Author Michael Lewis’ commencement speech: Lucky you.

A poster cited the terrific speech that “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis gave at Princeton’s graduation last week. So, I had to find it. It is worth sharing.

Here is the speech from Princeton’s web site, where you can also find a video.

Thirty years ago I sat where you sat. I must have listened to some older person share his life experience. But I don’t remember a word of it. I can’t even tell you who spoke. What I do remember, vividly, is graduation. I’m told you’re meant to be excited, perhaps even relieved, and maybe all of you are. I wasn’t. I was totally outraged. Here I’d gone and given them four of the best years of my life and this is how they thanked me for it. By kicking me out.

At that moment I was sure of only one thing: I was of no possible economic value to the outside world. I’d majored in art history, for a start. Even then this was regarded as an act of insanity. I was almost certainly less prepared for the marketplace than most of you. Yet somehow I have wound up rich and famous. Well, sort of. I’m going to explain, briefly, how that happened. I want you to understand just how mysterious careers can be, before you go out and have one yourself.

I graduated from Princeton without ever having published a word of anything, anywhere. I didn’t write for the Prince, or for anyone else. But at Princeton, studying art history, I felt the first twinge of literary ambition. It happened while working on my senior thesis. My adviser was a truly gifted professor, an archaeologist named William Childs. The thesis tried to explain how the Italian sculptor Donatello used Greek and Roman sculpture — which is actually totally beside the point, but I’ve always wanted to tell someone. God knows what Professor Childs actually thought of it, but he helped me to become engrossed. More than engrossed: obsessed. When I handed it in I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: to write senior theses. Or, to put it differently: to write books.

Then I went to my thesis defense. It was just a few yards from here, in McCormick Hall. I listened and waited for Professor Childs to say how well written my thesis was. He didn’t. And so after about 45 minutes I finally said, “So. What did you think of the writing?”

“Put it this way” he said. “Never try to make a living at it.”

And I didn’t — not really. I did what everyone does who has no idea what to do with themselves: I went to graduate school. I wrote at nights, without much effect, mainly because I hadn’t the first clue what I should write about. One night I was invited to a dinner, where I sat next to the wife of a big shot at a giant Wall Street investment bank, called Salomon Brothers. She more or less forced her husband to give me a job. I knew next to nothing about Salomon Brothers. But Salomon Brothers happened to be where Wall Street was being reinvented—into the place we have all come to know and love. When I got there I was assigned, almost arbitrarily, to the very best job in which to observe the growing madness: they turned me into the house expert on derivatives. A year and a half later Salomon Brothers was handing me a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars to give advice about derivatives to professional investors.

Now I had something to write about: Salomon Brothers. Wall Street had become so unhinged that it was paying recent Princeton graduates who knew nothing about money small fortunes to pretend to be experts about money. I’d stumbled into my next senior thesis.

I called up my father. I told him I was going to quit this job that now promised me millions of dollars to write a book for an advance of 40 grand. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “You might just want to think about that,” he said.

“Why?”

“Stay at Salomon Brothers 10 years, make your fortune, and then write your books,” he said.

I didn’t need to think about it. I knew what intellectual passion felt like — because I’d felt it here, at Princeton — and I wanted to feel it again. I was 26 years old. Had I waited until I was 36, I would never have done it. I would have forgotten the feeling.

The book I wrote was called “Liar’s Poker.”  It sold a million copies. I was 28 years old. I had a career, a little fame, a small fortune and a new life narrative. All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer. This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? Of having parents who didn’t disinherit me but instead sighed and said “do it if you must?” Of having had that sense of must kindled inside me by a professor of art history at Princeton? Of having been let into Princeton in the first place?

This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.

I wrote a book about this, called “Moneyball.” It was ostensibly about baseball but was in fact about something else. There are poor teams and rich teams in professional baseball, and they spend radically different sums of money on their players. When I wrote my book the richest team in professional baseball, the New York Yankees, was then spending about $120 million on its 25 players. The poorest team, the Oakland A’s, was spending about $30 million. And yet the Oakland team was winning as many games as the Yankees — and more than all the other richer teams.

This isn’t supposed to happen. In theory, the rich teams should buy the best players and win all the time. But the Oakland team had figured something out: the rich teams didn’t really understand who the best baseball players were. The players were misvalued. And the biggest single reason they were misvalued was that the experts did not pay sufficient attention to the role of luck in baseball success. Players got given credit for things they did that depended on the performance of others: pitchers got paid for winning games, hitters got paid for knocking in runners on base. Players got blamed and credited for events beyond their control. Where balls that got hit happened to land on the field, for example.

