Stop calling it skill. It’s really just luck.

What if you were born as this girl?

What if you were born as this girl?

Not many people know that I am North Korean. Sort of.

My father was born in North Korea. The same day that he arrived to the world, his family had to flee to the South in order to escape the communists. The journey had to be taken on foot during the cover of night; naturally, it was extremely dangerous and risky. Capture could have meant death, or perhaps a life in a North Korean gulag.

At one point in the journey his family had to cross a river via a small boat. His mother was told that no noise could be made during the crossing. She was instructed to immediately drown her infant (my Dad) if he started to cry.

Miraculously, my Dad slept through the river crossing and his family made it to the South intact.

Fast forward many years later: my Dad survived childhood in post-war South Korea; went to medical school; served as a doctor during the Vietnam War; met my mom; was granted fast-track US citizenship; settled in Michigan; had my sister; had me.

When I think about the circumstances of how I came to be created on Earth, it’s staggering to consider all of the little things that happened before my arrival that allowed me to arrive. The fact that I was born is due to luck. It’s even more unbelievable that I was able to grow up in the United States with caring parents, resources, and an awesome support structure to pursue whatever opportunity I wanted.

I often take for granted the fact that I won the lottery of life already from my very first day on the planet. It hit me hard recently during my travels, when my wife and I visited a Jakarta slum.

The slum, as to be expected, was quite depressing. There was limited access to clean water, no schools, and very little prospect for upward mobility for the people. Indonesia to my surprise still has a caste system that makes it nearly impossible for the poor to rise out of poverty.

During our slum tour, my wife and I met a cute little girl (pictured at the top of this post) who followed us around everywhere. Statistically, she would only survive until her early 50s and would live her entire life within the poor ghetto of Jakarta. But on the day I met her, she was all smiles and full of gratitude to practice English with some Westerners.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this sweet little girl lately. How is it fair that I was born with the privileges that I had and she was born with barely anything? I’ll never know. But I do know that I would not have been able to accomplish what I’ve been able to accomplish to date by being born in her situation.

One of the things that bothers me about where I live, Silicon Valley, is the hubris that some founders have about their success. Many credit their skills or intelligence as the primary driver of their success. Some go as far to claim they were just “born with it”, as if gifted by God with talent.

Skill matters. Being smart matters too. But let’s get real: these things only matter on the margin when it comes to the greater view of success in life. The vast majority of things that contribute to our success are out of our control.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate our successes. Let’s congratulate each other for the hard work and job well done when we push a big release, IPO, or get acquired.

But let’s also put our egos in check and remember that it was mainly luck that got us to where we are today.

147 thoughts on “Stop calling it skill. It’s really just luck.

  1. zareenn3

    In a very different way, it’s quite the same in our country. There’s just too much poverty. And it hurts us to see all these people that look like us talk like us being stripped of life’s necessary privileges. It’s also true that you wouldn’t have been able to achieved what you did had you been “un lucky”. Poor people in my country have different values than rich ones. Their priority wouldn’t be education, but how to get through one day, at a time.
    Excellent writing!!

    Reply
  2. GlitterDuster

    I know I am very blessed to be where I am today. It has been a mixture of good luck and bad luck in just the right places that I have landed in a pretty sweet spot, considering I should have slipped through the cracks a myriad of times.

    I do like to think there is a little skill involved, however, and by skill, I mean pure hard work. I am very lucky to be where I am, but in order to keep moving with my best foot forward, I know I need to work: work at a job, work at schooling, work at learning how to live, work at hobbies, work at being social, and pretty much everything you can think of. But yes, I am lucky enough to be born into a place where those are my main worries, instead of wondering if I’m going to even see tomorrow.

    Thank you for this wonderful read. =)

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Thank you for the wonderful comment! And yes, I do hope that other readers out there are not perceiving this post as an excuse for apathy. Hard work and skill development can create very meaningful changes to your quality of life. It’s worth pursuing the effort to maximize your opportunities!

      Reply
  3. karpalism

    I so agree with you on many points.
    Social status, knowing contacts, having capital (such as what sh3ilabh3ila shared), and where you begin the journey (such as what Love, Life & Whatever shared) in location and family are often made through sheer luck. Skill, intelligence, and ambition play a role – but often if you are lucky.
    You have to know people in order to get somewhere and, as a featured person on Humans of New York (found on FB and the web) shared, you have to be in contact with people of certain circles in order to be able to make new circles and thus make contacts to get ahead in life.
    In today’s world, this is often by sheer luck. Some janitors and homeless people have beautiful souls (referred to by Scott Benjamin) but they cannot afford food, clothing, shelter, etc. – and not by a lack of hard work done well.
    Some have the benefit of having health insurance that covers the cost of care along with family and friends who are willing to donate. Others become homeless, in poverty, or destitute.
    I personally have intelligence, hard work, determination, the intense strive to succeed, and am a moral, kind, caring, compassionate person… but have experienced all sorts of abuse, poverty, and currently have debt to my eyeballs due to pursuing education so I can get a job then lose my job due to severe workplace violence.
    Luck with a ton of extremely hard work and determination has brought me thus far, and will continue to aid on my behalf – and – I am bound and determined to continue and succeed no matter what.
    Louise Hays (as well as friends and contacts) suggests that gratitude along with expectation are the keys to success. The Christian bible says “ask and it shall be given…”
    I think of many who struggle like I do, those who are overseas and cannot go to a land where they can eat food and drink clean water, are killed because they are of the LGBTQ community, are raped and slaughtered by extremists and warriors…
    God doesn’t hear everyone’s prayers, so I will be lucky if God – and the universe, angels, and whomever/whatever – hears mine.
    I have been extremely jealous of others in the past. They have parents who pay for their college, housing, food, clothes… They have parents and grandparents and whomever to give them money to survive and get started on their feet. They have family who cares and are there for them. They have contacts where they can keep, maintain, and excel in the workplace…
    I used to have what I thought to be a wonderful life. Life hasn’t turned out that easy since my mother died.
    I learned the hard way that it takes money to make money. It takes contacts to get a job. Many people are idiots yet they succeed in life because they have everything they need to succeed and literally nothing they did on their own to get there.
    However, I am hopeful and will continue to hope. I will seek, strive, learn, overcome, and succeed as best as I know how and will search for more solutions.
    My most recent post is entitled “It’s all a Matter of Perspective (http://wp.me/p4Jn5O-c0).
    Thanks for listening. Thanks for your post. Keep up the great work in life and on your blog. Gratitude is wonderful.

