Luck and Choice, A Tribute
On October 27, 1996, I met at my wedding a formidable woman from Montreal, my 84-year-old grandmother-in-law, Berta. To the best of my memory I spoke that day to Berta eye-to-eye just once: she cusped my cheeks with both of her hands and said with great force: “Good luck Paul, you are going to need it.” Her words puzzled me but, in the excitement of the day, I pushed them out of my mind, temporarily. Later I wondered, was she casting aspersions on me, or the institution of marriage, because, after all, normally when you tell someone this about luck you are suggesting none too subtly, that they are not up to the task. Only later, over time, did I realize that Berta was not casting aspersions, instead, she knew that she had that one moment to tell me a great lesson of her life, and she was not a woman to miss her chance. Having been born in Berlin, then fled Germany to Belgium in 1938, then trapped in Belgium after the German blitzkrieg, then through great courage — her own and of the Sisters who hid her in their Convent — having survived the ensuing four years, saving also the life of her infant son, she had learned a frightening lesson, not about brutality, but that good fortune is randomly and unevenly spread among humanity. In such a world, good luck is something we all need!
Berta died on September 23, 2019, age 107; one week earlier, on September 15, I spoke at my own father’s funeral, and began with these words: “My father always said that he was lucky.”
Legendary investor Warren Buffett also thought about luck in 2019, writing in his annual report that Americans “are lucky — gloriously lucky” to enjoy the fruits of our “country’s almost unbelievable prosperity.” This essential truth is part of what my father meant when he said he was lucky, we are indeed “gloriously lucky” compared to many other billions of people living elsewhere on the planet (to quantify, almost 96% of humanity was born outside of the United States), and to virtually everyone who lived anywhere on earth at any time in the past.