Forget baseball, forget sports. Here you had these corporate employees, paid millions of dollars a year. They were doing exactly the same job that people in their business had been doing forever.  In front of millions of people, who evaluate their every move. They had statistics attached to everything they did. And yet they were misvalued — because the wider world was blind to their luck.

This had been going on for a century. Right under all of our noses. And no one noticed — until it paid a poor team so well to notice that they could not afford not to notice. And you have to ask: if a professional athlete paid millions of dollars can be misvalued who can’t be? If the supposedly pure meritocracy of professional sports can’t distinguish between lucky and good, who can?

The “Moneyball” story has practical implications. If you use better data, you can find better values; there are always market inefficiencies to exploit, and so on. But it has a broader and less practical message: don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

I make this point because — along with this speech — it is something that will be easy for you to forget.

I now live in Berkeley, California. A few years ago, just a few blocks from my home, a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader’s shirt.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.

This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I’m sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.

Never forget: In the nation’s service. In the service of all nations.

Thank you.

And good luck.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

59 comments Add your comment

CH2

June 9th, 2012
5:56 am

Truly, this reflects the real purpose of education. Don’t let others decide your fate in life!! Go to school. Sadly, this is not passed on to millions of children throughout America.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

June 9th, 2012
6:25 am

Really?

June 9th, 2012
7:34 am

The harder I work, the luckier I get.

They deserve better

June 9th, 2012
7:56 am

There are so many logical and practical fallacies in this speech it’s hard to know where to start. Clearly, serendipity played a great part in Lewis’ success, much greater than most successful people as he is in the most arbitrary of industries, entertainment. But so did hard work, skills built over time, perserverance and decisions. To then conclude that others’ lack of success is also due principally to luck and therefore obligates him, and by extension the huddled grads, to is simply unsupportable. Granted, the waitress that gets discovered by the movie producer and becomes a wealthy star does owe much of her success to luck. But this is an outlier. The overwhelming majority of successful people do it the old fashioned way — persistence, discipline, hard work supplying goods and services that people want and will pay for voluntarily. Success, even for authors, is based on delivering value. With any luck the Princeton graduates will figure that out quickly and learn to distinguish between bad luck and fecklessness.

catlady

June 9th, 2012
7:58 am

I seem to always get to teach the neatest kids!

tyler durden

June 9th, 2012
8:20 am

Wow. People that take joy in picking apart a graduation speech crack me up. Get over yourselves.
Luck plays a HUGE part in ALL successes, coupled with skill, determination, and hard work. Luck is the residue of design, but it exists. To deny that is arrogant and juvenile.
You are lucky to have been born in this country, you didn’t do anything to make that happen. You are lucky to have been born in this era, again, you did nothing to make that happen. You are lucky to have all your faculties and your health (if you do)…..all Lewis is saying is, be a little humble, recognize that fact, and help out others when you can.

Lighten up folks.

Bill

June 9th, 2012
8:21 am

They deserve better,

“Clearly, serendipity played a great part in Lewis’ success, much greater than most successful people” Not at all. I think you miss the point. There are lots of other writers (for example), who probably work harder and persevere more, but do not experience this success. Certainly most successful people work hard. It does not necessarily follow that less successful people must work less hard. His point is that we mis-attribute much of our success. Psychologically, when we succeed, we tend to disproportionally attribute our success to something we have done. When we fail, we tend to disproportionally attribute our failure to something outside ourselves. For more on the role of luck, serendipity or circumstance on success, read “Outliers”, by Malcolm Gladwell.

DaPoet

June 9th, 2012
8:42 am

If Bill Gates had been born to poor parents in a poor nation – as smart as he is – it is extremely doubtful and unlikely that without the luck of being in the right place at the right time or some form of Devine Intervention that he would be as successful as he is today no matter how hard he worked.

Michael Lewis’s essay is right on the money. Our political and financial leaders believe that they are entitled and have convinced enough citizens to vote against not only their own best interests but their nations best interest as well in order to remain in power as they enrich themselves while guiding our nation into decline.

A true leader is a servant to the people he leads and if those chosen to be leaders in the experiment mentioned by Mr. Lewis had been true leaders. They would have shared out the extra cookie instead of taking all of it for themselves: marking themselves as self centered and totally unfit to hold the reins of power.

