We won the lottery – and don’t even know it

26 04 2009

lottery

I was standing outside an open-air laundry yesterday (more about that in the next post) when a guy in his 30s approached me. My first reaction was that he was one of the street vendors trying to sell something, but I turned out to be wrong.

He came up and the first thing he asked was, “Do you believe in God?”.

I’ve been asked this question quite a few times recently and it’s always somewhat uncomfortable answering it. You don’t really want to get into a debate with anybody about this sort of thing on the street.

But, as it turned out, he wasn’t interested in converting me to Hinduism, so we just continued on the conversation. A few minutes into it, while both of us were observing the hard-working laborers at the laundry, he asked another question which caught me off-guard, “why do some people have money and others don’t?”

How do you answer something like that?

Because some work harder than others? That answer certainly didn’t apply when you were standing in front of a place where people labor from morning till night and get about $2 a day.

Warren Buffett once coined a phrase – “ovarian lottery“. It’s almost as if everybody participates in this lottery where you are picked from a giant hat and that determines whether you were born in a good family in an environment with opportunities…. or if you were born in the slums. Things like talent, intellect, etc. – while important, are secondary since you may not even have a chance to actually use it.

While I was struggling to find the right answer, he gave me his own: “luck, I think it’s luck.” After chatting for another ten minutes, he finally said: “I am very happy I met you”… and left. But the conversation stayed with me.


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10 responses

26 04 2009
Shirinbonu

This is an interesting topic and situation, which makes you reflect for some time. Does “ovarian” mean “to be borne”, or what does that mean?

26 04 2009
pieter

I like the idea – and the extension of the analogy is that we also have to pay taxes for our unearned winnings.

My favorite reply when asked in the God, Jesus, Entity question is to look them deeply in the eyes and tell them that I believe in teamwork. Because I do, I really do.

Also Ovarian comes from ovum which means egg.

26 04 2009
Andrey

Well, Boba, you should consider implications of what you’re saying, despite the fact that this may feel right.

Since you are giving an example of what I assume are grown men and women working in a open-air laundry, your concept of luck is thus not limited to just being born. If I understand you correctly, then what you are describing here is basically destiny. If I may give a definition of the word destiny, according to Webster Dictionary, it’s “a predetermined course of events often held to be an irresistible power or agency.” Are you saying we have no control over our own lives? I was born Buffett, you were born a dalit. It’s just luck, too bad. I’ll go on making billions like I was preordained to, and you keep skinning pigs. Not much we can do since I won the lottery and you picked the wrong numbers.

If I understand you correctly here, and this is in fact what you’re saying, then what are you doing there besides vacationing? What’s the point of development, micro credit, political science, for that matter?

We might not have any control where on the face of this planet we are born (assuming that we can be born anywhere else, which is an entire philosophical discussion in itself), but there is no good reason for a dalit to be a dalit, as far as I’m concerned. There is nothing natural about slums, just like there is nothing natural about billionaires. Democracy, dictatorship, capitalism, socialism, communism are all human creations. This is how we have organized ourselves and how we distribute resources we have on this planet. There is nothing predetermined about it.

26 04 2009
Anuta

Borichka,

I have to agree with Andrey on this one. While winning the lottery is pure luck, I believe that there are a whole lot of factors contributing to how well off we are in life. Luck is part of it, but its definitely not everything.

27 04 2009
Boris

Andruha/Anuta,

Well, let’s put it this way. Although, it’s certainly possible for anybody to “make it”, it is a whole lot easier to do for somebody who was born in a middle class family than it is for somebody who was born in the slums.

And no, Andruha, I’m not talking about destiny. Not even about “predetermination” or anything like that. Rather, once you’re born somewhere, your environment plays an overwhelming role in terms of what you can do, what you can achieve, and how far you can go. It’s possible to be an exception to the rule, but as a whole, your environment determines your opportunities.

The fact that there is nothing natural about the slums or capitalism actually supports the point. The whole thing is that the environment that each one of us lives in – especially because it was man-made – determines how many opportunities and “chances” we have to make a good life for ourselves.

I actually happened to be reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers right now. It looks at a lot of successful people in this day and age and tries to figure out the reason for their success. While intelligence and talent certainly plays a part, it’s the fact that most of them grew up in the right time and in the right place that actually made it possible for them to succeed. Even if you take the same Warren Buffett – if he was born in Mumbai, it’s very unlikely that he’d achieve what he achieved.

Take Billie Gates, for example. Yes, talent and intelligence was key to his success. But so was the fact that he was born in a family that sent him to a private school that had one of the first mainframe computers in the country. And so was the fact that he was able to practice and hone his skills because his parents could afford to pay for that. And on and on and on. You simply get more “breaks”, the better off you are.

As for what I’m doing here other than vacationing… well, let me tell you that from all I’ve seen and read and experienced in terms of micro-finance, there are very few cases of people born in a small village with a cow and then becoming millionaires because of a micro-loan. The way I see this now – and I could be wrong – but the goal of the development and micro-finance is to help improve the standard of living (food, water, shelter, sanitation) of its recipients. But it’s only done so marginally. In a sense, a person making $2 per day now won’t be making $200 per day next year. If he can make $5 or $10, that’s the goal. The next generation may do more. But again, it’s very slow and it’s very relative.

Pieter, I loved your answer🙂

Shirin – it’s where babies come from🙂 Although, I was told that I was found in lettuce.

