The Dumb Luck Club

When we were kids my parents always said since they didn’t have enough money to send 5 kids to university, they’d only send the boys since the girls were just going to waste an education by getting married and having kids anyway.

Ya, they were a little old world and old school, but we showed them. The girls went to university and didn’t get married and the boys didn’t go to university and got married and had babies. Of course since we girls were older, we had to pay our own way through school and my parents got off completely scot-free in the paying-for-university department.

I often wonder if this was their evil plan from the very beginning. I’ve learned, since I became a parent, that parents are a lot smarter and more Machiavellian than we used to give them credit for.

After high school, I went to work for a few years. I would never have gone to university at all, if,  through and odd fluke, I hadn’t ended up working with a group of people who were all university graduates. I started thinking, “Hey, if they can do it, why can’t I?” My sister, in turn, went to university because I had gone.

To what extent are our successes or failures in life about our own hard work, talent, ambition and intelligence and to what extent are they about our family, culture, friendships and even just  luck?

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell thinks success depends more on the latter than the former.

He talks about how successful hockey players are all born in the first few months of the calendar year[1]. He mentions how Bill Gates, who is not particularly gifted, would never have been successful if it weren’t for the fact that he happened to have had access to a computer at an early age, and at a time when computers were very rare. And he talks about Christopher Langan.

Christopher Langan has one of the highest IQs ever recorded at 210.  But Langan grew up poor. As a teenager he taught himself advanced math, physics, philosophy, Latin and Greek and got a perfect score on his SATs.  So, he made it to university, but couldn’t stay due to lack of finances.

His life has been a string of labourer jobs: cowboy, forester, farmhand and bouncer.

What would have become of Stephen Hawking if he’d been born into a poor family? Or Einstein if he’d never met Max Talmud[2]. Or Mozart if he hadn’t had such an ambitious father?

Some people can pinpoint an exact moment or experience or person that turned them onto the path they followed in life. The prima ballerina who fell in love with dance the first time her mother took her to the ballet. The doctor who chose medicine after an older brother died of some incurable disease. The artist who couldn’t stop creating art since the first time she picked up a crayon.

I think most people have more than one “what if” moment in their lives which they look back on wondering if things might have turned out differently if a certain event or person had or hadn’t happened.

I’m a big planner, plotter and organizer, but I really think a lot of the stuff, good and bad, that has shaped my life has been down to pure, dumb luck. What about you?


 [1] Since youth hockey leagues determine eligibility by calendar year, children born on January 1st play in the same league as those born on December 31st  in the same year. Because adolescents born earlier in the year are bigger and more developmentally advanced than the others, they are often identified as better athletes, leading to extra coaching and a higher likelihood of being selected for elite hockey leagues.

[2] A family friend who introduced the ten-year-old Einstein to key science, mathematics, and philosophy texts.

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31 responses to “The Dumb Luck Club

  1. I’m reading Gladwell’s book right now. He is always an interesting read, but I’m not sure how much I am buying. It’s hard to argue with the hockey stats, and it does seem like more than a coincidence that certain kinds of millionaires were all born in the same decade.

    But the stuff about how culture shapes your success…I think that only goes so far. It can help give you certain tools, but I still believe that some innate talent is involved, as well as a lot of work ethic and personal desire, to become successful.

    I can’t remember any key moments in my life that illuminated my future path with clarity. I’ll have to give that some thought. Maybe my Damascus moment is still to come!

  2. The book is on my to read list; Gladwell is always thought provoking. That’s an excellent layout of his premises that you did there too; also thought provoking.
    I think there’s a lot in culture shaping success for most people. I also think that there are a few people whose personalities, drive, talents are so strong that they influence culture as they cut a swathe through the world.
    Example – my mother loved learning, got a scholarship to university in 1928, did her first year. That summer the market crash almost wiped out her father’s income. She used the rest of the scholarship money to take a secretarial course, and got a job. She also took what university courses she could access, finally earning both a BA and a Master’s degree; this in the depression of the ’30s. And she paid for her younger sister to do the same. An amazing feat. Strong person, strong influence.
    She married a lawyer from an affluent family. When I reached university age I had decent but not stellar grades but I went to university because both my parents simply expected I would go and my grandfather had left me a legacy to pay for it. I happily floated along. A typical Gladwell example, that’s me.

