Not enough to simply thank our lucky stars
By Adrian Russell
Let’s take a quick head count of Munster’s starting XV against Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final.
Ardscoil Rís, St Munchin’s, St Munchin’s, PBC, CBC, PBC again, another Ardscoil alumni, Munchin’s... well, you get the picture. By my count, there’s 12 of Tony McGahan’s starters in red who’ve come through a handful of Munster’s rugby academies. The rest graduated from the school of hard knocks that is southern hemisphere rugby.
The point has been well presented before — and often from a high stool — regarding dependence on certain school blazers in Irish rugby.
But in a week in which the education minister, a former Leinster Senior Cup-winning winger, ran the gauntlet at teachers’ union conferences throughout the country this is not an anti fee-paying schools argument (in fact, not all of the schools above are actually fee-paying). The same set of circumstances is probably broadly true of most sports.
But when we talk about the talent of our sports people, their background and development is instructive.
It’s clear that though Thomond Park supporters joke about Superman wearing Paul O’Connell pyjamas in bed, alifetime of opportunity, chance, hard work and talent went in before he could emerge from the dressing room door to face Ulster.
Ed Smith thought essentially that luck was what other people dealt in. A high-achievingEnglish lad who went on to be capped three times by hiscountry at cricket, hisperspective changed as he stood at the crease at Lord’s.
“I broke my ankle playing for Middlesex in 2008,” Smith tells me this week. “And you know it looked like it was going to be a small injury and I’d be playing in a matter of days. But it turned outit was a fracture and Inever played again. And it was just an example of how luck can divert the course of yourcareer and your life.”
And boy did hereflect. Smith has justpublished a book entitled Luck, in which he tries to untangle just what fortune — good and bad —actually is, how much of it plays a part in success and our relationship with it.
“It made me reflect onother types of luck too,” he added. “For example, the amazing luck I’d had that propelled me onto a sports field in the first place. I mean the non-random luck of going to a very good cricketing school — as I did — made it at least 20 times [more likely], statistically, I figured out, of me playing for England in the first place.
“So you know luck takes very many different forms. Circumstance and randomness are just one of them.
“There’s also the non-random luck of your education — there are lots of different ways in which things beyond our control, which is my definition in the book of luck, massively impacts your chances of beingsuccessful.
“And the way we talk about luck generally, we tend to underestimate the role of circumstance and overestimate the role ofour own agency anddetermination andeffort.”
Are we following? Smith is speaking to me through a hands-free kit as he tries to edge out of a yellow box and avoid a fine.If you are to believe his theories on success, he manages to do so thanks to a combination of opportunity, happenstance, talent and experience. And plenty more.
“There’s a massive human instinct to think and suggest that we’re always in control,” Smith adds as he edges through London traffic again. “These theories dovetail nicely with the attitude, ‘I can do whatever I want’, ‘I can control anything’. But in actual fact, taken to its extreme, I don’t think that’s as nice as it sounds because if you think everyone makes their own luck and success is entirelydetermined by hard work only — there’s no other fact involved — then I think it’s a pretty harsh world.
“If you see someone on the streets who’s homeless, you have to blame him for not making his own luck.”
It’s like Eddie Murphy in Trading Places, then.
“I think there’s a hugely complicated interaction of factors, some of which are within your control and some of which aren’t. Interaction being the crucial word — not mixture. Success isn’t created by mixing two elements so you have 70% and 30% in that rather vulgar way — it’s the interaction, in a sense that success is a lot like human evolution more than we think.
“What I’m saying is that we should be grateful for our good fortune when we’ve had success and also that not everyone has access tocertain resources and that’s a cause forhumility rather than over-confidence.”
And then he asks: “Does that make any sense?”
* firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @adrianrussell Home