SPARKY

June 9th, 2012
8:56 am

“They deserve”,

I don’t think you understood the speech. Certainly talent and hard work are major factors.

The Princeton students ARE lucky that they live in the US in this age and that other people created the University. Doesn’t take away the credit they deserve for graduating from Princeton.

SEE

June 9th, 2012
9:15 am

I don’t believe in luck, I believe in God. I believe we were all put here on this earth NOT to help ourselves, but to help others, and that God gives us the situations and talents that we need for the betterment of our own soul. All my talents were freely given to me and I did not do one thing to earn them. The only way I can acknowledge my gratitude is to use those talents to serve others. After all, the greatest person in history died like a criminal to save us. Instead of chatting over whether or not we make and/or deserve our own success, let’s redefine success. Let’s look at success as the ability to use our talents and resources to have the greatest impact on the lives of others. Let’s not hold up Bill Gates as the epitome of success, let’s hold up Mother Theresa as the standard we should strive to achieve.

Max

June 9th, 2012
9:50 am

In life, timing coupled with luck are keys to success. Not many people would be where they are today had they not had a chance encounter of some sort that opened the door to opportunity.

rtwer6656

June 9th, 2012
10:23 am

Hope that, for their own sake, the graduates remember neither him nor his speech.

So… success in life is pretty much just “luck,” eh? What a bald face lie. Worse, it gives comfort to every shallow, self-centered loser in his audience determined to blame others for the mess his/her poor decisions in life have yielded. Just look at the Occupy Wall Streeters.

It would serve Lewis right if it’s his own kids who actually take his childish musings seriously.

rtwer6656

June 9th, 2012
10:30 am

And one wonders if the “banker” side of Lewis will ever come to acknowledge Washington’s central role in the sub-prime mortgage crisis — in FORCING banks to give those loans to unqualified minority applicants.

So much easier to blame bankers themselves, right?

Truth in Moderation

June 9th, 2012
10:35 am

One of the main attractions of the Ivies is developing wealthy and influential contacts. If he had graduated from Redneck Junior College, I can assure you, he would not have been sitting next to the wife of a big shot Wall Street banker at some New York dinner party. The fact that they hired him, with no background in finance, as a patsy to sell derivatives is quite telling. This has nothing to do with luck. I’d call it criminal fraud.

TimeOut

June 9th, 2012
10:50 am

I’ve held on to an idea presented to me so long ago that I’ve forgotten the source: search for the grain of truth within the outrageous lie. Perhaps we do not owe a thing to the “unlucky.” Nonetheless, we can improve our environment through generosity and compassion. I’m not advocating the expansion of the entitled bottom or top of the pile. I’m thinking that this person’s speech contained that one grain of truth: this world is a better place when those of us who have benefitted in one way or another, share our bounty. There will always be the undeserving; I choose instead to focus on the benefits reaped by us all when the seeds land on fertile ground.

Rafe Hollister

June 9th, 2012
10:53 am

Had he dropped out of high school, he would never have been at Princeton, and never seated next to that lady. Hard work and dedication result in good luck. We are most often a product of the decisions we have made in our life.

Gabe

June 9th, 2012
11:25 am

“Worse, it gives comfort to every shallow, self-centered loser in his audience determined to blame others for the mess his/her poor decisions in life have yielded.”

So graduating from Princeton is the messy culmination of a life of poor decision making? What planet are you from?

William Casey

June 9th, 2012
11:26 am

Talent and effort played a role in both my successes and failures. So did pure luck. I love guys who are born on third base and truely believe that they hit a triple.

tiffany

June 9th, 2012
12:05 pm

Can any minister out there say that he or she has accepted a “call” to another church at a lower salary?

Churches nowadays are victims of being just another stopping off place and how sad that we fall for the “call”–excuse. I just don’t buy it–and my faith in organized religion is waning.

MannyT

June 9th, 2012
12:16 pm

I like the speech. I’d think of luck as a amplifier. Good luck makes it better, bad luck makes it worse. You start with your drive, ambition, et al. However, when the moment comes to take a big step (ahead or back) do you see it ad react to it properly? Many times, the big step is not something you control. We usually control the smaller steps that put us into position to get close to the big opportunity step.

