America Can Make Its Own Luck

Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary can’t help but make you think of the luck that is needed to produce genius. The luck is of two sorts. Genetic luck first.

It is clear Shakespeare’s was a prodigious talent. He would have blown the top off the verbal portion of the SAT. No doubt Bach and Mozart were the musical equivalents. Others have the particular genetic combination that creates off the charts mathematical or athletic talent.

It may be that 10,000 hours help make one good at something, but no amount of sweat will make a short, dumpy maladroit person into Michael Jordan, nor a person who struggles with the multiplication tables into Isaac Newton.

The combination of this mother’s and that father’s genes, a little bigger or smaller squirt of this or that enzyme, even a random mutation and you are no longer even an outlier on the normal bell curve of human talents. You are unique.

I have known lots of smart, talented, clever people, but I have known only one prodigy. This sort of thing is not about IQ, or not just, it is simply a gift for something, sometimes something not much good for anything else, like chess champions.

The guy I knew was a linguistic savant. When everyone else in his High School Spanish class was struggling with Como se llama, he was flipping through Don Quixote as easily as we used to read the Hardy Boys. He went to Vietnam and without seeming to work at it picked up Vietnamese, Cambodian, maybe a couple others.

Back before it was unwelcoming to Americans, he strolled in one end of Iran and emerged a couple months later speaking serviceable Farsi. I haven’t heard from him for 30 years. God knows how many languages he has by now. The last I heard he was with the State Department where his gift would be useful. If it was the State Department, if you get my drift.

But that brings us to luck number two. You have to be lucky enough to be born unto a time and place and circumstances where your talent, if you have one, is useful, rewarded, in demand. If my linguistic friend had been born in a remote tribe where everyone spoke the same language and no other was ever encountered, his quirk would not have been noticed or done anyone any good.

Shakespeare was born in a time when titled gentlemen like Sir Philip Sydney competed to write sonnets and the theater was the rage, patronized by Queen and courtiers. He may have been a glover’s son from nowhere, but he was lucky it was a literate town with a good school, that he got to a capital where his poems could be published and his plays produced, where he could outshine the University Wits and aristocrats and make a nice living by his gift.

Einstein born a few centuries before, or in Fiji, would never have been heard from again. But in a time of burgeoning knowledge of physical and mathematical science, in a place with the greatest universities for pursuing those disciplines, he could show his stuff. He could discover his stuff was good for something.

The famous case of Srinivasa Ramanujan is even more apropos. An obscure Indian, he received an introduction to mathematics at the time of the Raj and did original work as a teenager that was sent to Cambridge where his genius was quickly recognized. He was brought to England, made a Fellow and did highly regarded work before his early death at 32.

Warren Buffett is modest about the talents that have made him one of the richest men on earth. He often admits he is a member of what he calls the lucky sperm club. He acknowledges cheerfully that in a time or culture not requiring the peculiar skills he was gifted with for analysis, logic, dispassion and patience in navigating markets he would be a nobody.

There is nothing culture can do about stroke of luck number one. The genetic lottery is in the hands of the gods, so far. But a culture can create the opportunity for a Newton, Bach, Shakespeare, Edison to give us all the gift of what they have to offer.

For the luckiest among us in our culture, opportunities abound. But for too many crimped by poverty, lack of intellectual resources, poor schools, short-sighted, narrow-minded, pennywise public policy their gifts may never have a chance to blossom.

Don’t give handouts to the takers. Cut food stamps. Cut arts in the schools. Deny access to technology as too expensive. We might have to raise taxes. All of that is not just mean spirited, it is criminally stupid.

Oops! We just deprived our culture of the next James Watson, Craig Venter, Steve Jobs, Yo Yo Ma. Richer opportunities for all children and young adults makes for a richer country not a poorer one. Nickel and dime them and you risk wasting human capital, and in the long run it is worth immeasurably more than money in the bank. It is why there is money, and banks to put it in.

Comments are closed.