I’m going to take a sequential break from the Bozeman Check-in process (have no fear they shall continue uninterrupted) to discuss something I’ve been thinking about recently.
Chance, Luck, and Effort.
These three words both are – and are not – as related as they might initially seem, and I’ll explain why in a moment, but first let me discuss why I’ve been thinking about the long series of events that got me to where I am today.
I’ll preface this by saying that it’s no secret that I am not a religious person and I do not believe in fate. I am a spiritual person, for sure, and I have always agreed with what the Dali Lama said when I had the opportunity to see him speak which was “One does not need religion to be spiritual.” I think truer words are rarely spoken, and that was probably the one thing he said that has always stuck with me (the other was a story about a man imprisoned by the Chinese).
So, I give that frame of reference as I way of saying that I don’t think that there is some cosmic plan wherein each and everything thing that happens in your life is part of some deity’s precise and specific timeline for you. That said, I think there is a bit more to “chance” and “luck” than simple mathematical odds. What these extra-ordinary – some would say spiritual – elements are, I can’t say for sure, but they are something in which I do believe and I believe they are fiercely intertwined with “effort.”
What spurred this thought process is that a few have people recently commented on how “lucky” I am. A harmless enough statement, presumably said with good intentions. However, my initial reaction to it was anger. Yes, vain as that may seem, I didn’t feel as though I was lucky, I felt as though I had busted my ass to get where I was – and it is true, I’ve worked very hard to get where I am. Yet, I don’t think that it is untrue that luck and chance has favored me in many ways.
As an example, consider a “Plinko” board.
You insert your disk (or ball, but I’m going to references disks henceforth) at the top of the board, and from there the pegs change the disk’s course multiple times before it finally reaches the bottom of the board. Once you’ve released the disk, its pattern is seemingly out of your control, and thus the pivotal decision is where you start the disk, as that determines how the disk enters the board. I sort of view the flow of life as a giant Plinko board. The start of life is the top of the board, and the end of life is the bottom of the board, while all the pegs represent life events. “Luck” is found by entering the board in a good position. For instance, you may start life with people who know the board well, who’ve seen the layout of the pegs, and who can guide you in placing your own disk. To be “unlucky” is to enter the board with no such guidance or support (material or emotional). Of course this does not mean that the end can’t be good for those with a poor start, it simply means that the start is far from equal.
But once the disk starts to fall, pinging and ponging from one peg to the next, luck follows – but it’s no longer purely luck, there are elements of chance and effort as well – for as the disk falls we have two options. We can either idly sit by and watch as the disk plummets, bouncing and zigzagging, or – we can pound our fists against the board: just the right amount of force at just the right time at just the right angle – to change, if ever so slightly, the course of the disk. And it is here that what may superficially appear to be “Luck” is in actuality a great deal of hard-won effort. See, the “Lucky” will have started the board in an idle position, and needn’t bloody their knuckles to change the course of the disk. While the truly “Unlucky” may break their hands before the disk changes course – if it ever does. But, to the outsider watching that disk fall, it may not be obvious just how much toil resulted in the present path of the disk. To a passerby the disk may look to be falling in the ideal path, and so that passerby may simply assume that the player is gifted with luck – though in actuality the player’s hands may be tattered and full of splinters. Likewise, there are those whose disk will move from beginning to end, hitting every point with perfection, and that player will have never even needed to touch the board. The thing is, you cannot immediately tell the difference between the two boards, not unless you’ve taken the time to see the player’s hands.
So, in some regards, I am lucky – chance has favored me. But at the same time, my hands bear the signs of a great deal of effort, my board position did not come easy, and my disk will only maintain its path with even further amounts of effort. My final position may be a good one, but luck will only have been a part of my game.
But “luck” is not entirely synonymous with “chance” in my metaphor. “Luck” implies a pre-determined position that favors the player, while “chance” is that critical moment when the disk hits the peg where your action or inaction, all your effort and strength and skill, are weighed against “chance.” For instance, even the player who works their hardest, who tries valiantly and skillfully to divert the disk’s course, may fall victim to chance and the disk may not respond. In essence, chance is the gamble you take, the battle you fight, when you seek to alter the path of the disk, and while chance is tempered by luck, the fact is that unlike luck, chance is something that you can affect. This is in part because chance is not static. The board does not consist of one peg, it consists of innumerable pegs and as a result, the decision you make as your disk encounters one peg echoes throughout the rest of your life as you encounter further pegs. This means that those “pivotal moments” in life may be traced in some regards to luck, but are arguably even more influenced by you effort and decisions and how they have impacted chance.