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Thank you for that wonderful comment and for sharing your story. Despite your struggles, it sounds like you still have lots to be grateful for, which you do recognize. Wishing you lots of success in the future.

      Reply
  4. goulart

    Thank you for writing what I have thought!!!! I realized this too when I travelled in poor places, and also knowing poor people here in the US. Many people are poor despite being smart, hard working, etc. Not only are we arrogant if we think only our skill or intelligence or other things are solely responsible for our success, but we are sadly lacking in compassion when we assure poor are only poor basically because they couldn’t hack it. I see this attitude in America all the time.

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Thanks for your message. And I agree with everything you said! Wealth is not a perfect corollary to skill, intelligence, or hard work. It’s arrogant to believe that it is.

      Reply
  5. thishideousheart

    True, a lot of us don’t realize how lucky we are to be born in a Western country or in a rich social class. As I always say, the only cure for this particular type of ignorance is travelling. Even so, I know many people who have travelled more than me – thanks to their money – but still, they haven’t understood anything of what they’ve seen during those journeys or vacations abroad. They come home unchanged, retaining their assumptions, because they only see what they want to see.

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Traveling indeed does help in gaining this perspective of gratitude, but I am also optimistic that you can still learn these lessons even without travel. At least I hope so, since travel is a luxury that may not be within reach for many.

      Reply
  6. robertlampros

    I don’t think it’s vain to say you’ve been gifted by God with talent. I think our skills and the desire to advance them do come from above, but God expects us to use them well and honorably, not for selfish gain. The more you give the more you get.

    Reply
  7. felixlix

    Reblogged this on Felixlix's blog and commented:
    Well written. It reminds me a taunting yet laughable Cantonese statement in Hong Kong called “Your success is due to your father’s success” (成功需父幹) which is derived from an unison statement “Your success is due to your hard work” (成功需苦幹), which totally reflects what is happening in the world. Rich people become richer because they have myriad resources from their previous generation, and whatever they do their success is guaranteed. It is all luck.

    Reply
  8. golfpoet

    Ben Hogan once said, “The more I practice the luckier I get.” At least for some people and some skills, luck and skill may be linked in some way.

    Reply
  9. Creative Metaphor

    I both agree with you 100% but also think it’s a matter of perspective. Most people *lack* a perspective that allows them to see that if they had been born elsewhere, different society or societal status, that they probably would not have what they have now. Most successful people, especially, only see that they are successful compared to those who had roughly similar starts/opportunities in life. If this is all they know, it’s easy to see how they can credit themselves for their success.

    It takes a very large person to step outside of “all they’ve ever known” and see that this world is so much bigger than their little social circles, high school clubs, college cliques, and start-up companies.

    Yet at the same time, we look at someone from a poor or generally less privileged part of the world who creates a 3D printer from scraps http://boingboing.net/2013/10/13/send-a-togolese-3d-printer-mad.html and we have to credit them for their ingenuity and success.

    I think we tend to be too harsh on those whom we feel *should* have been successful given their place in the world. We all tend to take more credit than we deserve at times, and give less than others deserve at times, too. It may be that given every opportunity, there are those who will never succeed, and given few opportunities, there are those who will always rise above.

    So yes, a lot of luck, but also a lot of skill a lot of determination and a lot of good old fashioned never giving up. I think we like to say it must have been one or the other when I think it’s most often a hefty dose of both. 🙂

    Reply
  10. staciasymone

    Hey Eric,

    Very well-written post. I agree with your perspective because there have been situations that I have unexplainably been brought out of. I always get a reality check whenever I find myself trying to alter circumstances only to find out that my efforts have gone in vain. [Things] will always fall into place just the way they should.

    Reply
  11. MM

    Hello Eric! I agree with you that it’s very unfair just to attribute success with skill or effort because some people start life with many good opportunities while others don’t. I have met farmers who work all day in the fields and yet they earn so little. I have met workers who do very tiresome labor but still life their jobs despite their hard work because they are just contractual laborers. All this is heartbreaking. When I ask them what their hopes are, many of them day that they would just like a better future for their children. Some are able to work their way out of poverty but more remain in the vicious cycle. I wouldn’t call the poor unlucky though because many of them are the most loving, family – oriented, and generous people I know but this doesn’t make suffering okay. Every person should get a chance to live a dignified life. It’s sad that right now, only some are lucky enough to have access to a decent living. I guess our understanding of luck (hmm… whether religious, philosophical, political, etc.) would greatly affect how we live our lives in the context of this situation.

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. Indeed, one thing that needs to be explored is the definition of success. I agree that people in poverty can still live very dignified lives, despite having low quality of life.

      Reply
  12. kkrhana

    You’re article really got to me thinking Eric. My parents too suffered in poverty during their childhood, but luckily my father got a job out of India, so my brother and I grew up in comfort.
    Now all I want to do is repay them.

    Reply

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