Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Since I started traveling, I have come to feel as though I have two birthdays. There’s my actual birthday in August, and then there’s my traveler’s birthday, today, July 1, the anniversary of the beginning of my peregrinations. In travel years, today I turn four.
And every year around July 1, I feel as though I should have some profound new insight into the meaning of life. I’m not sure I can deliver on that promise this year. But, for a number of reasons, I have been pondering the role that luck plays in our lives.
First it’s because I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. Taleb, the Wall Street trader and essayist who gained celebrity in the wake of the near-collapse of the global economy in 2008, has popularized a number of concepts. One is the “black swan”: an event considered rare and unlikely that nonetheless becomes inevitable given enough time and ultimately has outsized impact. In the same way, if enough monkeys randomly punch keys on typewriters for long enough, eventually one of them will type out Hamlet.
Taleb also popularized an argument illustrating why most supposed financial gurus are full of hot air: Imagine 10,000 new traders arrived on Wall Street at the beginning of 2009. In every ensuing year, suppose that they all executed their trades purely randomly with equal chance of making money or losing money. At the end of 2009 year, half of the traders would have made money and half would have lost money. At the end of 2010, half of those who made money in 2009 would have made money again. And so on each year. As of 2019, then, of the original 10,000 traders, about 10 (10,000 divided by 1,024, which is 2 to the power of 10) would have made money every year in the previous decade.
In real life, those few traders would advertise their unblemished records to their clients, who would believe that they must be financial geniuses, even though in reality each of them just got lucky.
And real-life traders don’t get told that we set up this thought experiment so that they are no better than monkeys before typewriters. Real-life traders, if they happen to have been successful thus far, believe themselves to be financial geniuses. And it’s not because they’re Wall Street people; it’s because they’re people. People always like to believe that they achieve whatever successes they achieve because of their own talent and hard work: “Luck has nothing to do with it,” we like to say.
What’s true on Wall Street is true elsewhere. Where we are successful, we’re beneficiaries of Lady Fortuna; where we fail, we’re victims of cruel fate. History deems certain figures men of destiny. But Alexander the Great almost drowned shortly after beginning his campaign. Barack Obama never would have gotten out of the Illinois State Legislature but for a stroke of good luck.
June included both the anniversary of the death of the travelers’ hero Anthony Bourdain and his birthday. But he was a broke 42-year-old cook and drug addict when, in 1999, the New Yorker magazine published his essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” which catapulted him to stardom.
But how did the New Yorker agree to publish something by an unknown chef? It was because Bourdain’s mother happened to work with the wife of New Yorker editor David Remnick, and Remnick agreed to read the piece passed along to him so as not to be rude to Mrs. Bourdain. Had Remnick been less concerned with social nicety on this particular day, he might never have opened the envelope, and the world would never have known the name of Anthony Bourdain. (In fact, part of Bourdain’s charm came from his appreciation for his own good luck, his recognition that life could have been — perhaps should have been — very different for him.)
None of which is to say that talent isn’t relevant. When Remnick opened the envelope, he found a bracing and hilarious piece of writing. When Alexander faced Darius on the field of battle, he proved himself a great general. Even so, many people are talented; not all of them are lucky. And talent without luck amounts to nothing.
In his short story “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” Mark Twain imagined a parade in Heaven of history’s great writers. “But Shakespeare and the rest,” another character explains to Stormfield, “have to walk behind a common tailor from Tennessee, by the name of Billings; and behind a horse-doctor named Sakka, from Afghanistan.” This Billings “wrote poetry that Homer and Shakespeare couldn’t begin to come up to; but nobody would print it, nobody read it but his neighbors, an ignorant lot, and they laughed at it.”
Our lives are not our own. We are Forrest Gump’s feather buffeted by the wind, landing where it may.
Or as the Bible puts it: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecc. 9:11, KJV.)
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."