  3. i have had a few aha moments, but they mostly make me shiver and don’t make wish i had taken a different path.
    that being said, i am waiting for my big aha moment because i’m bored and want to do something new 🙂

  4. How weird. Me and my husband were talking about this very thing last night. Meeester claimed he’s been lucky- he used his guitar playing as an example- he said if he hadn’t met a guitar playing mentor in his teens he might never have discovered his love of it. I’m afraid i don’t buy it. “How hard was it to learn?” i asked him. “Really bloody hard, I can remember the frustration, the point at which lots of people just decide to give up.”

    I think the successful people are the determined people. The people who slog, who take risks, who take opportunities. This week I offered some dumb luck to an ex-collegue in the shape of an exciting job, but one outwith his current comfort zone. He would have been great at it, and i believe it wouldhave taken him on a lucrative and exciting career path. He was too chicken, too cosy where he was. He will look back on this when he’s stuck in a rut and see this moment as the point where he could have turned his life around.

    Some people are too scared (or too lazy?) to turn dumb luck into opportunity.

  5. Lynn – Ya, Gladwell is no scientist that’s for sure, but he gives you food for thought occasionally. You can’t remember any times in your life when stuff happened purely out of the blue or coincidentally or fortuituously? Everything in your life has gone exactly according to plan?

    Mary G – That’s very cool about your mom. What a trooper. Sometimes people succeed in reaction to their culture, too. It doesn’t just have to be encouragement that motives, but discouragement as well – especially in the extreme. Like in our house where females were expected to be mothers, wives and home-makers. Both of us rebelled so strongly against that, that it scared us off the idea entirely.

    Meanie – They don’t even have to be big moments. Just stuff like, you’re on your way home and you decide to stop off and buy some bread at the last minute and in the shop you run into a friend who suggests a drink to catch before going home. You’re tired, but she is able to pursuade you. You get to the bar and end up meeting the man who is to become your husband or something. That’s probably what you mean about the “shivers”?? All those times you almost didn’t??

    MisssyM – Very true about people not going through doors that are suddenly opened for them. But there are also instances where people work their asses of, make and take every opportunity, have talent and ambition and still don’t get anywhere because somehow they’ve just never been able to hit on that one thing that will catapult them up to the next level. I think we’ve all been in ruts or slumps at some point of our lives – personally and career-wise – then something happens that swoops us out of the rut. It happens despite of whatever we’ve been doing or not doing many times.

  6. Oh yeah this is totally me. I don’t really TRY for any goal. I just float along like a little feather and let life’s breezes send me where ever I’m supposed to be.

  7. I’m either a dumb luck or it’s all them damn mass cards to St. Jude my grandmother insisted on sending me.

    I’ve always been an artist. Wanted to be a marine biologist in the third grade, drew pictures of marine animals, everyone saw I was artistic…. done deal. Sort of.

    But how I got here? After almost 40 years and am a real live professional artist? lots of dumb luck.

    brother has genius IQ, dropped out of H.S., no college. Father died, older sister could have a free ride thru college because of death benefits but chose silly classes and dropped out. I saw her waste her money, said I shouldn’t do the same, had free ride thru art school (not so free, dead dad, but got thru college).

    Thru many hurdles, lucky breaks, and life changing situations that I had no control over, I continually kept landing on my feet directly along the path that was almost predetermined. Dumb luck? Fate? Destiny? Or Inner Drive?

    I bet on dumb luck.

  8. One of the things that fascinated me about that book was the 10,000 hours of practice time Gladwell hit upon. That every pro or master of a certain craft had spent at least 10,000 hours practicing, be it ball, or computers, or baking. That Bill Gates and his buddies had the opportunity and the equipment to work on computers when the opportunities and the equipment were absolutely inaccessible for most folks. They loved writing code and sought out circumstances that would allow them to write it eventually accumulating about 10,000 hours of practice–viola, computer whiz!

    I have spent 10,000 hours practicing the art of procrastination and aha! I’m a master.

