Luck (and Presistence)

I was chatting with a coworker about luck and I was directed to a commencement speech that talks about it in some depth. When we shed our rockstar costumes, and our ninja suits we’re all just people underneath. Many of us are gifted for sure, some more than others, but usually we can find people who worked just as hard us, and continue to work just as hard and are even smarter than we are, but they end up in a different place.

As a parent of a young child I get to study unending persistence and see that, no my son is not born with the ability to move from point A to point B, but like most children, he keeps trying. He sets a goal and he goes for it. At age 2 he’s just begun to master jumping. He just keeps at it, squatting down very low and then standing up very quickly. Somewhere during these trials you see a foot leave the ground–and then you see both feet leave the ground. It’s a motor skill most of us take for granted, but watching it not exist and seeing it later exist is fascinating.

I find myself being similarly tenacious with software engineering. I am given puzzles. I don’t always have the right solution, but I have a variety of things that I can try that might fix the problem. I keep applying them until something works. There’s also an urgency driven by some mild form of imposter syndrome–I’ve faked my way to my current station. All previous achievements were not really as great as they seemed. So if I don’t prove myself amongst my colleagues quickly I’ll be exposed as a fraud.

But I know it’s not just hard work. I think a great deal of luck has helped me have a great personal and professional life. Let’s clarify with a basic example:

  • Smart is refinancing a loan when rates are low so you can pay less over the life of the loan. There’s a mathematical equation involved it’s all about numbers. A good mortgage broker will tell you whether this is a good idea or not.
  • Luck is being able to lock in a ridiculously low interest rate, saving you hundreds on a 30 year loan.

I have an awesome family. If we turn back the clock, I can distinctly remember my future-wife spelling out that she’s been hitting on me. Here’s an excellent example where I was being very socially clueless, but I was lucky enough to have someone spell things out for me. We now have awesome kid. But this would have been a much different story if Katie had decided to give up on me.

Professionally, I really like making things. I self-taught myself a lot of things, but getting anywhere has been luck. I was somehow selected to speak at a conference for a framework that was using and therefore I ended up working on one of my favorite web sites. During said conference someone had mentioned that Django was a great framework. So while working at Yahoo! (on, I learned python on the side. I then joined Mozilla (a chain reaction of luck brought me there) and turned it into a Django shop (with the help of some persistent coworkers whom I was lucky to have).

My point isn’t to dismiss hard-work or even being smart. Those are often pre-requisites to get where you need to go. My point is that sometimes you end up in interesting and exciting places because of chance. Remembering this is what tempers my boastfulness.