The Better Letter: Rhyming Set to Music

My most personal TBL ever.

My birthday is next week. I won’t tell you how old I will be and I promise not to pull a Gwyneth Paltrow. But I will offer a hint. 

Let the celebrations begin!

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Birthday Luck 

I had been fitfully and uncomfortably sleeping, dreaming of a small dog nuzzling my leg and stealing my snack. I awoke to find an escaped boxer with a cute face avoiding my eyes and licking her lips. Once the flight attendant found her rightful owner, who was not nearly as embarrassed as she should have been, I reassess my situation.

I’m still more than an hour behind schedule and said to be losing even more ground on account of intense headwinds. I’m still scrunched into a long metal tube with the seat-back in front of me compressing my kneecaps into my hips while hurtling cross-country, still several hours from arrival home in San Diego. I’m tired. 

It’s not the most conducive spot I can imagine for counting my blessings. But count them I shall, as part of this birthday reflection. 

Birthday luck” describes a nuclear explosion of good fortune that is supposed to happen to you on that anniversary, giving you the ability to do anything. I don’t really have birthday luck, of course, but my luck is so good it’s hard to tell the difference. 

Self-serving bias is our ongoing tendency to attribute our successes to skill and our failures to very bad luck and we are self-serving creatures to the core. But the reality is that luck (and, if you have a spiritual bent, grace) plays an enormous role in our lives – both good and bad – just as luck plays an enormous role in many specific endeavors, from investing to poker to winning a Nobel Prize. If we’re honest, we will recognize that many of the best things in our lives required absolutely nothing of us and what we count as our greatest achievements usually required great effort, skill, and even more luck.

That my birth, which I celebrate next week, was into a loving and stable family that valued education and industry was not my doing. The “loving and stable” part is really, in my humble estimation, more than a bit of a miracle.

You see, my mother was born into a dysfunctional and abusive family during World War I. She graduated from high school a year early to escape but only to an abusive marriage at 17. While still a teenager, she had the courage to flee that abuse with her young son and get a divorce…in small-town America in the midst of the Great Depression. 

It wasn’t the middle of nowhere, but you could see it from there. I can’t begin to imagine the courage that must have taken.

Meanwhile, my father grew up a few miles away on a rural farm and into an even more dysfunctional family. In the summer of 1925, my nine-year-old dad was out racing bikes with his little sister. He made it across the train tracks. Arlene didn’t.

She was run over at the ungated crossing and killed – right in front of him. The coroner’s report stated it brusquely: “struck by Nickel Plate Passenger train, neck broken left leg 2 places between knee and ankle.” Dad kept revisiting the site, looking for his sister’s blood on the tracks.

I don’t know how he lived with the guilt. Had I been a girl, I would have shared Arlene’s name.

When he was 17, on a brutally cold day in February of 1934, my dad found his father, a long-time drunk, perhaps self-medicating, strung up in the barn, a suicide. My Dad picked up a ladder, still sprawled on the floor where his father had kicked it while dying, set it up, climbed it, and cut the corpse down. He immediately quit school and began supporting his mother and her subsequent string of husbands, heavily self-medicating all the while. I don’t know how he lived with the pain.

However.

My parents found Jesus and each other. They met at a square dance. She was 23 and he was 24 when they married. Dad adopted my brother and gave up booze, for good. He worked in a steel mill for three decades, rising from floor sweeper to management until Japanese competition destroyed the company and much of the American steel industry.

In a tough economy, a guy in his 50s without a high school diploma has it especially tough. He became a school janitor for the remainder of his working life. I never heard him complain about it.

Dad’s mother came to live with us after the last of her marriages ended. Grandma’s Alzheimer’s (we called it “hardening of the arteries”) eventually got so bad that she couldn’t stay with us anymore. She would start fires, leave the gas on, tell crazy stories, and run away from home. She couldn’t remember who she was or find her way back. Mom became a bank teller to pay for her medical care.

