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. Adena

    I think success it’s a combination of luck + tenacity + suspension of disbelief / slight over-confidence. Skill is part of it but it would come after these three. There are a lot of skilled people out there who never get anywhere because they’re missing one of the first three. There is a large amount of luck that goes into what we’re born into — time, place, class, etc. With tenacity and over confidence you can fight that in some cases, but not all. If you have two out of the three you can find success, even without great skill. And I do think it’s important for everyone who has reached some level of success to be grateful for the alignment of the stars that provided one of the three, and to be grateful to themselves for the other.

    Reply
  2. Chae Kim

    Wonderful! I have a same idea. That’s the one of reason I always appreciate. I am so happy you are in my group.sort of

    Reply
  3. gishii

    Great post Eric.

    Success has a way of illuminating truth about ourselves. The more I learn about (and experience) personal successes, the more I realize how little I had to do with them. Thus, as I become more successful, I become more grateful for what has been given me.

    I also discovered a lot of these things while I traveled, but could not articulate them as you have. I’m happy to report that I’m a changed person because of similar experiences I had while traveling.

    Be empowered by these things, and consider how they will permanently change you for the better – this is the most valuable thing you will take from your trip.

    Reply
  4. cyrilbussiere

    Great post. I totally agree and recognize that fact in my life, sure it takes work and perseverance to succeed, but luck is a major factor people dislike to acknowledge.

    Reply
  5. nicciattfield

    I think we have to take the social world into account, even the destinies we are born with, so that we can look at the limits and work towards a deeper sense of compassion. I also like Rollo May’s view that when we are aware of the limits, we are able to work towards new possibilities, or freedom.

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Thank you for the comment. Never heard that perspective from Rollo May before, appreciate your sharing that.

      Reply
  6. Snowbird of Paradise

    One of the benefits of travel is that we are given the opportunity to reflect on our good fortune. I had a similarly humbling experience when I visited Kenya a few years ago. Good article.

    Reply
  7. resilire84

    It’s all in God’s plan. After all, this life counts for something. The afterlife, which will not be based on the lucky breaks but how our faith in those instances in the dark hours.

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Absolutely agree. I’m grateful that I grew up being able to use a toilet, wear clean clothes, and eat food whenever I was hungry. Not many on this planet have the same privilege. The small things, as you say, can be a be a virtue.

      Reply
  8. sh3ilabh3ila

    I enjoyed reading your post. However, I think there is more involved than just luck. The fact your family was able to get out of Korea involved more than luck. Luck in maybe some instances, but what about social capital (who your father knew and how they may have helped your father escape that communist regime), maybe some economic capital (did he have pay some someone in his attempts). I just think there is more going on there. But lovely post.

    Reply
  9. aliciafrausto43

    Reblogged this on AliciaFrausto and commented:
    “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.”

    Reply
  10. ksfinblog

    This is something that only few can comprehend, the rest being too occupied with everyday pleasures and struggles…… it is nice to see this being articulated so well….

    Reply
  11. Sheetal Sood

    Just came back from a trip to India. So many young kids who just will not realize their potential due to poverty and lack of resources. Even if they had the skills it would not be possible for them to use them. I guess it’s a mix of skill and opportunities which makes a difference.

    Reply
  12. V

    Great post! I didn’t grow up with much money, but growing up working class in America is certainly different than growing up in poverty in a third world country. I think we should all take the time to acknowledge that for many of us there is a whole support system contributing to our success, starting with public education or being able to afford private schooling.

    Reply
  13. Leah (Went Looking)

    Good post. It’s so true that luck plays a huge role.

    I have similar feelings about nationalism. I was talking to a foreigner yesterday, and they told me that someone they knew said to them, “you know, I don’t like foreigners though I do like you.” It’s really bizarre to me that people think they’re better than others just because they were born in a certain place. It’s not as if there was a lot of skills on their part involved in that…

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Thanks Leah. I see the same problem everywhere. In some of the countries I’ve visited, the people really hated Americans. They were cool to us, but it took a bit of time to break through some of the stereotypes. Really really sad. And guess what? I’m ashamed that I have done the same myself.

