Monday, May 30, 2011

Congratulations. You're Lucky!
(Some uncommon thoughts for the graduating class of 2011)
by David Gilfix

Almost everything in your life is due to luck.
Don’t throw tomatoes! I said “almost.”  The itsy bitsy part not due to luck is more important than the gargantuan part that is.  But you will never understand that part unless you first realize how much about you was not determined by you.   
So let’s set the stage with the big picture.  And I mean the really big picture.  The visible universe in which we live is calculated to be a distance of about 28 billion light years across, and the actual universe might be many times greater.   Our home is in a galaxy called the Milky Way, which, scientists estimate, contains about 400 billion stars.  The Milky Way is one of about 500 billion galaxies; each containing approximately 300 billion stars.  So do the math:  Our star, Sol, is one of 150 sextillion stars (that’s 150 x 10 to the 21st power), and our home is the only planet orbiting Sol that contains life, including yours and mine.
And we had absolutely nothing to do with it!  We didn’t select earth from a big galactic travel guide of 150 sextillion stars because, for example, we wanted to live on a planet where we could hear rock-n-roll music (even though that certainly would have been a good reason). 
So either we are lucky, or we are the product of a “Divine intention,” which means we are incredibly fortunate.  And if you prefer to substitute the words ”fortunate” or “blessed” for “lucky” throughout this discussion, be my guest.   Personally, I find your beliefs way more humble (and no less logical) than the belief that we should take credit for our situation. 
Anyway, among the humans on planet earth, which orbits one of 150 sextillion stars, are you and I.  Yes, we are lucky – and not simply to be living in a community that can afford indulgences like elaborate, fancy-clothed graduation ceremonies and, ahem, opinionated bloggers; we are lucky to be alive, today.
Consider this:  according to scientists, Homo sapiens have existed for roughly 200,000 years.  If you are lucky enough to reach the age of 80, then the span of your existence will constitute 4/10,000 (or .0004) of the life of our species on planet earth – and probably will encompass the best period, especially if you live in the United States or one of the very few relatively free, democratic countries.  As a homo sapien living in the 21st century, you have inherited a goldmine of innovations to which you contributed nothing:  the light bulb, washing machines, dishwashers, toilets (don’t laugh, Ghandi wrote more about sanitation than about peace), planes, trains, automobiles, computers, internet, radios, telephones, televisions (actually, that one was a mistake), x-rays, cat scans, ultra-sound, penicillin, cell phones, violins, pianos, banjos, and greatest of all, of course, the guitar. 
Still not convinced that you are lucky to be alive today, as opposed to any other part of our 99.96% of human history?  Try this little experiment.  The next time you have a root canal, just for fun ask your oral surgeon to do it without Novocain.  
If you live in the USA then chances are you are quite “fortunate” or “blessed” or “lucky.”   Consider that out of 192 member UN countries, and perhaps 15 additional non-UN countries, 67 of them are in some state of war, be it internal or external.  If you lived in many of those countries, there is a good chance you would be a soldier, and in some places, such as Sudan, you might have been a child soldier.  If you were brought up in a country at war, there is a good chance you could be dead (people tend to get killed in wars).  
Today, out of a total 7 billion people on this planet, only 307 million, roughly 5 percent live in the United States.  The US has a higher percentage of college graduates than all but 12 countries, and – sorry to be blunt with you - it isn’t because we are smarter than everyone else.  
But what does all this have to do with you, today?  Well, hang on.  Not only did you have nothing to do with the where of your life, meaning your place in the galaxy or on planet earth, or the when of your life, meaning today, but you also had little to do with the what of your life, meaning all the skills and talents that you take pride in or admire in others. 
Most of your intelligence is due to luck – you can’t control that.   Same with your learning - you didn’t determine the neighborhood where you grew up or the schools or your teachers or the amount of love and stimulation you were given during those critical early years.
Speaking of which, don’t forget your first big swimming race: you versus 300 million others.  How did you happen to win?  Remember, you had never taken a swimming lesson in your life!  But you won, everyone else died, and now you are a graduate.
Are you talented in music or math?  Luck.  Can you throw a baseball farther than your friends?  Luck.  Can you run fast?  Luck.  Were you born with a great singing voice?  Luck. 
Ah, but you say you worked hard to perfect your windup, practice your instrument, refine your voice, improve your running techniques, or develop your math skills.  Hey, nice going!   You’ve made some great choices to make the best out of the “what,” the raw material with which you were lucky enough to be born. But don’t forget:  Most people don’t have the luxury to spend hours each day developing their particular skill – they have to work for their next meal. 
Let’s move on.   Your health is largely due to luck.  You did nothing to deserve your health challenges or your health success.  You do have a choice about how you live, and, for sure, your diet and lifestyle can reduce your risk of certain illnesses.   But just in case you harbor the delusion that you are in control, try to answer this:  Why is Keith Richards still alive?
The economic class in which you were raised?  Luck.  Your appearance – whether you are tall, short, fat, thin, symmetrical or not - is largely due to luck, and will substantially influence your chances of success.  In today’s looks oriented culture, the big leadership positions often will be won by the candidate lucky enough to have the right looks over the candidate lucky enough to have the most talent.  So you need to be lucky enough to have the right kind of luck.
What about your character?  Did you have good role models growing up?  Great parents?  A safe neighborhood?  Guess what?  You absorbed, through your upbringing, much (but not all) of your character strengths or weaknesses, with regard to honesty, hard work, persistence, and respect for others.  And you had little control over your upbringing.   
OK, so by now you are probably thinking that if luck plays such a big hand in our lives – and it does – then where does “free choice” and “free will” come in?
Very simply, we have free will to determine how we will respond to our luck-filled lives; how we will treat others and how we will treat ourselves.
We have free will to choose which interests we pursue, how hard we work, and what we will contribute in our lives with the luck-filled raw material bestowed upon us.  By the way, graduates, those of you who didn’t flourish in a school environment should never assume that this means you won’t flourish in a non-school environment (as Pete Seeger said, never let your schooling get in the way of your learning).
Free will, from today on, means you can choose your influences, which includes your friends and what you read, watch, or listen to.
However, you cannot choose to become an ace fastball pitcher unless you were lucky enough to be born with an ace fastball pitcher arm.  But you can choose how you will respond to other people (who might or might not be ace fastball pitchers).  This is even more important than whether the Yankees lose.  Did I mention that, having been Boston-born lucky, the Yankees annoy me even more than people who believe they are “self-made” men?
Speaking of which, have you ever heard the classic Frank Sinatra song, “I did it my way”?  Great song.  Great singer.  Yet, the words are totally wrong.  Sinatra was born with unbelievable talent.  He didn’t work hard for it.  In fact, Sinatra was known for working very little.  He would go into the recording studio and nail the song on his first try, when other singers would take all day.  And as for ‘doing it his way,’ anyone who has read anything about ol’ Frank knows that he got a lot of help.
Once you recognize how much luck plays into everything, you will hopefully withdraw from the American pastime of idolizing the rich, famous, or powerful, and disparaging those in less desirable positions. 
Understanding luck, you will realize that, in contradiction to everything you might have been led to believe, people in high positions don’t have higher character than those in lower positions.  Often they aren’t more qualified than the people in lower position, either.
So you can withhold judgments about others.  Including yourself.
Maybe, despite what the talk-radio babblers say, the poor do need help.  Remember, neither you nor Frank Sinatra are a “self-made” man; like everyone else, you are mostly a “luck-made with free will” man or woman.
Luck, or “good fortune” or “being blessed,” is humbling.
But it shouldn’t be an excuse to be lazy.  Yes, the cards you were given determine much of your present and future situation.   BUT YOU’VE ALREADY WON THAT GAME.  You live in the United States in the year 2011.  You have more freedom, more opportunities, more resources, and better technology than most people will ever have! 
Don’t waste time comparing your luck with others – it misses the point.  You are already amazingly lucky to be living in a time and place where you can get Novocain before you have a root canal, where you can create a career simply by working hard and showing good character, and where you can come home to watch the Red Sox smash the Yankees on a high definition TV. 
So go work hard, respect everyone and disparage no one based only on their situation, and don’t be jealous or arrogant.  And give back to charity way more than the norm. You did nothing to deserve all the advantages with which you were born.  So share some of it with others as you take advantage of YOUR luck and help make the world a better place.
Congratulations, graduates, and may luck and good character be with you for the rest of your life.