    But I do have a circumstance story. My grandmother is the biggest busybody this side of the planet. She is relentless in her quest to find out what she wants to know, whether it’s who’s responsible for a divorce or how often her grown granddaughter has a bowel movement. She also is a nonstop talker, an efficient business woman and entrepreneur, a farmer, and advocate for those less fortunate than she. She is not funny in person. But she is funny in the retelling.

    Grandma is now 97 and I have been relaying stories about her to my friends and co-workers since I attended elementary school. (a recent answering machine message: “Turn on Opry! She’s talking about women your age and still looking for a man.” Click.) At 47, I am asked to do readings around town that include her answering machine messages. I write stories and lots of times she’s the focal point. Who woulda thunk my most aggravating, but loved relative would figure so prominently in my creative life?

    It’s circumstance AND 10,000 hours.

  9. The only sexist thing that my parents did was; I didn’t have to wear a hat because I had long hair. (yeah, I know, I’m still trying to figure that one out). and even up in my 20’s when I was still home ‘sleepovers’ were not allowed, while my brother moved into the back apartment with his girlfriend.

    Recently I heard something that I think makes perfect sense; You can get a loan for your education, you cannot get a loan for retirement. So…which one do YOU think you should put money into!??!

  10. Another thought-provoking post, XUP.
    My life has been a mixture of planning and luck. From my first day in Kindergarten, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, so I planned for that (though not in Kindergarten – it was actually years later, in university). I fell into French Immersion completely by happy accident, however, as I did into my present position. Marriage was luck (in this case, not-so-good luck!), DD was planning and luck, not being married any more was planning, PG was terrific luck. Everywhere I have ever lived was luck, too.
    So far, it looks like luck is definitely winning.

  11. I’ve had lots of these lucky things, but the biggest one was:
    I HATED my job and worked for fascist slavers. It was a printing company and we farmed out our film. I was “buddies” with the guy at the film place and regularly regaled him with tales of my horrid bosses. One day he called me and BITCH answered the phone and I had to take it right there in front of her and he said, “A girl comes in here that works in advertising for a computer company and they are looking for a pre-press person.” I said, “I’ll call you right back.” Bitch is all, “Do we have something over there?” because of course she had asked who was calling when she took the call. Fortunately she was computer illiterate, graphics wise, so I made up something on the spot about an easier way to do a color separation or something and called him back and got the phone number. I called the girl later, she transferred me to her boss, we made an appointment for an interview, I went back for a second one (and these were tough to do because of the nazi pigs) and got the job and that’s where I met my wonderful husband.
    If I hadn’t constantly complained to this guy he probably would never have thought of me for this job, so sometimes it pays to be a whiner.

  12. I don’t know about dumb luck or “what if?”. I consider myself a spiritual but not really religious person. However, I do strongly believe in fate, along the lines of Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet In Heaven”.
    Some power or force puts you in the right place — or the wrong place — at the right time, at the end of a succession of moves, much like a chess game.
    There are several examples I could relate from my own life. The one that means the most to me, however, is becoming Big Brother to my Little Brother.
    Dan only needed a Big Brother because he lost his dad at the age of 6 in a plane crash. After thinking about becoming a Big Brother for about 15 years, I finally made the move, at a time when Dan was waiting to be matched with Big Brother #3.
    Why me? What power of force led us to each other, and the strongest bond imaginable, that has kept us as close as any two people can be for almost 16 years now, and will forever?
    That’s what I call fate. Call it dumb luck if you wish.

  13. I’m with Newsguy Bob: I think about this kind of thing a lot and tend to categorize the things that have happened to me as based mostly on luck – the kind of luck that comes from the spiritual beliefs and faith that I have. It’s not that I think my life is predestined – because I think I make my own path – but I believe the right pieces and opportunities are placed around me…it’s just up to me to keep my eyes open and correctly connect the dots. The older I can, the farther I can look back, the more dots that become available to me to connect, the more my life and the world grow to make sense to me. And the more amazing and astounding it all becomes.

    I love this post!

  14. Lesley and I were actually talking about this last week.

    When I was in college, I had made up my mind what I wanted to do for a living, and was very fortunate to have found my perfect job through the classifieds right after I graduated. There was certainly hard work involved, but I think I got most of my jobs after that by knowing certain people—as in, if I hadn’t worked there, I wouldn’t have met that person who told me about this next opportunity. (Not because of nepotism!)

