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Chris Peterson SM '13

Jun 5, 2012

Fortune Favors

Posted in: Miscellaneous

Earlier today I read Michael Lewis' remarkable remarks at the Princeton 2012 Commencement. His address was entitled "Don't Eat Fortune's Cookie."

Lewis, an art history major at Princeton, is a famous journalist and author. You may have seen Moneyball, the movie based on his eponymous book. Lewis first became famous writing Liar's Poker, a memoir of his time working at the derivatives desk at Salomon Brothers during the run-up to the S&L crisis.

Here's what Lewis had to say about the path to his success:

I was 28 years old. I had a career, a little fame, a small fortune and a new life narrative. All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer. This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? Of having parents who didn't disinherit me but instead sighed and said "do it if you must?" Of having had that sense of must kindled inside me by a professor of art history at Princeton? Of having been let into Princeton in the first place?
 

This isn't just false humility. It's false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don't want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives.

There's a lot of other good things Lewis has to say (seriously, go read it). But I wanted to hone in on the point he made here, because it's absolutely true.

A few weeks ago I was talking to my dad about my job - this job - and how much I loved it. I told him how lucky I felt to had the opportunity to do it. My dad, in his dadlike way, corrected me, kindly but sternly: I was not lucky, he said, for I had worked hard, very hard, for a long time.

Both of these things were true. Working hard and being lucky are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are both necessary conditions for any kind of success. If you want to achieve anything in life, you need to both work hard and be fortunate.

This is the point I tried to make in my blog post Life is Improv last year for the commencement of the Class of 2011. And it's echoed in the advice I received from shared from Ben Jones in Elizabeth's post last week:

You can't plan your life out ahead of time. But if you just try to always make the best decision, your life will later read back as making sense, even if you didn't see it that way going in.
 

There's a constant feedback loop between fortunate and hard work, and it goes something like this: if you are fortunate, you are positioned such that, if you work hard, you can achieve some success. And if you achieve some success, you may find yourself fortunately positioned such that...and on and on.

Fortune is out of our control, but it doesn't drop out of the sky, puppet strings controlled by the twitchy fingers of the Fates. Some fortune comes from material circumstances: someone with a lot of privilege might not precisely have everything handed to them, but they still may be playing the game of life on the lowest difficulty setting there is.

Other fortune comes from serendipity, like my story about meeting the girl I dated through most of college through a weird chain of events that started with a college riot neither of us attended, or the fact that, one day as I was scanning through job listings on Indeed.com, this position happened to come up on the screen.

Most people can't do much about the material conditions into which they were born. But most people can do something about the fortune which arises through serendipity.

One thing I've learned about serendipitous fortune over the years is that you have to make space for it to grow and flourish. This kind of luck doesn't strike like a bolt of lightning from the blue. It grows tentatively from a small seed. The soil in which it takes root is constituted of the moments you make for it to do so.

In a few days, the Class of 2012 will graduate from MIT. In a few months, the Class of 2016 will register for their first classes at MIT.

Here's a piece of advice for you: don't work too hard.

Don't misunderstand me. You should work hard. You must work hard. Just not too hard.

See, many MIT students (or people who would be / were once MIT students) have the opposite problem of most people, which is that instead of not working hard enough, they work too hard. Too hard, that is, to ever take a step back from what they are doing to allow the space for good fortune to flourish.

Sometimes it's hard to take a step back. This is why I warn my freshman advisees against getting on "the treadmill." "The treadmill" is the straightest path through MIT. It means doing the basic classes that everyone takes, not doing anything but your classes, doing all the sexiest internships (and not the ones which are interesting or different or that you'd like to do and learn from), and then going straight into the highest paying job you can find because it's there.

This is where the "work hard" vs "be lucky" formulation skews too heavily towards the former. If all you do is keep your head down and work hard, then you will be so blindered by your work that you will never be able to look around and see what opportunities are out there. If you are always too busy to do anything but what you're working on right now, then you will miss the random things that will change your life. Most importantly, you will miss the random encounters with people - be they future bosses or future lovers - who will change your life for the better.

It can be hard to avoid the treadmill, especially if you are someone who takes pride (and solace) in hard work.

If you're an incoming freshman who wants to avoid the treadmill: go read 50 Things. Make a list. Check them off as you go along.

If you're a graduating senior: the real world is here. Dive in. Enjoy it all.

If you're anyone in particular: always remember to reserve time for the three Fs - friends, family, and fortune.

Good luck.

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