VNH

I just won a poker tournament. Sadly, it was only a Facebook poker tournament, so I only won Facebook poker money.

I won mainly because mid-way through the game, I got dealt a pair of Kings, and then two Kings came up in the flop, so I had a pretty much unbeatable hand of four Kings. And the other players all had decent hands, so they all raised alot, so I won all their Facebook money.

One of the other players wrote VNH to me, which means Very Nice Hand. It’s sort of Facebook poker etiquette – if someone wins with an amazing hand you say NH or occasionally VNH to them.

Of course, it was a nice hand, but it wasn’t really my doing. It was more luck than anything else. But nonetheless, the other players were very impressed, and attributed the win to my skill, rather than the luck of the cards.

This is a very common human foible, known in cognitive psychology as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ – attributing to our skill what is actually down to external forces (in this case, chance). We saw it happening alot in the years before the credit crunch. Hedge fund traders, for example, would report enormous returns year after year, and everyone came to the conclusion they were geniuses.

When in fact it was just that the market went up for several years in a row, because the Federal Reserve kept interest rates low, and this led to a rise in asset prices. So the stellar returns of hedge funds wasn’t really skill, just luck. And then their luck ended, and many of them went bust.

Now the markets are picking up, and once again people are attributing enormous skill and ingenuity to investment bankers, when in fact their record profits are more a result of the trillions of dollars that governments are pumping into the markets rather than their skill.

If you think about it, how many of the achievements on which we base our self-esteem are really pure chance?

I’m a journalist, for example, and one of the the things upon which a journalist builds their reputation is when they land a really big interview, with a politician or a celebrity or someone. They get congratulated on their achievement. ‘Great story mate’. VNH. But really, it is just as much luck whether someone happens to agree to an interview or not.

Likewise, getting your big break as a writer, or an actor, or a painter, could be as much down to luck as any skill – it just happens that a literary agent is in a receptive frame of mind when they read your pitch, or a director likes the look of your face.

Likewise, a general could be attributed great skill and intelligence for winning a battle, when the victory could be as much down to pure luck – the weather, for example. Think of the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Walter Raleigh and the rest. More luck that anything else. If the wind had been blowing in another direction, the English fleet would most likely have been conquered, and we might never have established our great maritime empire.

To think further on it, how many of our successes and triumphs are really the result of the hand we have been dealt, by nature, by our genes, by the accident of birth? How then, can we really glory in them, when we did nothing to earn them? And yet how often humans congratulate themselves on achievements which are really not of their earning or doing at all – one only has to think of the petty snob glorying in his title, when that title was earned decades or even centuries ago…and who knows, perhaps even then it was earned by chance.

To think deeply about the extent to which our proud achievements are based on chance and luck is to learn a deep humility.

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