The lucky path

Do you brag? It means you’re lucky

Are you likely to tell everyone how well you did? That you totally nailed your last client meeting? You’re probably American. If you were more reserved and said “it went well, I think they might be pleased” you might be British. And if you’re looking on in horror as the Brit and the Yank lean over their beers talking about great skiers they are (because they go twice a year), after you said you’re an “ok” skier, despite having worked 6 months in a skiing report as instructor, well, you’re probably Swedish. Or female. Or both.

Our representation of our skills and abilities is culturally defined.  

I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky.  

Is that same for our understanding of luck? How likely are you to attribute your success to luck?

 If you were born in the first world, in a country with running water, good hospitals, structured education and didn’t sleep under the stars every night, then you’re doing better than most of the world’s people. I’ve been reading the wonderful Success and Luck by Robert H Frank. So let me tell you this. You are one lucky bastard.

 If you amass a fortune you’re no doubt talented and hardworking. It’s a central premise of the conservative mind-set in our country. However, there are lots of talented and hardworking people who never earn much. What Frank’s research and his book points to is why the rich underestimate the importance of luck in their success, and why that hurts our society as a whole – including the wealthy.

A cheap car on a good road, or sports car in a field?

He argues that when we recognise the role of luck in our success, it is easier for the wealthy to acknowledge that everything from the smooth roads they drive their expensive cars on, to the very well (state) educated people that staff their organisations contribute to both their happiness, and their success.

I was once the guest of a very wealthy man who drove me around Scotland in his expensive Porsche on some terrible roads. The car ride was terrible, but the row about politics way worse. Awful Hugh, who was nominally Scottish, but sounded like he’d just stepped out of a bar in Chelsea, was solid in his conviction that his success was all his own doing. He couldn’t acknowledge that his expensive education and privileged upbringing had been a matter of luck. But his success, like his car, was in need of the state infrastructure that supported it.  

It’s too easy to forget how lucky you are. That’s why when the rich argue that they should keep more of their “hard earned cash” they are ignoring the roads that transport their goods, the health system that keeps their staff well, and taxes which allow people a greater share of the “luck” which we all need.

There’s a great review quote within the first few pages of the book:  

"Building a successful life requires a deep conviction that you are the author of your own destiny. Building a successful society requires an equally deep conviction that no one's destiny is their own to write. Balancing these seemingly contradictory ideas may be the most important social challenge of our time.” - Duncan Watts 

Frank argues for a progressive consumption tax, so that the more you spend on frivolous expensive things, the more you pay. Which makes sense to me. Because if shiny sports cars were, say, twice as expensive, then the truly rich could still drive them, but the higher taxes would be paying for better roads. Better for them, better for us all.

I doubt it would have improved my trip with Awful Hugh, but at least my bones wouldn’t have been rattled.