The best jobs I had as a teenager were offered to me by people who knew, respected, and loved my parents. I didn’t get those jobs on account of any merit on my part; I got them on the basis of their merits.

Mom and Dad had nearly 60 happy years together, most in the house pictured below, for which they saved and then purchased for $2,700. Cash. It had two bedrooms, one bath, a detached garage, and a granny flat in the back.

I never heard an angry word between my parents (my mom would have used “cross” instead of “angry”). They broke the cycle of abuse.

Mom and Dad waited 16 years for me. By the time I was born, they were 39 and 40, and had pretty much given up hope of having a child together. They had given away my brother’s baby furniture. The history of sadness and abuse was locked away and never mentioned. Had I known their stories then, I hope I would have shown them more grace as a teenager, chafing at the various structures and strictures they built and imposed upon me (and themselves).

Today, I am astonished at their story and grateful beyond explanation for the many blessings I have been given. Once more for emphasis: They broke the cycle of abuse – horrible dysfunction and abuse from which I was largely (and lovingly) shielded. 

It seems impossible now but I didn’t know.

I only learned many of the details after Mom and Dad were gone. For all I knew, I grew up in a loving and stable working-class family in heartland America. I was ignorant of what Paul Harvey called, every day on the local radio station (1410 AM), “the rest of the story.” My brother and I became the first members of our extended family to go to college. We got graduate degrees, too. We have lived full, productive, and happy lives.

And that still doesn’t begin to cover it.

We live in a culture that increasingly delays and devalues marriage. Many discourage or denigrate it. We aren’t very good at it. We drown in love’s debris.

Yet, marriage is vital to our culture and our future. A great marriage – “when every fairy tale comes real” – is the best indicator that you will see your life as successful, whatever definition of success you choose to employ. 

I couldn’t have married up any more than I did. Even after more than four decades, she is still the best, kindest, most wonderful person I know. I love her now more than ever.

This nobody from nowhere with nothing married a transformational and transcendent beauty. Talk about luck! We danced to “When I Fall in Love” at our wedding. We meant and still mean the “it will be forever” part, even if forever doesn’t seem nearly long enough.

It is the most compelling argument for God I know.

“Love is holy because it is like grace – the worthiness of its object is never really what matters,” as Marilynne Robinson wrote. Thank God for that.

Her light covers my shadow. Because that is real and true, I am lucky (and blessed) beyond measure. She is God’s grace to me.

But wait, there’s even more luck. So very much more.

That I was born into a land of freedom and opportunity that would allow and even provide the means for a child of working-class parents with just one high school diploma between them to pursue and secure a world-class education was not my doing. I merely had to provide sufficient effort. That I was blessed with some ability and interest in a field that provides a good living and constant stimulation was not my doing. I merely had to provide sufficient industry. That I married astonishingly well and have three terrific and productive children who have also married extremely well is only partly my doing (and surely less my doing than I care to think). 

The wonder of eight delightful grandchildren is grace in human flesh. My positive delta is enormous. It’s right-tailed skewness all the way down.

As Cambridge’s John Rapley shows, “economists who’ve actually worked out scientifically what contribution our own initiative plays in our success have found it to occupy an infinitesimally small share: the vast majority of what makes us rich or not comes down to pure dumb luck, and in particular, being born in the right place and at the right time.” Steve Jobs’ life would have been pretty different had he been born into a Bengali peasant family.

That humans are here at all is an essentially impossible bit of luck. The universe began with a huge explosion 13.8 billion years ago, propelling it from a dot smaller than an electron to its current unimaginable size within a tiny fraction of a second. Yet life found a way. Even then, as my friend Morgan Housel explained: “reading this means you belong to the only species out of 8.7 million on this planet that can read. And our planet is the only one out of 100 billion in our galaxy that we know has life.”

