On luck

I’m a programmer, and I think I’ve worked hard to get to where I am today. I think that my decisions have played a large role in the outcomes of things that have happened in my life. I have spent a lot of time on learning to do what I do, and in improving my ability in doing it. You could say, in some ways, I’m a study in self-determination.

I’m also hugely empathetic towards the struggles of others and the difficulties people face in their lives. I think a large part of what happens to you throughout your life is independent of your own actions, and that we’re all products of our environment. I’m a proponent of strong social safety nets, and of low-cost health care, and high inheritance taxes. I try very hard to forgive the mistakes people have made in their lives, and not to make pariahs out them. I’m against strict criminal sentencing laws, and generally think the US is far too punitive in how it punishes people. I believe that humans are constrained by environmental factors outside of their control, and that those things have a much larger effect on everyone’s outcomes than they’d like to believe.

This two things might seem incongruous to some. How can I be someone who’s worked so hard for my achievements, yet say that I think we’re all largely shaped by factors outside of our control? Do I not feel that I’ve earned what I’ve achieved?

Your ability to take the risk in starting a business, or to even have the luxury of time enough to think of a business idea, is predicated on you having a certain amount of economic security. I feel like I have lots of things to do, and I never have time to do things like even write this blog. I can’t imagine how little time I would have if I had to work more than job, or got paid minimum wage, and had to worry about where my next paycheck or meal was going to come from.

I’ve worked hard to learn to program computers, to read all the books I’ve read, and generally to become the person I am today. I also know what played an even larger role in my ability to program is pure luck. I was blessed with a family that was middle-class enough that we had computers when I was young, and I was lucky in having been born right at the time computers were invented. If I had been born 100 years earlier, all of the skills I have, and all my tendencies towards intellectual capabilities, may have been far less useful. I also had no choice in being born a male, or in being white, or in being born in a first world country. I could go on, there’s an infinite list of things completely outside of my control that played just as large a part in defining me today.  I’m certainly not minimizing the hard work I put in to achieve these things, but I also recognize that the hard work was far from enough to make it happen on its own. I have no confidence in the belief that I could have been born in any time, as any race, as any particular gender, and with parents of any particular economic status, and have had things turn out as well as they did.

How can I can be a supporter of things that seem, on a personal level, to be against my own interests? Why do I support higher taxes, strong social safety nets, free education, and affirmative action, as just a few examples? I support those things because I try to remind myself, on a regular basis, how different my life could have been with just a few small tweaks, with the roll of the die turning out slightly different. I try, in the same way that some religious people try to remember to thank God for what they’ve been given, to remember all the things that I have been given. I hope that you, if you’re reading this, spend a few minutes thinking about all of the things that are out of your control, that you were lucky to receive, and that made you who you are.

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