      Reply
  14. Scott Benjamin

    I work with upper middle and upper class suburban youth through my church. I see a poverty in their souls that is disturbing. While “luck” may have much to do with when and where one is born, there is something to be said for how a person lives. The girl you photographed may lack material possessions and a long life, but from your comment she did not have an impoverished soul. Travel is a great perspective creator and serving those around us who are less fortunate is something we all should strive towards. Thank you for sharing your post and perspective.

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Really great point and glad you raised it, Scott. This girl that I met, despite living in serious poverty, definitely seemed really happy. And her family was awesome and loving too. From that perspective, there was much richness in her life to enjoy too.

      Reply
  15. The Scarlet Elf

    Reblogged this on The Scarlet Elf and commented:
    You are right luck plays are big part and its mind-boggling to think what if – You have been so so lucky! I was born the fifteenth child of 16 and the 16th my beautiful sister has down syndrome! I often thank my late & beautiful hearted mother for not stopping at 14, I am so grateful to be here – but I also have felt guilty that my sister was the unlucky one, even though she has brought so much joy to so many :))

    Reply
  16. The Scarlet Elf

    Wanted to say how right you are you are so so lucky & my prayers & thoughts are with the little child ;( I also feel lucky being born 15th of 16th children & the 16th girl having down syndrome, I also have felt guilty about how lucky I was and my sister was unlucky. But she has been very happy and a joy to us all ;)) best wishes
    Ps. I pressed wrong button to comment & it went to reblog which I have no need for so I will delete sorry!

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Thanks for the comment, and for sharing your own personal story too. You seem like someone with a lot of gratitude.

      Reply
      1. The Scarlet Elf

        TYVM & sorry for my repetitive comment, Im new doing this. ;(. I had a picture of a 3yr old voiceless defenseless child standing on a street – how wonderful that child has found his voice and strengths – Im sure even for the luckless children hope always remains❤️

  17. SouthernGal

    I agree! Great article. I find that people who are from different countries who also live in poverty rarely complain, and enjoy the simplicities of life. Makes you appreciate life in general.

    Reply
  18. buffalogrl25

    Well written. You certainly have an amazing family story to be proud of. Thank you for sharing it. But I think it is a mix of skill, luck, and guts. Luck is a factor – but not the only one.

    Reply
  19. sophco8

    Success definitely has to do with luck, but I agree that it is a combination of things. Sometimes being born with nothing inspires people to make themselves something. I also agree that we all do need to put our egos in check too because a lot of people like to take one hundred percent credit for there success and they don’t want to acknowledge the help they had along the way and the luck that got them where they are. It’s scary and humbling to see this and I commend you for reflecting on the luck of success.

    Reply
  20. cartoline

    Love this post! It is true – our origin, our parents, country of our birth, etc. really influnce the way our life is going to be.

    Reply
  21. snsnightlifemagazine

    Your article is awesome but what happened to crediting God, our Creator, for life and success. My parents were also born in third world poverty. I know exactly what you speak of but luck. I can’t agree with that.

    Reply
  22. creativeconfessions

    Excellent, well-written post! I think it’s a mixture of both luck (or receiving opportunities to uncap potential and talent) as well as skill. It can’t be luck alone that can get you out of a certain place, although it certainly does play a part. There comes a time when one has to take the right, intelligent steps in order to secure a better outcome, much like your own family did.

    Thanks for the lovely post!

    Reply
  23. Nida S.

    It’s about luck and bucket loads of it. I often wonder about this when I look at my people back home in Pakistan. Some have the brightest minds, but nowhere to use them. Some have the biggest hearts, but not enough love is ever present in them. It’s all about luck. Great post

    Reply
  24. uditchahal

    Incredible how all the circumstances just laid down so that u can post this story one day.
    Yet another example of how serendipity and chance plays a great role in our live.
    Great post!