Next Counter Rhythms article:  Revisiting the Bernie Goetz case
Previous article:  Hubris in Wisconsin
(A list of all articles is on left side of page, near the top)



Julia Berkley said...

I love this -- puts everything right into perspective.

Jonathan said...

Excellent, David. Your former student Jeremiah graduates next week, I will share this with him!

Anonymous said...

Well said!

- Ralph

Scott Axelrod said...

I feel lucky that I decided to read your blog.

smart-cuss said...

What luck you got those letters to fall in exactly the right places, and with punctuation marks, too!
Must be something you ate.
Mazel tov, once again, for this excellent essay.

Dan Goodman said...

Another way to saying that we are fortunate. Gratitude is an appropriate response. And writing essays about luck is also appropriate.

Kevin said...

Great essay ! Really goes from the 'universal' to the 'individual'. Nicely captures how luck, fortune, etc brings you to a starting point or platform (birth, graduation, etc) but as people move from dependent to independent 'luck' is replaced by choice, effort, responsibility.

This is one to share !

agnosticcynic said...

Well done, Mr. Gilfix! It is difficult to deny any of your points. And... Keith Richards should, as the great Lou Gehrig did, proclaim himself to be "the luckiest man alive", because I agree with you that luck is the only thing which has kept him alive... one thing is for sure, it isn't his guitar playing.

Gordon Whiting said...

...and the question is, what do we do with all this good fortune? As Delmore Schwartz said, "in dreams begin responsibilities." Same perhaps could be said for luck.