Going back a few days to the vaeldictorian discussion. Regardless of being #1, #2, (or 3,4,5) at a school, you are a good student in that school. Valedictorians are invited to meet the governor, not #2. However, UGA guarantees freshman admission to the top 2 if from an accredited school in GA. The difference between 1 & 2 & 3 in many schools could be attributed to luck…or at least the nature of the rules in that school to determine how much extra credit you get in harder (regular vs AP vs honors vs college dual enrolled) classes. Yet the opportunities are much different for small distinctions.

Hillbilly D

June 9th, 2012
2:05 pm

For all the hype about Billy Beane and moneyball, Oakland has yet to win the World Series, following that strategy.

Forrest

June 9th, 2012
3:55 pm

Now, I don’t know if success is all about hard work or luck but I think it may be a litte of bo-oth.

rtwer6656

June 9th, 2012
5:07 pm

@WmCasey: It’s those who believe they’re OWED a triple who are the natural audience of Mr. Lewis. And of those who booked him to speak.

Solutions

June 9th, 2012
6:12 pm

Luck is where opportunity meets preparation…..The rest of the story is the leader who took the extra cookie suffered a surge in blood sugar that ultimately led to Type II diabetes, kidney failure, and premature death.

dekalbite2

June 9th, 2012
7:02 pm

Michael Lewis is such an awesome writer. He has the ability to take complex information and simplify it for the layman. I read “House of Cards” by Cohan, and although I enjoyed the book, I struggled to understand the financial machinations of the Wall Street players as they literally created CDOs and Credit Default Swaps out of thin air. Reading Lewis’s book “The Big Short” was easy by comparison although the same concepts discussed were equal in complexity.

I would highly recommend “The Big Short” for anyone who wants a rudimentary understanding of the financial industry’s part in the economic collapse that precipitated the Great Recession and who profited from it. You might be surprised about who profited from it – I was.

dekalbite2@bgnm2233

June 9th, 2012
9:14 pm

There were many culprits. Nothing is ever so simple as politicians make it – Democrats or Republicans – when big money is involved. You might want to read some books on this subject in order to get a better understanding of the macroeconomics involved. The two I mentioned were excellent.

Remember that this was/is a worldwide phenomenon so the participants were/are not subject to U.S governmental policies or programs. Jimmy Carter had nothing to do with the greed in Europe that hit the economies of politically liberal to politically conservative nations. In the end money was what talked, and it rode above such mundane considerations as who was in power.

dekalbite2@bgnm2233

June 9th, 2012
9:20 pm

Actually, the people who profited the most were the people who shorted the market for CDOs. They were a disparate apolitical group of individuals who bet big on the failure of the CDO mortgage concept. They made billions because they could see the flaws in the system before anyone else could. They were not part of the mainstream and had no political affiliation. They were however, very smart and prescient. Their reasoning seems so logical now, but then hindsight is always better than foresight.

TrishaDishaWarEagle

June 9th, 2012
9:37 pm

I much preferred David McCullough’s commencement speech to Wellesley grads. “You are NOT special..get over yourselves”

Tom Cruz

June 9th, 2012
10:06 pm

@bgonm2233

You’re crazy (and obviously a racist). Lenders were eager, not forced, to originate subprime mortgages, which they could immediately sell off to investment banks seeking to securitize them. Blame Moody’s and S&P for rating junk CDOs AAA; dumb institutional investors for buying them; and companies like AIG for miscalculating/ignoring the risk of the bonds they insured.

Those who profited from the financial collapse were hedge fund managers like John Paulson, Phil Falcone, and the subjects of Lewis’ book, who all shorted the housing market.

Atlanta mom

June 9th, 2012
10:44 pm

Bgonm2233
That program has been studied annually for years and the exact opposite has been concluded. Loans that were made within a community by a local bank had consistently lower failure rates than loans made be “big banks” to more qualified borrowers.

ScienceTeacher671

June 10th, 2012
7:57 am

Great speech! Thanks, Maureen!

By another name

June 10th, 2012
10:10 am

@deka: You might want to read a bit more critically before so wholehearetly embracing an author’s political opinions.

The Democrat leadership and its media allies won’t acknowledge that it was their Community Reinvestment Act of the Jimmy Carter era which made loans to financially unqualified blacks (and other minorities) mandatory in the banking system. Banks which balked faced punishing legal battles with federal authorities.

After that misguided and politically motivated initiative — the subprime mortgage crisis was inevitable.

