Moontower Thanksgiving 2019

This letter started with a discussion of cosmic luck. There are 7 billion people in the world. You have about a 1 in 6 chance of being born into the “developed” world. My gratitude starts there.

I didn’t quite catch the heads required to end up in the crib of a median American family but I got something more valuable. Parents who love me and cared about my future.

They met here in the US but they are both from Cairo and they were not in the US long before meeting one another and having me in 1978. As all immigrants must, they navigated a strange land and a strange language. One of my favorite bits of family lore is how weird they thought the spaghetti sauce was in the US. They thought Americans’ taste buds were broken. Turned out my grandpa was buying ketchup.

In my spoiled existence today it’s hard to imagine what they went through and with so little. And yet despite the odds, I was given great opportunities and have had amazing luck:

  •  I’m 6’1
  • My parents are hard-working and my mom was especially demanding. She worked in treasury ops at banks when I was growing up. I was sorting fixed income traders’ mail when I was 16 thanks to her. I commuted from Hazlet, NJ to Manhattan at 5am in my summers to work. I got paid $16/hr in the 90s.
  • I have thus far dodged serious illness. I survived 2 serious car crashes before age 21 (at age 13 I had the experience of seeing and touching my right shinbone before I had even realized what happened). My apartment building burned down my junior year of college. Everyone has crazy experiences. That you are still around to have them has nothing to do with merit. Blind luck.

Speaking of college one of the most influential moments in my life was my choice to go to Cornell. My mother had always pushed me and spoke of this place Cornell before I was even in HS. When I visited the campus, I immediately loved it and applied early decision to maximize my chance of getting in. When I did get in, she and I were over the moon. But in a moment of major doubt and looking at the cost, I hesitated. You see Rutgers would have been a full academic scholarship. Cornell was gonna cost close to 30k per year. I didn’t want to saddle my mother with any more burden. She had already shouldered the bills of a private Catholic all-boys HS (CBA in Lincroft). And when she couldn’t afford it, she begged the school to let me attend without paying. She never gave up and it worked. They graciously made an exception for part of my tuition.

She had a one-tracked mind. Give her son a chance.

In the end, she convinced me with a plan I could bear. Cornell offered 1/3 of the cost in a need-based grant that she wrote many letters for every year. She and I would split the remaining cost equally. I’d pay my share with loans and my summer job earnings. She believed Cornell was going to mean more opportunities.

She had a one-tracked mind. Give her son a chance.

If you simulate my life 100x over I probably don’t end up with the professional luck I’ve actually enjoyed in 90-95 of those sims. I punched above my intrinsic gifts. But I have respectable outcomes in most of those sims because of who my mom is. Sure I had to meet her part of the way with effort but ultimately she gave me the best chance.

I’m thankful for being born in America and that my family fought their way to get here. I’m fortunate to grow up in a home that taught me how to fish even though it didn’t have much fish to give me. I’m not very interested in politics but if I had to say, I’m a lot more liberal than my parents. But something I would agree with them on…when I watch politicians fan the flames against the rich on what I feel are extremely exaggerated claims about what income inequality really is I recoil.

The prosperity of the United States and the possibility to push yourself or your kids into a better life has been calling to foreigners for over a hundred years. Anecdotes are not data. But having seen enough people from humble roots succeed beyond their expectations, makes me thankful I live where those anecdotes are not outliers. Billionaires are outliers. Kids from Hazlet or Newman, CA (Yinh’s hometown) who end up in our shoes are very much part of the real distribution.

if there is a devil he wants you to compare yourself to your neighbor. It’s that simple. It’s his most effective trick. And it’s subtle. Don’t pay attention to his whispers.

This Thanksgiving I’m grateful for all the luck it took for me to be able to sit in a warm house, with wifi and the time to write this. To have my children fed and asleep in bed (they’re in my bed tonite the rascals) and for my wife to be peacefully passed out while watching TV. There’s a lot of heads that had to come up to be here but it all started with a chance to play.

Enjoy your loved ones this Thanksgiving and much love from me. As always, thanks for reading.

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