    After that first job, and even into a total career switch a couple of years ago, I found all of these wonderful opportunities through people I know and trust. I’ve never been steered wrong and I’ve never regretted it.

    Occasionally, I wonder, What if I didn’t take that person’s advice/follow their lead, would I be where I am today?

  15. i love the post title, my husband has this book and i’ve intended to read it as i’ve been hearing good things about it.

    i’d give a lot of credit to dumb luck for me, some of it my own determination, my quest to always try to learn something new. i can say that everything i’ve experienced that made an impact has shaped my life and provided roads to other places that i never knew i’d travel on. and that’s been a good thing.

  16. I’ve found that sometime things that on the surface appear to be Bad Things sometimes turn out to be Good Things in disguise. I remember how awful it was to be laid off from my job with the provincial government in the late nineties when Mike Harris laid waste to the public service. It was like the end of the world. But if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have ended up getting a better job, moving to Ottawa, and buying a house in a place that I never want to leave. And again when my ex walked out on me and the girls. Devastating. Life-changing. But again, it turned out to be a very good thing. I’m much happier now. Fate? Dumb luck? Neither of those examples has me making a decision, things just played out the way they played out. So is that luck?

  17. Helen – We had plenty more sexist rules in our house. The girls had to help with all the house work. Not the boys. We were responsible for the dishes every day, day in day out. Never the boys. We had to learn to cook and do laundry. The boys helped Dad on the farm. But the girls had to help on the farm, too.

    Pinklea – That’s cool that you always wanted to be a teacher. I envy people who’ve had a passion like that from day one and end up fulfilling their dream. I wanted to be something different every day – still do.

    Geewits – I love stories like this that have domino effects. Not only did the whining get you a new, better job, but also a new, better husband! And I bet there are even more, smaller dominos that rolled out of the new job somewhere along the line??

    Bob –Fate, Luck , Higher Force… Can you imagine what might have happened if you’d put off joining BB another week or two? Maybe Dan would have been matched up with someone else by then and you would have ended up with a succession of short-term little brothers. I often trace back to how I ended up at a particular point in my life and it always seems to begin with some odd twist of fate.

    Lesley – Doesn’t it sometimes make you shake your head in disbelief at how close you’ve come so many times to missing out on an opportunity? It’s downright freaky sometimes.

    Mo – YES! Sometimes the odd word dropped by a friend or co-worker can completely turn your life around. It’s crazy. I’m in Ottawa now because I happened to mention to someone at work that I’d been thinking of looking for a transfer to Ottawa and that person, unbeknownst to me, had just happened to come from a conference in Ottawa where she had just happened to have been talking to a Director who had just happened to mention that a lot of her staff had retired lately and she was looking to staff up.

    Leah – I know those amazing people you worked for at one point did much to help shape your life – from what you’ve been saying about them. People like that are so few and far between, it really was fate that you should encounter them at the particular point in your life when you did. Don’t you think? And yes, you definitely have to open yourself up to luck in order for it to weave its magic.

    Ellie – Right place. Right time. AND recognizing the potential when something falls on you out of the sky.

    Allison – Isn’t it great? Looking back on what were the worst times of your life and now realizing they were actually the best things that ever happened to you? (Are you listening BOB??) All the planning, effort, emotion and hard work you put into both your job and your marriage and then PFFT – gone and nothing you can do about it. Life is cool, isn’t it?

  18. Hi XUP,

    Just to answer your question… Lucky? May be a little… But I come from a family that always believed in merits and that things will be received when the time comes.

    Now I’m tired of waiting because, late in my life, I learned one must go for the things. No one will give you what you think you deserve, you must just go for it.

  19. I’m with Newsguy Bob. I don’t really believe in “luck”. I believe in coincidence (meaningful or otherwise), fate, kismet, destiny, the Universe conspiring, and downright, perversely random chaos. But not luck, though I have teased my brother about having been born with a lucky horseshoe up his butt. 😉

    XUP: My mother always says (with heavy sarcasm, though she’s partly to blame for perpetuating it) that men’s work is men’s work and women’s work is everything. My brothers never had to do the dishes or housework that my sister and I did, but we had to help with the “manly stuff” like lawn work and shovelling snow.

