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October 2014: Hard Work or Dumb Luck?

I spent the hot summer days of my early teen years painting our three story house. From the upper rungs of a ladder, I swatted away wasps with my wide, gooey paint brush. Those high eaves tested my mettle. My mother prayed the ladder wouldn’t fall. It never did.

At night, Donny Craig and I would throw burlap bags into the trunk and drive to Churchville Golf Course. We parked out of sight, waiting in the dark. When the night sentry’s golf cart passed, we stripped down to our underwear, and waded into the big pond in front of the 8th green.

I can still smell that stagnant, fishy-fertilizer water that enveloped us as we dove under, hands groping in the muck for golf balls. Sometimes we bumped into a snapping turtle, or a 5-iron.

Once we pulled up an entire bag of mud-caked clubs. Always, we found golf balls. Hundreds of them.

We worked with a rhythm: Every 45 seconds, we surfaced with hands full, threw the balls ashore, took a deep breath, and submerged again. In an hour and a half, heaving and reeking, we climbed out of the water. Algae-laced hair, shriveled fingers and black toes told the story of our deeds. We gathered our loot, lugged the bulging bags to the car, and drove off.

My half of the balls got dumped into a galvanized steel tub. I paid one of my younger sisters a penny apiece to clean them. From a roadside table, I charged five bucks for a dozen, like-new Titleists in an egg carton. Three bucks for lesser brands.

Child labor abuses were not being talked about then. Pretty soon, my sister asked for two cents apiece to clean the balls. I was learning about sweat equity, marketing, negotiating and employee retention. I also learned about skin rashes from polluted water.

Selling golf balls helped pay my college tuition.

Sometimes, people ask, “How did you get to where you are today?” I’m tempted to say, “Let me tell you how I got here. I wasn’t afraid to work as a young man. Before I got out of high school, I was a Christmas tree salesman, a bartender for private parties, a news and sports reporter for Gannett, a landscaper, house painter and golf ball retriever. That’s how I got here.”

It’s a compelling story. And at most half-true.

I learned a fuller truth when, in my thirties, I visited Bangladesh for the first time.

One day, from the seat of a rickshaw, I observed a tribal girl balancing a basket-load of bananas on her shoulders. It had to be eighty pounds. She wore flip-flops. Walking up a hill to the local market, sweat glistened on her forehead, her eyes focused straight ahead.

I saw that same girl at dawn the next morning. She was carrying washed clothes back from the river. I stopped to ask her about whether the river was clean. We communicated haltingly, since I didn’t speak the language. She beckoned me to follow her down a dirt path, straddled on both sides by rice paddies, to her family’s small hut.

Approaching the girl’s home, I counted two women, five kids and a man milling about. They stared at me, bewildered, but smiling. I noticed large gaps between the brown teeth of the adults. Both women were wives of the man. One large bamboo mat took up half the dirt floor. A pot of rice boiled atop an earthen oven.

Encounters like that introduced new questions for me to consider. If hard work is the key to prosperity, then the girl carting bananas and washing clothes, and millions of other hard-working youngsters in Bangladesh, should be financially successful someday.

But in all but outlier instances, that’s not going to happen. Under the weight of enough disadvantages, lucky breaks dissolve quickly.

I have never worked as hard as that tribal girl. The house-painting and golf ball retrieving had an end point. Her jobs are life sentences. I frequented dirty ponds that I could take or leave. Her mandated visits to the same dirty river happen twice a week, in all seasons.

Luck might be thought of as the part of any outcome not due to personal knowledge, choice or effort. For the girl and for me, most of what we accomplish every day has been largely shaped by dumb luck.

Two obvious examples are the country and family each of us was born into. I had nothing to do with those life-defining influences, nor did the girl in Bangladesh.

Happenstance has advantaged me everywhere. My mother read and sang to me. An adopted aunt unexpectedly chipped in for a down payment on my first house. A brother-in-law taught me about healthy eating when I was relatively young. Chance meetings led to important clients. Bad parenting decisions mostly turned out okay.

When I was 27, I climbed a 40-foot cliff on the Northern California coast, without a rope. It was an impulsive decision. Three feet from the top, I had no protrusion to grab, to pull myself up. I looked down at the rocks below, and realized there was no way down or up. Frozen with fear, I stood precariously, both feet on a single slit of rock. My legs started to ache, and shake. I finally decided to leap from my foothold to the top ledge. If I missed, or slipped, I would be toast.

Luckily, I didn’t miss.