Therefore, at the end of the game, where your disk comes to rest – be it in a good or bad position – is not solely dependent on luck, but is instead dependent on luck, chance, and effort. Just as the “lucky” may ruin their good position, so too may the “unlucky” create a good position for themselves. The two games are scarcely equal in difficulty, but the end results may ultimately be the same.
In many ways this is similar to the philosophy of Robert Louis Stevenson, who made the famous quote “Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well,” or, if you want to go further back, to the wisdom of Voltaire who said that “We are all dealt a hand and we have to decide how to play it.”
I’ve just been a bit more novel by using a Plinko board, but in many ways the ideologies are the same. Some are lucky, some are unlucky, but we all have choices and we can all exert effort – I do not mean to say that the playing board is far – fo it is not as the “lucky” generally do not wish to share in their luck, but there is a game to be played, and no one but the player can make the decision to quit and simply let the disk fall as it may.
SO, philosophical ramblings aside, I want to revisit a series of “Pegs” in my life, and look at how luck, chance, and effort have played. I won’t explicitly list each of this trio for each event, as that is largely a matter of interpretation. Instead, I’ll simply revisit the extremely interesting, and in some instances unlikely, series of events that brought me to the present. This is of course, an EXTREMELY abridged version, as one would need to go back to the beginning of my Plinko board to see everything – and even further, the “pegs” below only represent a fraction of the applicable pegs, but I feel as though even this limited number of pegs showcases how expansive the fall of a disk can be.
–> 10 odd years ago I answered a phone call from a friend. He asked me if I wanted to go hang out with another friend who I hadn’t spoken to in over a year. Because I decided to actually answer my phone that day – which is rare and you’ll know this if you’ve ever tried calling me – I met SB. Plinko.
–> Because I met SB, I ended up returning to Purdue. While this may have happened anyways, I honestly am unsure, and in any event, SB’s path solidified my own return to the university. Plinko.
–> At Purdue I was one of 15 people to get into a highly sought-after course which was about wenches, pirates, heretics, witches, etc. in Colonial America and was taught by a former NFL player (who also had a PhD). Part of this course, really the bulk of it as the course was a research seminar, involved writing a research paper. The course was held in a smallish room which had a big round meeting table that everyone sat at. When it came time to declare our topics, the Professor started to his left, and since I was just two seats to his right, that meant that I was second to last to declare a topic. The Professor had strongly urged us not to have duplicate topics, since we’d all be presenting our work and also because he had to read all the papers. I wasn’t too concerned, because I had an awesome topic picked about William Kidd (more commonly known as Captain Kidd) the famous pirate. I was going to contrast his actual life against the classic sea-shanty song “Captain Kidd.” I had pretty much the entire paper planned out in my head, and it was going to be awesome. Of course I’m a cautious planner, so I had this super vague contingency plan involving the “male witches” of the Salem trial, who had largely been ignored by historians in favor of the accused females. It was literally a two sentence note I made to myself.
Well, as the circle moved towards me – and the topics weren’t that impressive to be frank – I got pretty pumped. Then, the kid right next to me chose William Kidd as his topic. Sure, his approach was mundane, but it his core topic was the same person. “You can’t be f*cking serious” – I clearly remember thinking that exact phrase, except that it wasn’t censored in my brain. So, desperate to not piss of the Professor (and this dude had a savage temper, he once EXPLODED on a kid and physically lead him out of class) I jumped down to my two sentence chicken-scratch notes about the men of the Salem trials.
Well, those two sentences turned into the highest scoring research paper in the class – the only 100/100. Plinko.
–> After that class I was really on board with becoming a history professor. Since I was gung-ho academia, I enrolled in what is generally considered to be the most difficult course (outside of the Honor’s Program – which I had no intention of joining) in the entire history department: a class about the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War which was taught by a professor with quite a reputation. He was colloquially known as everything from a “f*cking asshole” to “Hitler” to “the worst professor in the world.” Most of this stemmed from his extreme willingness to give people Fs and that he seemed to expect graduate-level work from stupid (including me) undergraduates. The dude was an iron wall of intellect and savage assholery, there is no better way to describe him. This class also involved competitive elements, in that pretty much your entire grade involved how well you “discussed” the readings (which were massive), and then at the end of the semester you had a research paper + a group project (with the people you’ve been competing against all semester no less). It was an insane amount of work for an undergraduate course, and the professor ran that fine line between “high expectation professor” and “unnecessarily cruel old man.” It was in this course that I was told that I was a “terrible” writer – amongst other things, and where I also had my work routinely compared to garbage and meaningless fluff. I got the worst grade of my post-secondary life (B- if you were curious) on that research paper – a paper I had poured weeks into – and it was so covered in red ink that I couldn’t even make out half of the critiques.