1 05 2009
Kiril

BORIS! Just checking up on the blog man, and it seems like wild times over there in your world! Just happened to notice this blog post, and it certainly caught my attention.
Man, how about that question, “Why do some people have money, and others don’t?” I LOVE IT! You can learn so much about a community/person/society just from the answer. I read Gladwell’s “Outliers” a few months back and effin enjoyed the hell out of it. When he tells the stories about Bill Gates and the Beatles, and all the other “Outliers”, it’s almost like they were the Chosen Ones. Not only were they privileged to be born during that time period, but to also have the all-star supporting cast around them – In Gates’s situation that would be the well off family who just happened to live in the community of the only school with a computer accessible to students for programming AND then the University where he continued to study programming. AND THEN, of course there’s Gates himself. He was hungry, determined, focused, and most importantly interested in computers. My point is that there were SO MANY factors involved that made Bill Gates…Bill Gates, and that is why Bill Gates is lucky. But then I thought about it, and thought about something not mentioned in Outliers. Yes, Gates is one lucky SOB for being who he is (said in a non-jealous tone) but maybe it was sort of a destiny for there to be someone like Gates; it could have been Johny Johnyov or Dean Deanovic, but perhaps time its self creates these situations and communities where people like Bill Gates are bound to be created. I absolutely believe that hard work pays off, and with a few other social qualities someone can do great things for the community and him/herself, and thinking that, “I’m not the CHOSEN ONE, therefore, there’s no point in trying,” is absolutely not the way to go. What I’m trying to say is that, people like Bill Gates are sort of a special gift to us all, and we should utilize whatever it is that they have to offer so that eventually another gift can be bestowed upon us.
CHEERS MAN! have a blast and biking season is in full gears over here in NYC!
– Kiril K.

3 05 2009
Frances

Lettuce, eh? Remind me not to order a salad in your neck of the woods🙂

4 05 2009
Frances

I have to agree, although I also understand where Andrey is coming from. The same person born in Beverly Hills, CA and Allen, SD (per capita $1,539) almost certainly will have different life opportunities which will result in different life paths. That’s not to say that those born in the poorest of places cannot achieve wealth, fame, notoriety, or whatever scale you wish to apply to judge Success (and isn’t happiness the best indicator anyway?), but the odds are much less than for those born in wealth and security. Just basic survival is the first differentiator — survival beyond childhood, that is — followed by general medical care throughout one’s life. Man’s attempts to influence our environment through various political formats does play a part, but only a part. We don’t even all begin the same — prenatal care determines a lot before we are even born. The second after birth … the rest comes into play … and it is dependent upon where, how, and when we are born.

Interesting thoughts … microloans will have an influence … as every single thing does in the end.

5 05 2009
Des

Gday Boris

I am very impressed with your blog and your travels in general. I have notice you seem to have different sociological / political views than you did when we were in South America. I think you and Alex were telling me that toll collectors should be made redundant and replaced by computer to save money. Have your travels changed your political opinion so much or were you joking and I misunderstood your little joke. If I misunderstood you I am sorry.

I am with you and Warren Buffet, generally we are what our environment makes us. The reason we read about people like bill gates is that they are uncommon exceptions. They take advantage of the opportunity that most of us don’t. I don’t think saying that we are made by our environment is being fatalistic. Particularly, when you look at it from the view that we are also making the environment that makes others.

I think that the micro-finance can improve people’s environment. Most of the people will properly not take full advantage of the opportunity that could arise but the very existence of an added opportunity can serve to broaden horizons. And I am sure that there will be some people who invest wisely, work hard and do make their fortunes.

Anyway Boris keep up the good work, you are broadening my horizons.

6 05 2009
Boris

Hi Des,

Very glad to hear from you!🙂 You know, it was really that South America trip that made me want to explore more and more. I’d probably still be sitting in Brooklyn, NY if it wasn’t for Kumuka🙂

Hehe… nah, I don’t think you misunderstood me in S.A. My view of toll booth collectors is still the same as it was. I’m sorry, Des, but that’s what growing up in a capitalist society does to you🙂

However, I will admit that a lot of other views that I’ve had are now changing. Moreover, a lot of them are still in the process of forming. That’s what makes this particularly confusing because the minute you adopt a certain view on things, something else comes along that makes you doubt it. I went from a pure capitalist, market perspective to “social business ra-ra-ra” to… still trying to figure out the ultimate fit.

Anyhoo, very glad to hear from you! Burning Man 2010?🙂

—-

Kiril,

I certainly agree with you on a lot of what you said.

The thing about Bill Gates, however, is that he has almost a mass celebrity status – which is why we tend to associate success/wealth with him.

But, there are a myriad of fields (ranging from technology to waste collection to energy to orangutang research) with thousands of successful, smart professionals that reached success, contributed to the field, etc. and are just as well-known and respected within their industry.

It’s interesting, but within every industry that I worked in, there are plenty of role models/highly successful people that everybody looks up to (within that industry). Yet, most people never even heard of them because… well, most probably don’t care unless they work there.

So, I wonder if we’re doing ourselves a disservice to always taking the most well-publicized person as a role model.

—-

Frances,

Don’t worry. Everybody knows that kids don’t grow up in lettuce anymore… they are brought by a stork🙂 Or, at least that’s what I was told…

Boba

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