I hear the low whirring of an engine, and as I write this there’s a small vibration below my feet, reminding me of the fact that I’m on a ferry crossing the English Channel from Dover to Calais. For many centuries this stretch of sea was the undeniable advantage that offered the British Isles impunity from any threat on the continent. Over time, there were many conquerors that tried to conquer Europe, but they simply couldn’t get past the sea and the so called “wooden wall”, which consisted of top of the line British ships that zealously guarded the waters. Tried as they might, this was the stretch of territory that they simply couldn’t cross.
Among the most famous of these conquerors is by far Napoleon – a man who emerged from the chaos of the French Revolution, and crowned himself Emperor, having been born in little more than poverty. This was a man who broke conventions in everything, he couldn’t even speak French properly as his first language was Italian. This was a man who, according to legend, in one of his first battles in Italy when his troops were about to retreat, grabbed the French banner, ran across a bridge where people were being mowed down left right and centre, and gave the soldiers courage to rush into battle and break the enemy’s morale in the process. At one point or another he ceased to be a man, and became a force of nature – terrorising kings, and charming countesses into his bed.
These sorts of stories build up a legend, but in the process we forget there ever was a person, like you and me. He’s become a myth, much in the same way as King Arthur and his Knights. The Napoleon you don’t much hear about is the shy, awkward Napoleon who was bullied at school, got rebuffed again and again by women, then got cheated on, and who’d considered committing suicide as his life wasn’t leading anywhere. In time, he learned how to solve these issues, and become one of the most extraordinary people that have ever existed.
Some people would chuck it up to luck, and were you to have a conversation with him he’d likely agree with you. When his field marshals suggested new promising generals, who were more than intelligent and capable, he’d stare at them quizzically, say that was all fine and good, but asked them whether they were lucky in their lives. Napoleon was one who furiously believed in destiny, and who believed he had a lucky star. It might thus seem that Napoleon had a horribly fatalistic view of life, you’re either meant for greatness or you’re not.
That said, leaving it at that is somewhat dishonest. Napoleon also said something along the lines of “Luck is the by-product of genius”. In other words, Napoleon believed luck was a skill. You might be handed good or bad cards from the deck of life, but it is up to you to learn how to properly use them as best as possible. Surprisingly, this assertion is actually backed up by evidence. Take the idea of being rich, in the book The Millionaire Next Door it says that most USA millionaire households are first generation, meaning that the majority of rich households are self made millionaires, and this wealth mostly evaporates after the second or third generation. In other words, most households in the US with an excess net worth of $1,000,000 got that during one lifetime, and the heirs of these vast estates completely erode the fortunes they inherit, because they’re spendthrifts. A good percentage of people you see with luxury cars, and fancy houses are not rich, and are probably in a lot of debt. Usually, rich people are the ones who save money and don’t actually seem to be rich. The dynasties of “old money”, as most people assume the “1%” to be, almost barely exist and the ones that do, continue to exist because of deliberate planning on the parent’s side. An example of this would be the Rothschilds, who have been around for the last few hundred years. The father of the dynasty took great care in establishing their legacy, and one would argue that most important members of that dynasty have been successful in keeping that vision – and even then they’re nowhere near as powerful as they once were.
We could thus say that the initially lucky have a high propensity of losing the initial benefits this luck brought about, when given a long enough time, if they don’t have the skill to warrant that situation. Furthermore, there was study a couple of years ago that sought to prove that luck was a skill. As such, it gathered two groups. The first one, who were self confessed lucky people, and the second one who were self confessed unlucky people. In the study, they had to flick through newspapers and count the number of photographs in the paper. They would then write the number down, and hand it to the investigators. However, there’d been a hidden agenda in the study. In the newspapers, the researchers had hidden notes such as “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” or, even worse, “Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.”
Almost none of the “unlucky” people had found it, but the “lucky” people did. In other words, by focusing too much on the task at hand, and not allowing other opportunities to enter their lives, people unconsciously chose to be unlucky. A while ago, I met this journalist at a hostel who was writing a book on homelessness. He was an odd person, he was interestingly depressing, you talked to him, thoroughly engrossed in his conversation, but then you just wanted to kill yourself after a while, he painted such a bleak picture of life.
In either case, the topic of homelessness fascinated him because he’d been homeless a few years ago. He told me that nobody is immune to it, himself included. Nevertheless, I had to ask him how he got out of it, whilst others stay there all their life. He pointed out that it wasn’t a matter of intelligence, he’d known academics who spoke five languages, who’d been homeless – and still were. There’s this underlying cycle of despair that people can’t get out of.
According to him, just knowing that there’s a way out,already puts you way ahead of the curb. At one time they might’ve tried to escape, but something happened and they couldn’t. Eventually, they stopped trying, as they supposedly learned better. This learned helplessness is pervasive in most aspects of life, and I believe it’s why youth is characterized by wanting to try new things, whilst old age is a time when you might just want your peace and quiet – you’ve tried and failed so many times that it just doesn’t seem worth it for the slim chance of success.
Hell, Einstein said it best when he said “The definition of insanity is doing things over and over, and expecting a different result”. I think he had it right, but not entirely. Any skill, any ability you might want to try out, necessarily requires you to fail dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times before you master it. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers posits that one needs circa 10,000 hours to truly be a master at something. In those 10,000 hours you will fail, and fail. The key thing, the thing most people miss, is that each and every time you fail you ought to learn why you fail and adapt the technique, and then try to correct it the next time.
As such, with that crucial difference, you’re no longer an insane person but someone on their way to wisdom. You may not always get what you deserve, but in the long run you only keep what your skill would’ve allowed for you to have in the first place. For example, there was a time when I wanted the Arnold Schwarzenegger body. I coveted the big muscles, as I mistakenly thought that this would get me girls. In either case, I went to the gym daily, for multiple hours a day, ate right, and pushed my limits. There were times where I could run 20km at the drop of a hat, and I could do a fair bit of pullups, and other weight exercises. Due to my height though, I barely saw any bodily difference after more than a year of such strenuous exercise – the body can only build so much muscle, regardless of your size, thus it’s much easier to look muscle bound whilst being short. Long story short, I got fed up with this, as I wasn’t happy eating 4500 calories worth of grilled chicken.
Now, I go to the gym, but I still very much enjoy cakes, and stuff of the sort. Overall I’m a much well balanced individual. In either case, were you to magically give me Arnold’s body nowadays, I’d lose it within the year. I simply do not have the rigorous lifestyle that would warrant such a body, and thus every force in the universe is trying to take it away from me. Initially, I could consider myself privileged, and go shirtless wherever I go, but over time this would balance out and I’d end up like I am nowadays, sooner or later. It’s sort of why Lottery winners usually lose their wealth within a decade, they usually do not have the self discipline to have gotten to such a place in the first place (even had they lived to be a thousand years old).
What I’m trying to get to, is that there may be shortcuts in life to get something. The sort of “luck” we’ve been talking about, as well as random chance sort of luck, is the trait by which you get this, given that otherwise your lifespan may be too short for you to get to such heights on your own. You may win fame, money, looks or anything, and you may enjoy their benefits momentarily. However, if you’re not prepared to live in accordance to the characteristics that would’ve warranted getting to such a state in the first place, had you been given enough time and opportunity, you will lose these artificial benefits over a long enough time span.
Napoleon was a lucky man, he used every opportunity given to him to further himself. That’s what made him great. He also wanted others to rise through merit, and with help of the lessons his life taught us, we can learn how to be great ourselves. That is the essence of success, perseverance, intelligence and a little bit of luck…