About luck

I was 40 when I got cancer.

I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink excessively, was reasonably healthy, but still managed to end up with a malignant lump on my kidney that was as heavy as your hand-luggage allowance. I’m fine – I was lucky to have a good surgeon and lucky the cancer hadn’t spread, and lucky that I’m having wonderful care in a first-world country with a marvellous health system.

It was just luck.

Of course, getting a massive, rare cancer is also quite bad luck. I’ll give you that. Granted.

But all of this plays into my thesis: luck is an incredibly important factor in life, and we tend to underestimate it. We especially underestimate good luck, or at least we ignore it and assume we deserve good things that happen to us: it’s down to some attribute of ours which others simply don’t have.

If you’re a generous spirit, you might say, “hey everyone, this wonderful thing happened to me, so it can happen to you”. But that’s disingenuous, and the same kind of lie the National Lottery uses each time it says “it could be you”. Yes, it could. There’s a 1 in 14 million chance, and you’re 5,000x more likely to be murdered by your wife. But it could be you.

But most people aren’t that generous or well-intentioned, and tend to start acting like twats as soon as they get a bit of cash. They are better human beings than you, and you’re all layabout scum who need to have their benefits scrapped and their children pushed up chimneys.

The sheer, enormous, gallumping good luck of being born in Chipping Norton to a stockbroker father who sent them to Eton doesn’t occur to the fortunate: they got there by the sweat of their smooth, egg-like brow.

But it’s not just the rich. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for class-war, especially as the rich have been winning the class war for a generation, and it’s about time we fought back a bit, rather than voting against our interests because we’re idiotic enough to believe we have a chance of being let into the exclusive club at the top. But this isn’t a dig at the entitled, landed gentry. This is a dig at those who attribute their success to skill, rather than chance.

My brother is an example of misattributed good luck. We work in the same industry (web stuff) but he’s so rich he spends his evenings making paper-aeroplanes out of £50 notes, and throwing them into one of his many solid gold fireplaces. Whereas I earn the average salary, rarely get paid on time, and spend most evenings scraping burned cheese off a baking tray so I can have some sustenance to gnaw on as I warm my fingers around a guttering candle. It’s positively Dickensian round here.

Yes, he’s worked hard, but so have I, and so have you – but he’s managed to be lucky too, and that makes all the difference. He is, at best, moderately good at programming and fairly smart – although we shared the same teachers, and every one of them said I was the smart one, and my brother was the future accountant. I’m not boasting, I’m just trying to place my brother in context.

(But I am dead smart though.)

He wanted to work with computers, but he dropped out of university after 6 weeks, and took a job at the nearest place to home: he was lazy and didn’t want to travel. Luckily that company, which only employed 3 people at the time, grew over the coming years, and he remained senior because he was there early. He didn’t make it grow. He was just a functionary. It just grew under him.

So dumb luck ends up pushing him into being a director, because all of the first intake of staff were made directors. As a director-by-politeness he wasn’t really trusted to have responsibility, and didn’t have a department to run or any great strategic role. But it worked out OK for him anyway: he was on £75k, and when the company was bought out by a larger organisation he took home a cheque for an additional £128,000. And because he was a director of the small company, he remained a “director without portfolio” at the larger company, got a 50% pay increase and 7 weeks holiday per year.

That’s how it is for directors – no lack of money up at the top, folks!

After a few years of this he was head-hunted, because he was a director of a big company, so must be good, right? Well, not really – he’s kind of average, but the fact that he’s been lucky means he’s in a position that appears to demonstrate some kind of skill. It’s why Keira Knightley still gets acting jobs – she’s absolutely awful, but she was in that thing that made money in spite of her presence, just because she was lucky to be born to a casting director (there’s that luck again!). So people think she’s a safer bet than… well, practically anybody else. And as a result, she keeps being given roles that the hedge in my garden would be more convincing in.

It’s not skill. It’s luck. I just don’t have a lucky hedge.

So my brother was head-hunted, and is now a director (again), this time of a very large company. I won’t tell you their name, but they trade autos. Trading autos is what they do. They are, you could say, auto traders.

Does he have to work hard or be inventive or do anything to earn his position there? No. They don’t invent new things, they don’t employ a million people, they don’t help with Britain’s balance of trade. They’re what’s called an “agency business”, which takes a slice for putting customers in contact with suppliers. He doesn’t make cars, that’s done by a proper economy in Germany (where they don’t leave every damn thing to the market, they go out and try to make the market function for the good of all, so everyone is benefiting and feels they belong).

As a director of this massive business, my brother doesn’t even need to go out and find new customers, or even run a good website (just look at it – it’s gruesome). He is, entirely by chance, sitting at the top table in a business which dominates about 95% of car buying in this country.

But ask him, and he’ll tell you he earned all of that. He, alone, was able to achieve those things, and deserves £160k (plus bonus) for sitting in an office while you buy cars he doesn’t make and doesn’t even sell. It had nothing to do with just happening to live close to a company which needed a cheap junior programmer, it was just skill and dedication and a hidden, secret knowledge which the rest of us have no access to.

I like the guy. But he’s a real cunt.