I used to believe that God was responsible for saving me that day. I wish I could believe in that God of Convenience, the all-knowing One who parses out good fortune to some and misery to others, who favors certain nations over other nations, who performs selected miracles while permitting untold hardships. Long ago, I vacated faith in any god who selects, favors, rewards and punishes.

Today, when people ask, “What got you here?” I am more likely to say, “Fortunate turns of events got me here. All the other factors, including hard work, are a distant second.”

Though it’s sometimes hard to admit, every leading business, good marriage, free nation and well-balanced individual owes a debt of gratitude to that potent success factor: dumb luck.

13 Responses to “October 2014: Hard Work or Dumb Luck?”

  1. October 01, 2014 at 1:14 pm, Bill Tilton said:

I have also changed my description of that potent success factor from blessed to charmed. I feel blessed to be breathing, but charmed to have had 6 or 7 paying jobs before the age of 16. Those opportunities were responsibility training grounds to build on. Dumb luck to have the environment to do that in.

  1. October 01, 2014 at 1:43 pm, Alan Weinstein said:

Having a similar background to yours, I believe that our luck is being born into a socio-economic system that rewards hard work and good decision making. Our immigrant forefathers who left conditions like you found in Bangladesh created a legacy that we are beneficieries of.

  1. October 01, 2014 at 2:34 pm, Cate said:

So we can say we’re just not lucky and hang up the towel? I won’t credit dumb luck for the life I’ve created for myself. Context had a lot to do with it. In spite of growing up with little money, I saw people around me who were happy and fulfilled. I set my eye on exactly that, and kept going even when luck wasn’t with me. My context showed me possibility. And possibility kept me focused and committed and in action to produce a fulfilling life. I commit, and then I am powerfully in action producing results.

  1. October 01, 2014 at 4:37 pm, Mike Bogucki said:

As Daniel Kahneman shared, one-way-or-another zygote evolution caused Adolf Hitler to be born a male instead of a female, and changed the course of history. I concur fully with the “prominence of luck” thesis……..

  1. October 02, 2014 at 11:16 am, JVL said:

This month’s blog challenged me to reflect on some of my long-held beliefs and assumptions- something I do not do enough of. Thank you.

  1. October 02, 2014 at 2:19 pm, John Cammack said:

Luck is the table stakes at birth. Who and where we are born has a huge determination in our longer-term prospects. But I still think how we apply our innate and acquired abilities is a factor in how our life plays out. I think if it this way – “if a door opens, do I have the wherewithal to walk through it?”

  1. October 03, 2014 at 12:13 pm, Scott Gibbs said:

Interesting take and great insight. I think that dumb-luck (read…lucky access to opportunity) is the foundation of most successes. Once we have been fortunate enough to receive the access to opportunity, I believe hard-work and confidence are the next most important attributes to defining your own success. Thank you for the insight John.

  1. October 03, 2014 at 12:20 pm, Jeff Pankow said:

Good morning John, thank you for continuing to share your experiences, thoughts and wisdom.

I like to think that life is 50% chance and 50% choice and that success is largely influenced by the choices you make with the chances you get.

  1. October 04, 2014 at 1:03 pm, Andrea Schara said:

Appreciate so much your truth John, and how you are humble as to the effort you put in to be responsible leader. Thanks you for punching up how fortune and reliant we all are on circumstances to boost our chances at success. Still the nagging questions – what is your method to be more of a self in any social system?

For those fascinated by the difference between luck and skill I highly recommend my son -n-laws book.

“The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports”, and Investing by Michael J. Mauboussin .

  1. October 06, 2014 at 6:58 pm, Lydia said:

I enjoy your blogs with all the great stories and insights. It brings up the question of why me and what do I do with it?

  1. October 13, 2014 at 11:20 pm, Jerry said:

Love Jeff’s comment – success is largely influenced by the choices you make with the chances you get. I’m guessing if John chose to wait it out on that cliff, he wouldn’t be the author of this blog.

  1. October 29, 2014 at 2:43 pm, Lynn G. said:

But we should not superimpose our standard of success or happiness on others. You described the girl’s family as smiling, so could it be possible that given their context they felt more fortunate than other people? Perhaps the girl felt lucky to *have* multiple jobs rather than having to beg, or something like that. Could it be that she was just as proud of her accomplishments as any of us?

  1. November 13, 2014 at 6:14 pm, Rose E. said:

John, reading your perspectives on the contrasts between our North American lives and daily conditions in *most* of the rest of the world is a gift. Thank you!

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