  20. TTP – Hi! Of course no good parent is going to tell their kids that the majority of their successes in life are going to be down to dumb luck! But good parents should also tell their kids that waiting for their value to be recognized and rewarded will lead nowhere. You absolutely have to go after what you want. And with luck – you’ll get it!

    Louise – Ha – what’s the difference between luck and fate/kismet/destiny/random chaos? It’s all the same to me in that stuff happens to you that you have not planned for and don’t have much control over. (Do your brothers know how to do this stuff now? The irony is that my 2 younger brothers now do all the housework in their homes because they both married little princesses who don’t know how to do stuff like that. The other brother sat back and expected his wife to do everything and she left him so now he has to do it all himself anyway!

    Jazz – Mine, too.

  21. I very rarely plan much – no life goals or bucket lists. I seem to have floated through life. Mostly waiting for luck, or coincidences to happen in my favour. I have thought about the times when it hasn’t happened in my favour, and realize I probably wouldn’t have done anything different if given the exact same circumstances. Not many regrets.

    I wish I’d written what Tiana wrote, though.

  22. All this talk of luck. Pure poppycock.
    I am an entirely self made man, personally responsible for every step in my life from about 15 yrs old and on. That has made me what I am today. Old, bald, fat, divorced and destitute. And I claim it all.

  23. I was born in Canada to a middle-class family, who were able to send me to school.

    Think of the huge advantage that gives me over much of the planet.

    And I had absolutely NOTHING to do with it.

    Now…THAT’s dumb luck!

  24. Violetsky – I don’t wait for stuff to happen. I try really hard to make stuff happen, but it doesn’t seem to matter most of the time. Whatever will be will be, as Doris used to say

    Bandobras – It takes a real man to take responsibility for his own misery. You should be proud. And happy. No… wait… that would negate the misery…whatever…

    Friar – Indeed. I’ve seen that summary of how many people on the planet actually go to school or know how to read or live in a house. All the stuff we take for granted as basic is really very elitist on a global scale.

  25. @XUP

    Another advantage is being a white male.

    Not that that’s necessarily fair. Not that it should make a difference.

    But sadly…it DOES. More so in some parts of the planet, than others.

    (…more dumb luck, eh!)

  26. Dumb luck, or being tuned into and the willingness to take advantage of, opportunity. My favourite study in psych class was of impoverished children who turned out quite well in the end, versus impoverished children who did not. The difference? The first group consistently chose mentors throughout their lives, while the second group didn’t.

    I think opportunity (not luck) is constantly put in front of us. Some of us recognize it and act upon it, some of us don’t.

  27. Friar – So does being good-looking and not over-weight and, apparently, having straight hair. But all these things are advantages, not so much luck. Luck of genetics perhaps. There’s also “pure dumb luck” — the “pure” being that it’s unrelated to anything else. It just happens out of the blue. You bump into someone, you take a way home you never took before and encounter a life-changing thing or person, you get shot in a drive-by in your own safe neighbourhood where you’ve lived for 20 years…

    UP – There’s definitely quite a bit of that in all our lives – opportunities we didn’t recognize and/or didn’t seize vs ferreting out opportunities and making the most of them. But there’s also a certain amount of dumb luck involved in life where stuff just happens. Maybe the luck is the opportunity — like the luck is the availability of the computer for Bill Gates. If that one machine hadn’t been there he apparently wouldn’t have had the interest to go seek one out, had there been one even to seek out. The impoverished kids finding mentors must have a certain amount of luck involved with it. Are they knee-deep in mentors to choose from? How does a kid happen upon a mentor?

  28. I think it’s more about fate than anything else (and maybe fate is just another way of saying “dumb luck”…)
    One of my favourite verses in the Quran says (and I’m paraphrasing here) “and it may be that you like something which is bad for you, and it may be that you hate something which is good for you”….
    I think about my life and the number of times something happened that I thought was great, that turned out to be bad, or things I thought were terrible, that later turned out to be the reasons for good stuff happening, and they’re usually fairly significant, and I think fate has a lot to do with it. Left to myself, without circumstances pushing me one way or another, I might have made different decisions, but fate made the decisions for me… I guess it’s probably a mash-up