Solutions

June 10th, 2012
10:19 am

” with the Mayans and the Incas – he would live for one year as a prince, and at the end of that year, he would be taken and donated to the gods in hopes of improving what might happen next year, be it with crops or weather “

Solutions

June 10th, 2012
10:20 am

Keep your extra cookie, I will earn my own way.

buzzit

June 10th, 2012
11:20 am

dekalbite2@by another name

June 10th, 2012
2:21 pm

I have read a number of books and articles on the causes of this economic downturn.

Could you list some of the books and articles you have read on this subject?

RIFS Can Be Graduations too

June 10th, 2012
3:11 pm

I found the first paragraph of the speech to be the most interesting.
I am one of the 300+ Atlanta educators waiting on my RIF letter. Thank goodness. I am totally burned out and I do not have one ounce of myself left to battle the incompetencies of a crazy system.
I gave 25 of the best years of my life to teaching and now I am being turned out into the street.
So it is time to decide to do with my next best 25 years…stay as far away from APS as possible and take a risk on myself. I am intelligent, creative and my drive and motivation will take me to the next level whatever and wherever that may be.
And for all of those teachers who were crying at the job fairs…oh please, get a grip. You are worth your weight in gold. Don’t beg and don’t cry…turn your life around. You will be fine.

Thanks for the inspiration from that speech.

Tabitha

June 10th, 2012
5:04 pm

Success does not come primiarily from luck but from hard work. The difference between the hardworking moderately sucessful and the wildly successful is often hard work. The difference between moderate success and being a loser is hard work, not unfair advantage. We should always remember the people who helped us, on whose shoulders we stand. But only a corrupt government and it’s greedy moochers would argue that all success flows from unfair advantage.

Still other names

June 10th, 2012
5:33 pm

@deka: I was living here in Atlanta in the early 1990s when the Justice Department was actively prosecuting large Georgia banks for refusing to give home loans to financially unqualified black applicants.

It was reported daily in the AJC at the time.

Shortly thereafter, banks got the message: their choice was either to stop using the established lending guidelines, or be bankrupted by legal defense fees. That was exactly what the Community Reinvestment Act was written to do.

I can’t image anyone at the time, or since, imagining that the resulting bad debts would simply disappear or be “absorbed” by the banking system’s depositors. And once blacks and other minorities were exempted from meeting lending guidelines—there was no justification in exempting those of other races.

For the Democrat-run congress that drafted and passed the legislation, it was payback to a loyal demographic of voters. Decades later, families, retirees and savers across the globe have paid a heavy price as their own financial institutions have had to share the losses.

Still other names

June 10th, 2012
5:44 pm

@”TomCruz”: You’re obviously a pathetic race-hustler unsure of his facts—if throwing out hateful labels (baying “r-a-a-a-c-i-s-t!” is so easy, eh?) is how you choose to begin your arguments. Grow up!

Yes, once the federal govt set the stage for failure by requiring home loans to the financially unqualified, banks did what they could to ensure they weren’t left totally holding the bag—hence, CDOs.

dekalbite2@still other names

June 10th, 2012
8:15 pm

Verifiable data is called verifiable because others can – well, verify it. What you have offered is purely opinion. I asked it you could refer us to the books and articles you have read on this subject that would let us read the facts you are basing your opinions on.

Here is a hint. Why don’t you google for “redlining” and Atlanta banks? I think that is what you are referring to.

African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population and 0% of the European population (African AMERICANS – get it?) yet you appear to lay the blame for the worldwide subprime mortgage debacle and subsequent worldwide recession at their feet and of course the Democrats. I have never read a single book or article that would support such an argument. Please cite your sources (books, articles, authors). I would be most interested in reading that research.

Tom Cruz

June 10th, 2012
8:30 pm

@Still other names

Over half of all subprime loans were made not by commercial banks but by mortgage servicers, who aren’t even subject to the CRA. Furthermore, there was almost no enforcement of the legislation during the Bush 43 administration. Lenders of all stripes were chomping at the bit to approve as many home loans as they could, hence the proliferation of “robo-signers.”

I realize it’s a lot easier on your brain to treat every issue as an “us against them” binary, but alas, the world is more complicated than Sean Hannity’s talking points would lead you to believe.

Yet more

June 11th, 2012
6:49 am

@”TomCruz”:

Was the Community Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in 1977—or wasn’t it?

Was it a Democrat-controlled congress that passed it and a Democrat president who signed it—or is that incorrect?