Or, as Don Boudreaux wondered, it’s not obvious that you’d be better off if you were a billionaire 100 years ago rather than remaining solidly middle-class in America today.

I could have been born in the 7th Century. I could have been born in North Korea. I could have been born into a family that abused me (which is more likely than I care to think). I could have had to struggle for even minor educational advancement. Duke could have been less generous with financial aid. My boss could be a jerk. My children could be disdainful. My grandchildren might never visit and hate baseball. 

My wife could be a little less wonderful (although I doubt it). Nick Heil explained it pretty well: “you never really know how lucky you are until your luck runs out.”

As the Irish poet and playwright, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney wrote three decades ago, and as my mom and dad lived before that, “History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave, but then, once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice rises up and hope and history rhyme.” For me, the rhyming is set to music.

So, truly, happy birthday to me. For much of it – verily, for most of what’s happy about it – I have luck (and grace) to thank.


How I Invest

My good friends Brian Portnoy and Josh Brown have edited and contributed to an outstanding new book, out in November, called How I Invest My Money. The great Carl Richards illustrated it. His illustration for my chapter is above. You may preorder the book here. In it, some really good people in the finance world describe how they invest their own money. I am honored (and lucky) to have contributed a chapter. I won’t give away too much of what I wrote about, but the picture below of one of my grandsons (Nate, who is three) from this past summer is illustrative. A place full of memories and dreams is central. 

A taste of my chapter follows.

Like compound interest, success is sequential. It takes time for good choices to add up before exploding exponentially. All the best things in our lives provide benefits that compound. Our financial investments do that, and so do our personal and family investments. Generosity and service compound. So do healthy living and education. Love is the most powerful compounder of all.

Focus your purposes there.

We don’t completely control our destinies or our legacies. But if we invest well — financially and otherwise — our legacies can be profound. Mimi had her whys in order. She and Pop knew what was important to them and they invested to bring those purposes to life. Ginny and I are trying to do the same thing.

As investments need to be benchmarked, our lives need it too. No matter what we say, we show what we love by how we invest our time, our talents, and our treasure. We reveal our whys with our love. Our purposes provide benchmarks.

I hope you will read it all and enjoy the book. You may buy it here.


Totally Worth It

It’s called the birthday paradox. How many people do you think need to be in a room to have a 50 percent chance that at least two people share the same birthday? Find out here.

How much luck is involved in winning at Scrabble? According to a recent study, more than you might think.

Cruelly bad luckDon’t bet against Timex. Postseason randomness. Want to take about three points off your I.Q.? Retire early. The oddest thing I read this week. The most adorable. The funniest. The nicest. The scariest. The grimmest. The strangest. The most inspiring. Helpful thread. RIP, Eddie Van Halen.

In Born to Win, Schooled to Lose, researchers found that being born “affluent” but dim carries a 7 in 10 chance of reaching a high socioeconomic status as an adult while being born intelligent but “disadvantaged” means just a 3-in-10 shot. Talent is universal while opportunity is not. It’s best to be lucky and good.


Just One More Thing

TBL has many, many readers and I am grateful for each one — and especially for subscribers. However, for some reason, TBL doesn’t seem to be growing new readers and subscribers nearly as quickly as I’d like. It’s free, doesn’t have ads, and I never share email addresses. If you think TBL is good, would you kindly subscribe if you haven’t, share it with friends, and promote it? Every writer wants to be read and I need you to reach more readers. Thank you.

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Benediction

This week’s lovely benediction was number 287 in the hymnal I grew up with. It was always requested and sung hundreds of Sunday evenings in our cinder-block church. It was my parents’ favorite. I now understand why they would have valued peace so much. I include it this week to honor them.


Next week, a friend of TBL, Nicole Boyson, Professor of Finance at Northeastern University, takes over some of this space to write about grace. Spoiler Alert: It’s fantastic. Don’t miss it.

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Thanks for reading.

Issue 33 (October 9, 2020)