Five years ago, the first summer we had in our then new home, we threw a big pool party for Yinh’s family. Yinh’s mom is the eldest of twelve. There were a lot of people. Lots of kids. Uncensored kids. Yinh and I were chatting with a group of middle schoolers when one of them just let it fly:
“Are you rich? What do you do?!”
It’s the Bay Area. Having a pool means you are rich in the same way I thought a classmate was rich if they had the G.I. Joe Aircraft carrier in 1985. Still we were standing there. I looked at Yinh with the it’s-your-family-you-take-it look. She said something about if you work hard you can have a nice house one day. Boilerplate response. Acceptable.
But of course wrong.
When we stepped away I shared my thought. These kids’ parents work hard. We know that. The kids know that. Kids are smart and these kids will wonder rightly, “Then where’s my pool?”
They deserve a complete answer. They should know how exceptional their parents are for overcoming every English-guarded obstacle on their way to starting a nail salon. They should know that they have a golden chance to outdo their parents. That education is going to be the most likely path. These realities are easy to explain because they are not just true but constructive. What’s absent is the thing that always sucks to explain: luck is a tyrant.
Fundamental Attribution Error
You know this concept from Psych 101. We ascribe success to our ability and failures to bad luck. It’s not news that we flatter ourselves. Luck looms larger than the due we give it even when it’s acknowledged.
Some underappreciated aspects of luck:
- Less control than we think
We are what Scott Adams calls “moist robots”. Our actions can be programmed by hacking the way our brains make associations. This underlies various forms of therapy, advertising, and persuasion. Anyone who has read Cialdini’s Influence is nodding. I was chatting with Drew this week and he presented a simplified example of path dependence:
The Spotify algorithm isn’t mirroring my own deeply personal taste so much as its mirroring what was on alternative rock radio in the 90s
Since familiarity breeds fondness, the reinforcing loops of our lives are more beholden to initial conditions than we feel comfortable admitting.
- Respect for counterfactuals
You’ve seen me commiserate with Andy Weir’s Egg. Well, one of the greatest Magic The Gathering players of all-time, Jon Finkel, echoes the ovarian lottery idea.
I think I’m a bright guy, but I’m also aware of how much of my success has been luck. I was born a white man to upper middle class parents in the wealthiest country the world has ever known. I had a very specific set of skills that are easily translatable into money in our current society, but would have been far less useful for most of human history. The game I got obsessed with happened to grow and expand into the enormous thing magic has become, and it just so happens that I was actually good at it. So basically, I don’t think I have an edge in everything at all. I think I had a couple specific intellectual skills and it just so happens that they’re most obvious in the games that all the smart people I know also play, so it makes me look more talented than I really am. (Interview transcript)
In no era in history has brawn mattered so little as it does today. This should humble most of us desk jockeys.
- The bell curve of luck
On Tyler Cowen’s podcast, Jordan Peterson comments on an unlucky and meaningful segment of the population:
The American military decided a couple of decades ago that it was illegal to induct anybody into the armed forces who had an IQ of less than 83. That’s an unbelievably important thing to know because that’s about 10 percent of the population.
You’ve got to understand what this means. It means that a very large organization that’s desperately hungry for manpower, especially under circumstances of extreme crisis, is unwilling to accept 10 percent of the population because they have determined — after 100 years of doing absolutely everything they possibly could to the contrary — that there isn’t a single thing that they can train someone like that to do that’s not counterproductive.
Success is overdetermined
If life were totally random, the opposite would be determinism. From one perspective a cast die is random. But from another the toss trajectory and speed, the material and that of the landing surface, the position of the moon, and the imperceptible rotation of the Earth about it’s axis are as predictable as equations.
No serious person invokes a Hari Seldon-esque mapping of inputs to outputs but millions of people will agree with this:
Very few successful people got lucky.
In reality, it was almost always hard work, discipline, and relentless determination.
Put the work in and you got a shot.
— Pomp 🌪 (@APompliano) October 1, 2020
The implication is that success can be explained. I’m not picking on Pomp, Yinh’s response to the children was similarly overdetermined by x = hard work. Yinh and Pomp can both be interpreted charitably. They presented a required condition as a sufficient condition. The worst crime here is incompleteness.
The danger is when the incomplete knowledge gets inverted. When we start to believe you are NOT successful because you did NOT work hard. As if the world adhered to a model without a giant error term.
The downstream effects of this logic are profound. “Everything happens for a reason” gives way to the just-world delusion. Via Wikipedia, this fallacy asserts:
that a person’s actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person; thus, it is the assumption that all noble actions are eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished.
This determinism is the basis of victim-blaming. If you are poor you must have done something to deserve it.
Yinh gave me permission to share this story:
Years ago, after 6 especially hardworking months in her new job she wanted to buy herself a timepiece (aka, a watch). This would be a non-event except for what she said and how I reacted. She said, “I deserve it”.
Boom, mushroom cloud.
The word split me in half like a bolt of lightening. Deserve. Biggest argument we ever had. “What does “deserve” have to do with anything?!” I raved. What does the word even mean? Yinh grew up with nothing. She was succeeding and she wanted a treat. I had no objection to indulgence. But to justify it was to bury good people alive. It was the closest I felt to what I imagined religion feels like to true believers. I needed Yinh to convert. To a non-deserver.
Today we joke about the story. I even told the story of my “trigger word” to a friend this week when she suggested I go to Guitar Center with her husband to to take advantage of the sales. “Buy a new guitar, you deserve it”, she said. This time I just laughed. I find the word just as bothersome, but I’ve been dealing with it. The issue is the same one that made me correct Yinh about the kids. The same thing that made me clip Pomp’s tweet.
In my next post, I’ll share why the word deserve makes my skin crawl. You can decide how crazy or wrong I am. Or maybe you will think of the word differently.