Luck

1971

If you are able to be reading this on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, you are a very, very lucky person. I certainly know I am. Being lucky enough to be born a tall white male in suburban California gave me a head start over the vast majority of the world’s population. Being a long-haired hippie in the late 60’s — early 70’s was culturally unacceptable enough to experience a taste of real discrimination and prejudice from the police (with scars to prove it), but I always knew that I was a mere haircut and change of clothes away from making it all go away. It turned out that a cultural shift made it all go away; the rednecks started wearing their hair long too. But the experience left me with a respect for the difficulty of the lives of those who can’t just make it all go away.

The home of fruit cocktail

My father was a construction worker, my mother a food service worker, the valley I grew up in full of orchards and canneries (the home of canned fruit cocktail!). One obvious path would have been a career in the canneries. My mother was impressed when I got a summer job as a mail carrier. I probably could have gotten on as a permanent USPS employee if I had persisted rather than going back for another year of college at a California state college which was nearly free back in the early 70’s, paid for by my late father’s Social Security benefits.

The Vietnam War was going on while I was in high school and college. I faced the draft. I knew I didn’t want to kill anyone so I applied for conscientious objector status. Only in the gathering of letters of recommendation for my claim did I find out that I had two uncles who had been conscientious objectors during WWII. Both were ministers in the conservative pentecostal church I had been raised in, and I discovered the denomination had a surprising pacifist history. (Well, it had a history of both pacifism and snake handling, so I had no doubts about leaving that church.) The recommendation of my uncle was golden, so I was classified I-O, a conscientious objector. Of course, me being so lucky and all, then the draft lottery was begun and my number in the very first lottery came up 315, meaning that young men with 314 other birthdays would have to be drafted before they got around to me. Lucky me.

NASA/Ames Research Center

That valley I grew up in also just happened to be the valley where Silicon Valley sprang up. Lucky me. How many places in the world could a young person with an unfinished bachelor’s degree in philosophy (it wasn’t all about me making the right choices), three years experience mixing tequila sunrises to loud music, and three beginning computer classes at a community college (including one involving programming punched card equipment with patch panels), be lucky enough to get a paid internship at NASA?

The lamp has been good to me

Sure, I worked hard, but opportunities to work hard at rewarding work kept falling into my lap. Career stepping-stones kept falling into place in front of me, from NASA, through long-forgotten Silicon Valley startups, to Sun Microsystems, to a 27-year career at Pixar. Each new opportunity required a lot of work and learning of new skills, but so much luck was involved in having those opportunities in the first place. There are a lot of people in the world who work just as hard or harder to cobble together enough scrap materials to build a shelter in a shanty town, or dig a well, or find firewood. The difference between the best shack in the shanty town and my career is all the luck of the draw. It’s easy to forget how lucky we’ve been, and it’s always good to remind ourselves.

These reflections arose on reading this great article about luck at the Atlantic.