The Role of Luck

A friend of mine sent me this memo from Howard Marks, a noted investor and chairman of Oaktree Capital, a global asset management firm. Apparently he is well-known for his client memos in which he writes about investment and economic stuff.

This particular memo is a bit different as it discusses something that is often under-appreciated by the well-to-do: the role of luck in shaping our lives and our careers. I would say that as a general tendency, the more successful you are, the more likely you are to attribute an outsize proportion of that success to your own efforts.

I don’t think that is wrong per se. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle — neither are we completely self-sufficient and self-determining, nor are we drifting vessels pushed about by the vagaries of indecipherable winds.

However, I do commend Mr Marks for broaching this topic. Far too often the highly successful put self-achivement on a pedestal while overlooking or downplaying external factors. Even more problematic are those that make self-achievement the foundation of their worldview. For them, it logically follows that those who are less (or not) successful must be doing something wrong, or not doing enough things right. This has political implications.

Anyway, enough blathering from me. Check out the article for yourself, it’s very well-written with lots of good examples.


Now that we’re on the same page, I have a few random thoughts on the memo:

1. Hard work is still important, obviously. When people come from similarly ‘privileged’ backgrounds and with similar abilities (e.g., top students applying to a prestigious institution, or top candidates applying to a prestigious firm), the deciding factor will be how well-prepared they are.

2. I like how Mr Marks gives examples of moments in time when major shifts were occurring and some people were able to take advantage of it. One way to capitalise on ‘luck’ is having the ability to recognise the opportunities around you. That’s a skill that can be developed, one that betters the odds!

3. A major one from personal experience is having the courage to go for it, once you see an opportunity. “You make your own luck” is kinda true, since the people who seem to lead charmed lives tend to be way more proactive in how they live. In many ways perception is reality. It’s tough because sometimes circumstances (good and bad) outside your control will affect your level of confidence. It’s difficult but doable and certainly very beneficial to ‘train’ yourself to be more courageous.

4. Another major thing is to be humble. Recognise that many events and many people have contributed to shaping who you are and what you have achieved. Admitting that is not a sign of weakness. Rather, for me it is a good reminder that we achieve great things when we are together, and it gives me great motivation to be a positive influence on others.

5. Following on from this, it is good to have compassion for other people. Especially those who, through no fault of their own (or their ‘fault’ is due to various complex factors) do not have it as good as you. And even those who annoy us, who infuriate us, who are unseemly or repulsive to us.

I’m taking a page out of David Foster Wallace here. That dead-eyed checkout chick who can’t even be bothered to look into your eye, and who takes forever to bag your groceries. Maybe she just found out that her father has cancer. Maybe she is catatonic because she is dying inside. That unkempt, black-footed bum splayed across the payment, forcing you to step around him. Maybe he has been beaten and mistreated his whole life, and the only worthwhile thing he has ever done was to run away. Maybe he never had a chance.

Be humble. Don’t be insufferably smug. Be compassionate. Don’t make everything about you. Simple, right?


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