But, I’ll say this; it was the best damn course I took at Purdue. While the professor was a dick in many ways, he was also extraordinarily smart. I learned so much from him that in most ways I give him more credit than I do all the classes I took before or after his. I went to his office hours almost weekly – which wasn’t hard since most students either feared him, or loathed him (but not in Las Vegas) and therefore he normally wasn’t hard to catch. And yes, even when he destroyed my paper I immediately went to his office and asked why – and he told me. See, this professor did what most others did not; he viewed me for the potential he saw, not for where I was. He meticulously tested me as if I was already at a place like Harvard, and he did so without the mercy that many undergraduates were accustomed to. As a result, nearly one-half, yes one-half of that class failed. Have you ever heard of any undergraduate or even graduate class that fails nearly one-half of the students? This professor did, because he did not make exceptions or have time for excuses. The result of this class was that I learned a lot about not only history, but also about myself.
I learned that I absolutely did not want to have anything to do with academia after all, and while I learned that my writing really needed to improve (and improve it did) I also learned that when it came to speaking that I had at some point gained an extraordinary talent that even this professor – he who generally found everything lacking – marveled at. It was this class that changed my course away from academia as a career. It was also this class where I decided to pursue the Honor’s Program. See, for all his dislike of my writing, the professor also saw the potential in it, and further, he saw me as more than just my paper he saw me as the best student in the class discussions [I was one of the top two grades in the class, the only two As, and I oddly enough shared it with someone – who is extremely smart – who did amazingly well at writing, but poorly at speaking – two sides of a coin I guess we were]. So, it was this professor who urged me to apply for the Honor’s Program, and since he was the one who had originally started it, I figured he would know as good as any as to whether I was cut out for it.
But here is the thing, I almost dropped this class. The first day of the semester it was pouring rain and the stupid bus never showed up (which was pathetically common). I was also really dreading the class at the time due to all the horror stories I’d heard. So, in a moment of disgruntled panic, I opened up my class sheet in Purdue’s system, and clicked the check mark next to the class the drop it. I sat there for a good 30 seconds, and then for some reason decided that I’d just bike to class and get soaked, which I did. I think part of me didn’t like the idea of “quitting.” So I didn’t – and I showed up to class late and saw that savage disdain in the professor’s eyes, a disdain which would later be all but forgotten. Still, had I dropped that class, I’d never had encountered this professor (my own Mr. Collins – true and true), my writing would have never improved, I may not have ever realized my speaking talents, and I certainly would have never joined the Honor’s Program. Plinko.
–> But I didn’t drop the class, and so I did join the Honor’s Program, which was small, competitive to get into, and also had very high expectations, including eating up a year of your schedule and also requiring an honor’s thesis to graduate. When considering my thesis topic I bounced around a few ideas before deciding to revisit that paper about witches I’d done back in the research seminar. Had ended up with Captain Kidd, I’d never would have had a “witch” topic to revisit in the first place. The program director didn’t like the idea, stating that “everything about colonial witches had been done.” Turns out she was quite wrong. Plinko.
–> In addition to the program director, you also take on a “Mentor” and a “Second Reader” for your thesis. My research seminar professor was very willing to be a Second Reader – since he had enjoyed my first paper so much, but didn’t want to invest the time to be a Mentor (he was retiring soon). As a result, by chance I was shunted into the lap of the history department’s one legal historian. See, Purdue has no law school, no pre-law program, no real law influences of any kind (save for a really small “pre-law” group, and a singular “law advisor” who only does that in addition to traditional advising and who generally considers schools such as IU to be the “best hope” for her advisees). So, when I saw the one legal historian, I’m also effectively saying the one legal person – period. At this point my thesis wasn’t really legal in nature – but that soon changed. Plinko.