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Thank you! And yes, serendipity has played out nicely in my own life in so many ways beyond the personal story I’ve shared.

      Reply
  25. clarinetpassion

    its all luck brother. Its even luck when you stub your toe. Its the funniest thing watching someone in such pain but you need to stub your toe occasionally to get you off your couch. safety is the enemy. You need to get yourself out in the wild were luck has a chance of playing its part. I like the way you think but I am not into the wordiness.

    Reply
  26. inidna

    I do agree that it has a lot to do with the luck you start with but at the same time it’s also not impossible for that little girl (and others like her) to be able to rise up and out of poverty. Yes, it does depend on a wide range of factors (luck included!) but it also has a lot to do with hard work and realizing how much more you want for yourself. Doesn’t happen so often but it does happen! As I live in Jakarta I see the above scenes every day and it definitely makes me appreciate how lucky I am but also makes me want to work harder to be able to help others have opportunities too 🙂 Thanks for sharing this interesting post – hope you enjoyed Jakarta (a bit?)!

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      I did enjoy Jakarta. 🙂

      And yes, I don’t think it is fair to write off this girl from this point of time. People do make it out of difficult circumstances like this. There are countless stories of success from people who started with nothing.

      Reply
  27. jules

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more with your last comment. I too have met so many people who think that they are so deserving of the privileged life they lead, due only to their own intelligence and efforts. I then see children in East Africa or SE Asia, who have nothing but their resilience and intelligence to get them through the day and know that few of these will ever get those chances or that luck.

    Reply
  28. ravensmarch

    I watched some time ago a video of Henry Rollins, speaking of how he’d made his success through single-minded devotion to his art and stubborn refusal to be turned from the path he was on… and also that but for a single moment of staggering and unbelievable luck, he’d never have put a foot on that path and could have hoped at best for mid-level retail management.

    Your last line should be engraved on the desktop of every CEO.

    Reply
  29. 1stpeaksteve

    Great article!

    From my travels and my experiences in professional sport; I have roughly the same view.

    Recently on a post on Facebook, someone wrote how we should seal off the borders. This person married someone from the United States. I wrote to her that she is here out of luck and not because she was picked because she was going to make a grandiose contribution to my home country. So for her to have such a negative view on people from a lower class was kind of absurd considering that without meeting her husband; she would be on the outside looking in. Luck got her on the other side of the fence.

    One thing that does separate us is our application of our resources. We hone skills and mindsets. I was not born to do certain tasks or skills; I put in the effort to get there.

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Completely agree about how we need to develop our skills and mindsets to maximize opportunity.

      Reply
  30. Skye

    This is a great article. I believe in all of what you said but I also think that there is another side of the spectrum. While I was born lucky as well, into a loving middle class family, circumstances while I was growing up ended with both of my parents becoming unemployed and unemployable in their 40’s and us trying to survive on social assistance. They both passed away much too early and I find myself at 37 years old with no parents, no siblings (an only child) and pretty much no support structure.
    I have worked to change my life and that of my daughter so that she can live a life different from mine.
    I was lucky, then it was lost. Now it is work and determination that will allow my daughter to say that she was lucky.
    Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Wow, thank you for that message. What an incredible struggle you’ve had. Congrats on making it through to the other side. Very inspirational story!

      Reply
  31. Nancy Joseph

    Lovely words Eric! This is what i keep telling myself every time i feel like an underachiever.
    Having said that, don’t you think being proud of your accomplishments and being grateful for your fortune can go hand in hand? That they don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive?

    Reply
    1. Eric Post author

      Yes, we definitely should be proud of our accomplishments and grateful for our good fortunes too. This was more of a reminder about the need for humility along the way. It’s a reminder for me as well as others I see where I live and work.

      Reply

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