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Luck: What is Means and Why It Matters by Ed Smith

Mar 28, 2016



Read an extract from LUCK by Ed Smith

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  • LUCKWhat it Means and Why it Matters


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  • For Rebecca

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    Part I: Experience 1. Improbability 3 2. The silver spoon 17 3. When we abolished luck 39 4. Breaking point 47

    Part II: Questions 5. What is luck? 71 6. Not making your own luck 79 7. Anti-luck 89

    Part III: Witnesses 8. The new fate 111 9. Fooled by Randomness revisited 135 10. Accidents 1 153 11. Blessings 165 12. Accidents 11 179 13. Its the uncertainty, stupid 201 14. When there really is no such thing as luck 221 15. What-ifs 235

    Acknowledgements 243

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  • Part 1


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  • 3




    I am the least likely person to be writing a book about luck. For most of my life, I havent believed in it at all. I thought that talking about luck was an admission of weakness. I confi -dently or naively believed that you made your own luck. If you were good enough for long enough, you got what you deserved. I bridled at the suggestion that We all need some luck. Luck was for other people.

    Most kids cheer for the talented showman Ian Botham, Paul Gascoigne or Daley Thompson. Not me. My childhood hero was an obdurate, balding man who wore glasses when he played sport: the tough, fl inty Yorkshireman Geoff Boycott.

    Why Boycott? Sure, Boycott was brilliant. And I may have picked up a touch of my Yorkshire grandfathers county pride. But it was something else that led me to Boycott. Even as a child, I sensed there was something in Boycott that was

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  • experience


    different an application of willpower, an elimination of error, an unbendingness and relentlessness. I think all those traits appealed deeply to my over-developed sense of ration-ality and ambition. Could a child possibly sense in a hero something of himself? It sounds silly, doesnt it? But I think it is true.

    It is almost inevitable that future professional cricketers were fi rst mad-keen youngsters. But very few, I expect, stood in front of the television as a four-year-old, front forearm wrapped in a white paper bag to replicate the Boycott armguard, trying to emulate the great masters forward defence: implacable, controlled, defi ant, solitary. Not a very jolly form of hero-worship, is it?

    But this is exactly how I spent long stretches of childhood. I created an alternative world and inhabited it. Central to my life as a child was creating an imaginary world, a cricketing fantasy in which I always succeeded. Alone in the TV room, Test match on, bat in hand, opponents clear in my mind, technique honed, strategy decided upon. Hours, days, summers all passed with me absorbed in that world. It used to amuse me much later, in the grown-up world when sports psychologists told me to practise positive visualiza-tion. Id been at it since I was four.

    Batting easily lends itself to metaphor: the innings of a lifetime. How should we bat, how should we live? Boycott stood fi rmly at one end of the spectrum, taking self-absorption to the limits of sanity. Eyes always on the ball, but only on the ball, never straying to consider the view of the

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  • improbability


    boundary, still less the world beyond it. The Boycott mantra was to retain control, eliminate risk and dictate your own destiny. Even now, Boycott is fond of reminiscing about his contempt for the idea of luck. Dennis Amiss used to say, Good luck to me. I used to reply, Its not luck but ability that counts.

    No wonder the phrase Leave nothing to chance is a favourite of modern sports psychologists. They make a virtue not only of the Boycott mindset but also of the Boycott worldview. Ours is the age of ultra-specialization, of elimi-nating unnecessary distractions, of focusing in and narrowing down. As Boycott himself put it, I loved batting and I do not use the word lightly . . . everything else had to come second.

    I was like that, too: obsessive, relentless and analytical. My bedroom walls were decorated with a series of posters from the MCC coaching manual. The last thing I saw at night as I closed my eyes to go to sleep was a poster entitled, How to play the perfect forward defence. That nerdy streak coex-isted with the sociability of the natural show-off. My dad was a brilliant teacher in many respects, but even he couldnt teach me much modesty. It makes me laugh, thinking about it now, to refl ect on the contrast between the two of us: the modest father, who would rather do anything than boast, and the immodest son, never happier than when he was recount-ing recent triumphs.

    So when I started playing competitive matches as an eight-year-old, Dad didnt only coach me how to bat, he also

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  • experience


    coached me about modesty. He had more success in the fi rst than the second.

    One day, when we were watching a Kent match together, Dad saw his friend Sir (as he was then) Colin Cowdrey walking towards us. Dad grasped the probability that his cricket-mad son would launch into a long monologue about his own talent as soon as the great man arrived. Now listen, Ed, Dad began. Were about to bump into Colin Cowdrey, one of the greatest players England has ever produced. As he is very polite, he will probably ask about your cricket. Try to be modest. So if he says, Are you a batter or a bowler? you might say, Oh, a little bit of both or something like that. Downplay things. Remember: modesty.

    I nodded as if to say, Message received. No problem.Colin duly arrived and, with his customary charm, imme-

    diately enquired about my cricket. Exactly as Dad had predicted, Colin wondered if I was more of a batter or a bowler. Its hard to say, I replied. Dad looked hopeful. I think he began to mouth the words A-little-bit-of-both, trying to prod me in the right direction.

    I had better ideas. Its hard to say, Colin, I continued, lightly assuming fi rst-name terms. Because I am a genuine all-rounder. You see, I open both the batting and the bowling. For example, last Saturday . . .

    My fathers hopeful expression evaporated, and his eyes were magnetically drawn to his own shoes, where they remained fi xed until he could think of a convenient excuse to whisk me into the club shop to buy a scorecard and relieve

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    Colin of listening to every shot Id played on the way to 64 not out for my under-nines team.

    I was always clear where I was going. There was a straight line ahead and nothing would get in the way. Teams became staging posts in a grand sweep of ambition. First my school, then Kent schools, then Cambridge University, then the Kent professional team, fi nally the full England side. Each time I assumed Id get a hundred on debut. Anything less would be failure. Then Id move on to the next team, the level higher, a new challenge upwards indefi nitely, never pausing to doubt myself or stopping to settle for what I already had.

    Talent plus effort equals merit. That was the sociologist Michael Youngs defi nition of meritocracy, a word he invented. (Later well see how far the modern defi nition has moved from Youngs satirical intention.) If I had known about the word as a child, I would have passionately believed in it. My view was simple: if you had ability and you practised enough, nothing could stop you.

    When I abandoned playing the cello at the age of four-teen, the reason I gave was a cold calculation of meritocratic potential. I told my music teacher I wanted more time to focus on cricket. I cant be the best at playing the cello, I explained, sounding like a Geoff Boycott in waiting. But I can be the best at playing cricket. It sounded so tough and self-deterministic at the time, as though nothing else should enter into how you choose hobbies and pastimes. Luck in either success or failure didnt come into it at all.

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  • experience


    I took my contempt for the idea of luck into early adult life. At Cambridge, I took the same approach to studying history as I did to my cricket. I dont think I felt pressure on myself. Success was just an imperative. I refused even to contemplate failure. The right combination of ability and hard work, I believed, surely made success inevitable. I wanted the perfect game, the perfect life: a game free from contingency, a life with nothing left to chance.

    What did luck have to do with anything? I would have wholeheartedly agreed with my childhood hero Geoff Boycott. Luck was for other people.


    Bizarrely, my dismissal of luck coexisted with obsessive superstition. By my mid-teens, I was profoundly supersti-tious. It wasnt just not walking under ladders. I couldnt walk past a slightly dripping tap without stopping to force it completely closed, couldnt change seats in the class-room on match-days, couldnt wear a different shirt from the one Id worn the previous week (if Id played well,