"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
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What it Means and Why it Matters, Ed Smith, London, Bloomsbury, 2012. ISBN 978 I 4088 1547 2The book is a reflection on luck, interspersed with incidents from the life and career of the author. It begins with a confession: “I am the least likely person to be writing a book about luck. For most of my life, I haven’t believed in it at all”.
Bizarrely, his dismissal of luck coexisted with obsessive superstition. From his teens right through his cricket career he had routines of things that he did and things that he did not do from walking under ladders to wearing same shirt as last victory. He reckons he asked umpires how many balls were left in an over 15,000 times – although he knew the answer! He describes it as “unintelligent” and “a dependency I found hard to give up.”
He attempts to define luck and chance: “Luck is that which is beyond my control. Winning the lottery is luck. My genes are luck. My parents are a matter of luck. It is luck if an opponent drops a catch when I am batting… A mathematician or a card player will tell you that chance is very different from luck. They use chance to mean probability. If you know the chance of an ace being dealt next, you know the probability. In that sense, chance is not at all synonymous with luck. “
He then suggests that “Chance can mean the same as luck or something very different” before quoting Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility: "The chance proved a lucky one".
In assembling the evidence against luck, he notes that: “It is quite a broad church, then, this anti-luck constituency. It numbers among its congregation an extraordinary range of people and professions – Victorian self-help authors, New Age positive thinkers, religious literalists, derivatives traders”.
He cites a number of incidents from life and history:
• The Discovery of penicillin;
• Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA;
• Churchill surviving a potentially fatal car crash before becoming Prime Minister;
• A friend having a heart-attack in a room with a trained paramedic;
• A man who survived a fall when his parachute failed;
• A batsman scoring 100 to win a game or save his career, after being dropped;
• Meeting a woman of a train neither planned to catch who later became Mrs Smith;
• Golf’s hole in one.
and asks if the life-changing event can best be called luck, chance, co-incidence etc.
There is a fascinating analysis of the rise and fall of Lehmans. When the company was making money, Smith suggests, it was attributed to the skill of CEO. When they were in financial meltdown it was due to(bad) luck.
The airman whose parachute failed to open is a Christian and sees his escape as a blessing from God. The man with the heart-ache struggles when a friend attributes his recovery to God. Ed Smith is sceptical on both counts.
There is an interesting discussion of the need for luck in sport. He quotes AP McCoy, "You need luck to win the Grand National; You need the horse in front of you not to fall” and argues that the element of luck and unpredictability is part of the reason people love the Grand National. From this he extrapolates a way of making tennis more interesting: “If you wanted to reduce the chances of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal winning every tennis tournament, what could be more efficient than making them play on such an uneven court when half the players in the tournament (randomly selected) had to retire through injury? That would be a pretty effective leveller”.
While not really pertinent to the main argument, Smith disagrees with Matthew Syed’s thesis that talent is over-rated, with opportunity and preparation being more significant. Smith believes that as athletes trained harder and identically, there will, in future, be more scope for talent to be the deciding factor. He writes: “My own experience convinces me that innate ability certainly exists, I played professional cricket with and against players who I thought were simply more talented than I was. What do I mean by that? You learn a lot about pure talent when you watch sportsmen try out new disciplines”. If you have bought into Syed’s thesis, the book is worth reading for this alone!
The following conclusion towards the end might be said to sum up the book's conclusions: “Sometimes something bad must happen before something good can happen. Breaking my ankle was that lucky break. And if I hadn’t broken my ankle, I wouldn’t have about luck in the way that I now do. I wouldn’t have realized that conscious decisions and choices – in which I’d always placed such deep faith – are infinitely vulnerable to circumstances beyond our control, I wouldn’t have grownup. And I wouldn’t have written this book.”
A thoughtful book. Well worth reading.