–> Under my Mentor’s guidance the thesis became legal, and I transitioned from an historian to a legalist. The mentor was not a lawyer, she had never gone to law school, she was a legal scholar external to the system, but she knew the system. She was the first person to ask me about law school. Admittedly even she didn’t realize where I’d end up (of course no one did – including yours truly), but she also didn’t sugar coat anything about the law. She was very real, but she, again, saw potential. When it was all said and done, I ended up with one of few A+ grades in the Honor’s Programs history – and at risk of being a braggart – pretty much stole the show at the honor’s forum. My thesis also ended up winning a handful of awards. I had multiple professors, including the only who had originally said my thesis was a “bad idea,” urge me to pursue academia and publish the thesis. I told them no, because it wasn’t what I wanted to do. But the thing was, the thesis wasn’t done with me yet, and for something which had started as two sentences on a piece of paper, it was going to pay huge dividends. Plinko.
–> When applying to law school, the interviewers were profoundly interested in my thesis. It seemed like “witchcraft” – especially in those areas outside of Salem (which are the areas which eventually became the real bulk of my thesis) and legal drama were two things that people just couldn’t get enough of. Then, the icing on the cake came when my interviewer at Harvard mentioned that she was descended from one of the accused in Salem and she seemed genuinely interested in the details I was able to share with her, details which by her own admission she had never heard before even in her own family histories. While I don’t think that singular detail resulted in my acceptance (for example I was also accepted to Stanford, which didn’t interview me) – it most certainly did not hurt. But think, what are the chances of not only everything that had happened thus far, but also that my interviewer would be descended from one of the people I’d studied? When I matriculated one of the first things SB and I did was visit Salem and Danvers. Plinko.
–> Once in law school I was busy being a petrified 1L, but not too busy to partake in a “Pumpkin Carving” event being put on by the Environmental Law Society. I generally don’t like social events, but I like carving pumpkins, so I went. While at the event – which was the school’s pub, since what isn’t better than knives and alcohol – I ended up sitting next to a guy who was there with his wife and kid. If you know me, you’ll know I hate kids, but I decided to sit next to him because the kid was dressed as a pumpkin and was cute, and also because it was the closest table to the beer tickets. It turns out that this guy was incredibly nice, and our chat led to us discussing his home of Denver, Colorado. That conversation led to him recommending me to his former summer boss, and that recommendation got me an interview with the DOJ in Denver, which got me the job. Plinko.
–> While working at the DOJ in Denver, I had three fellow interns. One of them was from New Mexico. In a passing conversation I mentioned an interest in Santa Fe (her home town). She told me if I had a chance I should go and to let her know if I had any questions. The following academic year I got into an extremely competitive clinic that places students in State AG offices all over the country. I told the professor (a former AG himself) that I wanted to go to New Mexico; he said he’d get me an interview. It took a while but New Mexico finally agreed to give the Harvard kid an interview. The attorney who interviewed me ended up knowing the intern I had worked with last summer in Denver. In fact, one of her kids had played soccer with the intern when they were younger and the attorney was good friends with the family. This connection drastically changed the tone of the interview, and from that point forward I was welcomed with open arms in what is an otherwise professionally-xenophobic community. [There was also a HLS grad working in the AG’s office who got SB and I a sweet discount on his aunt’s hotel in Taos]. The intern even picked me up from the airport, showed me around town, and then later I got to meet her dad and a swarm of New Mexican politicians for lunch. My supervisor didn’t actually have work for me when she hired me, but she made work because she wanted to give me the opportunity. The work she ended up fitting me into involved methane regulations. Plinko.
–> When I returned to the environmental law clinic at HLS in the spring, I was placed on a project based on the work I’d done in New Mexico, and the supervisor for this clinical project just so happened to be a former attorney for my current summer employer. As a result, he put me in touch with a lot of current employees, to the point that I was known in several offices before I even set foot in the door. He also helped tailor my clinical projects in a way that would be beneficial for priming me for this summer. It’s worked so far, as my work has been very well received. And although this is a small office, three of the attorneys actually went to law school together (despite not knowing each other beforehand). While in law school, they all had the same professor for a few classes, who they really came to have a close relationship with. After law school, all three of them eventually found their way to this office, again without each other knowing about the others’ plans. And now, next year the professor they all had will be a visiting Professor at Harvard, and I’ve signed up for his class. He is also running a briefing project (too legalese to explain here) and the attorneys are going to contact him to recommend he take me on as a member of the project (of course I haven’t definitively decided I’ll do it yet, but still – it’s the option). Which pretty much brings us to this moment. Plinko.
And that is just one story that has unfolded on my board of life, as I mentioned before, the twists and turns of a disk are vast beyond imagination. I simply use a small portion of one story of one life to display the wonderful possibilities of three things I call chance, luck, and effort.
Until next time,