Luck: What it Means and Why it Matters, by Ed Smith, Bloomsbury, RRP £16.99, 245 pages
All his life Ed Smith expected to play cricket for England. He always achieved what he wanted – a first class degree from Cambridge, acclaim for his writing – and in 2003 England picked him. With more luck, he might still have been in the team today. But in his third test match, just when he needed to prove himself after a couple of poor performances, an umpire wrongly gave him out for a low score. “With today’s rules,” writes Smith in this delightful and illuminating book, “I would be able to review the decision and would be recalled. Not then. I trudged back to the pavilion and never played for England again.” In 2008 he broke an ankle, was wrongly diagnosed, and had to retire from cricket. He now writes full time.
Bad luck equipped Smith to write Luck. The book, his fourth, subverts the classic successful person’s autobiography: it recounts his life, and the lives of others, with the luck put back in. A series of anecdotes, interviews and reflections on luck, the book is an excellent corrective to the rising belief that we control our own destinies.
Smith used to dismiss luck himself. “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,” are his opening lines. Like most successful people – who have invariably been lucky – he preferred to ascribe his successes to merit alone. He played for a Kent team that banned the phrase “bad luck” from the dressing-room.
However, Smith eventually came to consider luck “the most important idea I’d ever confronted”. Now his heroes are the ancient Greeks, who “were obsessed with the concepts of luck and fate”. He believes we are losing their wisdom. He quotes Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the Commonwealth: “Modernity is the transition from fate to choice.” Smith sees luck going out of fashion in fields from finance through professional sport to self-help books.
“You make your own luck,” says the new wisdom. You can do anything if you want it enough – even beat cancer, according to the cyclist Lance Armstrong. (The logical corollary is that if the cancer beats you, it may be your fault, not bad luck.) Popular authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Matthew Syed and Dan Coyle have recently diminished the luck of the genes: innate talent, they say, doesn’t matter much. Gladwell argues in Outliers that success is mostly a matter of practice.
Smith retorts that however hard you work, luck is central to life. Indeed, luck precedes life. “Safely retired”, in his words, he can see how his career was built on luck. First, the luck of talent is becoming more important, not less. Smith persuasively argues that as the best training methods spread worldwide, and all the best sportsmen train equally well, natural gifts will determine who wins. In the 1980s Ivan Lendl became tennis’s number one because he trained hardest. Twenty years later, when everyone was training hard, Roger Federer triumphed because he was born the most gifted.
Talent can, however, be trumped by the luck of nurture. Smith grew up playing sport with his more talented older sister. Though he doesn’t say it, that was luck: throughout childhood he had to raise his game to beat her. He then went to Tonbridge private school, where he perfected his batting on perfect fields, while she went to state school, where there was little money for sport. Smith sums up: “I received the best sporting education money can buy. I played cricket for England. She didn’t play for any team in any sport ever again.” He shows that in our era England’s best cricketers, rugby players and other elite athletes disproportionately come from private schools. Half the UK’s gold medallists at the last Olympics were privately educated, compared with seven per cent of the population.
This fits the general trend away from meritocracy in the UK and US, where the best jobs increasingly go to a self-perpetuating elite. As Smith notes: “The language of self-determination has increased – social mobility, self-help, making your own luck. But that aspiration is not reflected in reality.”
Then there are the moments of luck, good and bad, which shape careers, lives and history. Smith tells the story of two car accidents in 1931: Winston Churchill was run over by the unemployed mechanic Mario Contasino in New York, and Adolf Hitler, allegedly at least, hit by the red Fiat of Englishman John Scott-Ellis in Munich. By chance, both victims survived. But history is written with hindsight, which tends to make events seem inevitable. It is also usually written by winners like Churchill, who tend to underplay luck.
Planning, too, usually overestimates human control of events. After all, you rarely hear of chief executives making votive offerings or dancing under totem poles. They write five-year plans instead. Smith smarts at “the ghastly fad for mission statements and ‘blue-sky thinking’ ”. Instead, he believes, companies and people should think of themselves as constantly adapting to unforeseen circumstances: “Successful people, by being open to opportunity and exposing themselves to chance, take new directions that prove more fruitful than anyone could have predicted.” For instance, the company 3M once invented a bad glue. It lay on a shelf for six years, until an employee used it to fix a problem “with flapping hymn-book pages”. Gradually, the Post-it note emerged. Smith writes: “But it was only when Post-its were given to their secretaries that 3M realised they had discovered a phenomenon – by mistake.”
Smith is a born raconteur. He describes encounters with James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, with a 94-year-old RAF pilot who somehow wasn’t killed in the war, and with a man who improbably survived a massive heart attack. Even when dealing with weighty ideas, Smith writes the lightest prose. Just occasionally the ideas themselves are light: after all, the notion that luck matters will startle only a few self-help writers and sports coaches. Sometimes the book is merely a string of good anecdotes, perfectly told. Yet perhaps that is enough.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist