. It’s positively Dickensian round here.

Yes, he’s worked hard, but so have I, and so have you – but he’s managed to be lucky too, and that makes all the difference. He is, at best, moderately good at programming and fairly smart – although we shared the same teachers, and every one of them said I was the smart one, and my brother was the future accountant. I’m not boasting, I’m just trying to place my brother in context.

(But I am dead smart though.)

He wanted to work with computers, but he dropped out of university after 6 weeks, and took a job at the nearest place to home: he was lazy and didn’t want to travel. Luckily that company, which only employed 3 people at the time, grew over the coming years, and he remained senior because he was there early. He didn’t make it grow. He was just a functionary. It just grew under him.

So dumb luck ends up pushing him into being a director, because all of the first intake of staff were made directors. As a director-by-politeness he wasn’t really trusted to have responsibility, and didn’t have a department to run or any great strategic role. But it worked out OK for him anyway: he was on £75k, and when the company was bought out by a larger organisation he took home a cheque for an additional £128,000. And because he was a director of the small company, he remained a “director without portfolio” at the larger company, got a 50% pay increase and 7 weeks holiday per year.

That’s how it is for directors – no lack of money up at the top, folks!

After a few years of this he was head-hunted, because he was a director of a big company, so must be good, right? Well, not really – he’s kind of average, but the fact that he’s been lucky means he’s in a position that appears to demonstrate some kind of skill. It’s why Keira Knightley still gets acting jobs – she’s absolutely awful, but she was in that thing that made money in spite of her presence, just because she was lucky to be born to a casting director (there’s that luck again!). So people think she’s a safer bet than… well, practically anybody else. And as a result, she keeps being given roles that the hedge in my garden would be more convincing in.

It’s not skill. It’s luck. I just don’t have a lucky hedge.

So my brother was head-hunted, and is now a director (again), this time of a very large company. I won’t tell you their name, but they trade autos. Trading autos is what they do. They are, you could say, auto traders.

Does he have to work hard or be inventive or do anything to earn his position there? No. They don’t invent new things, they don’t employ a million people, they don’t help with Britain’s balance of trade. They’re what’s called an “agency business”, which takes a slice for putting customers in contact with suppliers. He doesn’t make cars, that’s done by a proper economy in Germany (where they don’t leave every damn thing to the market, they go out and try to make the market function for the good of all, so everyone is benefiting and feels they belong).

As a director of this massive business, my brother doesn’t even need to go out and find new customers, or even run a good website (just look at it – it’s gruesome). He is, entirely by chance, sitting at the top table in a business which dominates about 95% of car buying in this country.

But ask him, and he’ll tell you he earned all of that. He, alone, was able to achieve those things, and deserves £160k (plus bonus) for sitting in an office while you buy cars he doesn’t make and doesn’t even sell. It had nothing to do with just happening to live close to a company which needed a cheap junior programmer, it was just skill and dedication and a hidden, secret knowledge which the rest of us have no access to.

I like the guy. But he’s a real cunt.

Businesses rely on serendipity just as much as people do. When a company employs a guy, it takes a risk that he’ll be good at his job. Most are competent, some terrible, but occasionally you’ll get lucky: you’ll employ somebody who has connections, and they’ll land you more work. It’s not your skill, or his skill – it’s luck that he’s connected to the right people, and those people are also lucky (often by birth, race, sex or location) to have strings they can pull.

As a lucky company, which felicitously employed somebody who, by good fortune of birth, has those connections and can land new contracts, you will be able to make money. And sometimes you will make enough money to let you start crushing rivals. In time you’ll dominate to the extend that luck stops playing a part.

Luck is a throw of the dice, but if you dominate 95% of the market you own the dice and the table, and are guaranteed to win. That’s what globalisation has brought us: a dozen lucky fuckers who now own the casino, and appear to own governments too. Every party must be “business-friendly” as though being helpful and sympathetic to normal people is a sin, but being friendly to blank-eyed, environment-destroying, soulless money-making machines is a cardinal virtue.

And that’s why the neoConservative, Tory, Republican view of the world is bullshit: they want to be “business friendly”, and reduce taxes for those who are successful in the belief that it will encourage more success. But most success is dumb luck, and you can’t legislate for luck. So all they’re really doing is ensuring those who are born into that club (which, let’s face it, is most of the members) are well rewarded for being incredibly fortunate that they fell out of a wealthy womb.

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