I like taking vacations alone. In fact, I like places where there’s no internet, no TV, sometimes even no cell phone connections.
Few years back, I was spending just such a solo trip on Andros Island in the Bahamas — which is about the size of the state of Delaware and has roughly the population of the town of Tyrone, GA — at a lovely little eco-resort called Small Hope Bay Lodge, when one night at the tiny beachside tiki bar I got into a conversation with a businessman about success.
Like most American businessmen, he was a nice and affable fellow, indelibly optimistic and willing to talk to anybody. And he believed that the secret to success was hard work.
“Guys like you and me,” he said, “we work hard. That’s what it takes. Some people just aren’t willing to put in the effort. You get what you give in this world.”
It was late and everyone else had gone to bed except for him and me and the bartender who sat nursing a drink, waiting to lock the coolers for the night.
Earlier that day I’d ridden a bicycle down to the nearby town and bought some batiks for the folks back home. It was June and almost impossibly hot, but as a Florida boy I didn’t much mind. Until the shop owner took me to the building next door, to see the cloths being made.
No sooner had we stepped inside than sweat began pouring out of me like juice from a squeezed orange. A half dozen women worked the dying tables and sewing machines. He showed me how the wax patterns were applied, how the cloth was dyed, and the wax melted off again.
By the time we walked outside to see the finished fabrics drying in the sun, we both looked like we’d just stepped straight out of the ocean.
So there at the tiki bar, I wondered if this fellow believed he worked harder than any of the women in that shop. Did he believe he worked harder than a coal miner? Than a farmer? Than a young widow pulling two part-time jobs with no bennies to raise three little kids? Or for that matter the fellow at the end of the bar, listening to us yammer and waiting to go home?
My formula for success, I told him, is a little different. It has two parts — a lot of luck, and a lot of help.
First, you have to be lucky. Lucky enough to be born with at least a moderate IQ, in a place where success is possible, and with enough physical health to take advantage of it. Lucky not to fall ill or be maimed or falsely imprisoned or God knows what all else can happen to a person in this world. Without luck, you’re finished.
And no matter who you are, somebody somewhere has given you a hand, offered you a break, shown you some kindness. Nobody makes it on their own.
The role of hard work is simply to keep from squandering your good luck. That’s all. Most people work hard. Only a few are highly successful.
The way I look at it, we’re all just turtles on a beach. The birds and the crabs surround us constantly. And every day, some of us get picked off.
Sure, if you’re fast and strong, you’ve got a better chance of hitting the water. But there ain’t no guarantees. If a seagull gets you in his sights, you’re gone, daddy, gone, and there’s not a thing in the world you can do about it.
Fatalistic? Maybe. But it keeps me paddling. And it keeps me from thinking that I’m something all that special.
You ever hear someone who came through a narrow escape, say from a car crash or a potentially fatal disease, say they thought God had saved them? Makes you wonder what they think the Almighty had against everyone else who didn’t make it.
Because face it, if you view life that way, the inevitable conclusion is that you’re special, that God had some use for you and the others, well, they must have been dispensable. But I just can’t believe that my life is more important than the life of a child killed in a bus crash, or the lives of the parents who have to live with it.
Let’s say it was a million to one shot, and you made it. Does that make you special? Well consider this… how many events do you witness in a day? How many things, from small to large, occur around you. Much more than a million. Millions of times a day, all sorts of events occur which can go the way they usually go or else defy the odds.
Which means million-to-one shots happen all the time. It’s just we don’t notice most of them. It’s only the odd coincidences, those “I can’t believe that just happened” moments that we pay any attention to. But when you think about it, it would only be odd if those crazy things never happened to us at all.
It’s like stock picking. The market is unpredictable. We can’t figure it out even in theory, and if we did, our knowledge of it would feed back into the system and it would become unpredictable yet again.
So what about these superstar fund managers, guys who have winning streaks for three, four, six, even nine or ten years? Do they have a system that works? Nah.
The reason these guys keep cropping up (before inevitably sinking back down to the ranks of the average) is that if enough people trade stocks, the law of averages dictates that a tiny number of them will, just by pure random chance, have streaks. There are literally millions of stock traders in the world. It would only be remarkable if “superstars” didn’t crop up, by pure random chance.
Don’t be fooled. Work won’t get you success. For that, you need lots of luck, and lots of help. Hard work is just what we do to keep that luck from slipping away. And it might just anyhow.
So keep working hard. Let’s just don’t get too cocky about it.