Was its purpose to force banks to largely overlook credit history in making loans to blacks and other minorities—or not? (Yes, redlining existed, but so did common sense when it came to approving mortgage loans.)

Was all this reported at the time by newspapers including the AJC—or wasn’t it?

I realize these are tough questions for one who gets all his information filtered through MSNBC and the Huffington Post—and whose stock reflex is to smear and race-bait.

But DO grow up … or post elsewhere!

Good Mother

June 11th, 2012
7:37 am

Love this speech. It’s beautiful. It means “give back” and “pay it forward.”

georgia87

June 11th, 2012
9:49 am

tiffany – I did. I took the lower salary, the smaller church, turned down the opportunity to return at a higher salary. Not everybody lives for the almighty dollar. Some people just live for the Almighty. I want to be one of those people.

catlady

June 11th, 2012
10:20 am

I have noticed this as well. Many “successful” people attribute their success to hard work and intelligence. And, in truth, you need both. But what they forget is that they live in a nation of incredible opportunity, with many laws and practices that have helped them become successful. They are likely to have had parents OR SOMEONE encouraging them–You can do it! They have had roads in place that will take them to their college, electricity to light their studylamps, cheap food avaliable to nourish their bodies. And so many times they proclaim–I DID IT! IT WAS ME AND MY HARD WORK! MY GOOD DECISIONS!

My parents started with little. Of course, my mom’s mom (born 1891) finished high school and got to go to college for a few years. Her husband finsihed high school. My dad’s parents were less-educated, but my grandfather “passed” for a teacher with an 8th grade education. And, growing up in the US, they did not live in a slum like poor people in India. Both parents, in the 1940s got a college education. Yes, they worked hard, but they benefited from the GI Bill (let my dad go to Duke for his EE) and favorable law that helped them buy a house. They waited to have a child (actually longer than they had planned, as there was some fertility problem) and went on to amass a nice estate of over a million dollars.

Were they hard-working? Yes. Did they sacrifice? Yes. But they were also incredibly lucky. And that is something that many forget to mention.

So when you are talking about the poor “making bad decisions,” well, yes, many do. But many do not have the same luck you have had being born in the time and place you were born, with the advantages you have had. Don’t be so quick to “let them rot” while you toot your own horn.

We need programs and policies in place that will move those who make poor decisions into people making better decisions. Sometimes with a carrot, and sometimes with a stick. And forever being thankful for our own good fortune, and its role in our lives.

madaboutmath

June 11th, 2012
12:17 pm

I really appreciated the truth in this speech. No,it’s not all luck that makes a person successful, but it makes a huge difference. I am fortunate to have a nineteen year old daughter who understands this. She is lucky (or as we prefer to call it, “blessed”) to have been born into a middle class family who values education. She was further blessed with beauty and many talents, including the talents of writing, painting, athletics, and leadership. Recognizing that she was given these talents for a purpose, she has determined to give back to those who have not been so blessed. Last year, she went to Zambia for a few weeks on a humanitarian trip. We are spending the day today getting her ready to go to Tanzania for three months on another humanitarian trip. No, it has nothing to do with any church–there is no proselyting involved at all. She will work with orphans, AIDS victims, and street kids. She will be paid nothing to go–in fact, she has earned all of the thousands of dollars needed to go. When she decided to major in sociology, rather than something more lucrative, she expressed her realization that she feels a duty to give to those who are most unfortunate, because she is so fortunate. And guess what? I realize I am lucky, or blessed, to have such a daughter. She didn’t get all of these qualities from me.

To MadaboutMath from Good Mother

June 11th, 2012
12:24 pm

I read your post several times. Thank you. It’s heartwarming.

exteacher

June 11th, 2012
6:05 pm

Hey Catlady,

I really liked your post. I marvel sometimes at the incredible advantages I had in the past merely because of my race or gender. Does luck count? You bet it does. It is also important to know the right people and go to the right school, etc. Life is not a meritocracy. That is a total myth.

EliMae

June 13th, 2012
12:43 pm

Luck does have a lot to do with it. All the talent and hard work in the world won’t land you in the spot a lot of these people are in. There are only so many spots at Princeton each year, only so many families who can afford to send their kids there, only so many scholarships for those who can’t afford it, only so many jobs for those who cna’t get a scholarship. Where you came into the world is based purely on luck and has an immense effect on where you end up.