Businesses rely on serendipity just as much as people do. When a company employs a guy, it takes a risk that he’ll be good at his job. Most are competent, some terrible, but occasionally you’ll get lucky: you’ll employ somebody who has connections, and they’ll land you more work. It’s not your skill, or his skill – it’s luck that he’s connected to the right people, and those people are also lucky (often by birth, race, sex or location) to have strings they can pull.

As a lucky company, which felicitously employed somebody who, by good fortune of birth, has those connections and can land new contracts, you will be able to make money. And sometimes you will make enough money to let you start crushing rivals. In time you’ll dominate to the extend that luck stops playing a part.

Luck is a throw of the dice, but if you dominate 95% of the market you own the dice and the table, and are guaranteed to win. That’s what globalisation has brought us: a dozen lucky fuckers who now own the casino, and appear to own governments too. Every party must be “business-friendly” as though being helpful and sympathetic to normal people is a sin, but being friendly to blank-eyed, environment-destroying, soulless money-making machines is a cardinal virtue.

And that’s why the neoConservative, Tory, Republican view of the world is bullshit: they want to be “business friendly”, and reduce taxes for those who are successful in the belief that it will encourage more success. But most success is dumb luck, and you can’t legislate for luck. So all they’re really doing is ensuring those who are born into that club (which, let’s face it, is most of the members) are well rewarded for being incredibly fortunate that they fell out of a wealthy womb.

Am I a sociopath?

In an earlier post about my strangely numb reaction to cancer, I jokingly suggested I might be sociopathic.

It’s been pointed out to more than once: I often seem to have a very low level of emotion. I just appear to breeze along, making crap jokes and singing little songs to myself. But when the shit hits the fan… I make crap jokes and sing little songs. I even do it when coping with tough times, illness, personal crises, arguments and fallings-out.

So. Am I a sociopath? Am I really utterly unfeeling? Is it weird that I’m not even having an emotional reaction to the accusation, I’m just pondering it and writing a blog? Probably!

Maybe I’m broken inside.

But I don’t think so.

It’s tricky to discuss because of the age-old “platform problem”. There’s a great discussion on this subject in the life-changing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s about how some people respond to surface (Robert Persig, the author, calls these people “Romantics”) and others think more about what’s going on underneath (he calls these “Classics”).

To a Classic person, a Romantic is flimsy, lightweight, shallow, obsessed with packaging and surface and gossip, and unable to do proper assessments of the important stuff in life.

To a Romantic, a Classic is cold, callous, obsessed with nerdy things, unfeeling, uncommunicative, and doesn’t have any appreciation of art or beauty or loveliness.

Both sets of people are equally wrong and equally right. But in order to talk about it you have to stand on one of the two platforms: Classic or Romantic. And just by standing on a platform you immediately offend the other set of people.

The problem is exacerbated because on the one hand we have Classic people, who are unlikely to get offended (or even see the point of being offended) by the words used to describe them. They’ll hear them and analyse them, but won’t feel any offence.

But on the other side are Romantics, who are more likely to take offence, even if the words used are no more offensive than the ones they use to describe Classics. It’s entirely normal to be a Romantic, and to have a strong experience of the surface meaning of the word. A Classic hears “calculating and emotionless” and writes a blog discussing it, with references to source materials. A Romantic hears “hysterical and over-emotional” and gets hysterical and over-emotional.

See? Even when I try to avoid the platform problem, I still use terms which are bound to offend some people. Totally unintentional. But try talking about this stuff without using those terms!

Thinking about this made me look back on moments when I really should feel something. If I felt something, then I’m not a sociopath; I’m one of Robert Persig’s “Classics”.

My dad died. I should feel that, right? The hospital had phoned to tell us we should hurry to his side. I knew that probably meant he was already dead. That’s how they do it; they don’t tell you over the phone, they get you to come to the ward urgently.

I picked up my mum and took her with me. When I got there my brother had already arrived, and was crying. I didn’t cry. A day or so later, when I was sorting out clothes for him to be buried in, I bawled my eyes out.

Does this make me a sociopath? Or does it just mean I (entirely subconsciously) recognised that everyone in the room needed someone to do the tough stuff, and so I boxed my emotions up until the pressure was off? I think the latter.

I can think of other instances:

My disappointment at losing a job, which I had to control because I needed to act fast to secure another.

My anger at being mugged, which I had to control so I could focus on defending myself against 3 attackers.

My genuine fear in the middle of the night about a week before my cancer operation, when I had lain awake for hours listening to Alzheimer’s patients singing at 4am, and considering how debilitating chemo might be. Not death: that seems easy. But a tough life, that’s really hard to face.

Did I feel these things? Damn right. But it’s part of who I am to be in control of emotions, not – and this is the platform problem again – not a victim of my emotions. Not overwhelmed by them.

It’s not a trick or a strength. It’s not a boast, any more than you can boast about being tall or having big feet. You don’t wake up every morning and practice being 6’5″, it’s just who you are. And my controlled emotions are who I am.

And if that hurts people around me, then I feel genuine sorrow, but you’d never know it to look at me.

Getting cancer results, and £18,000 of hard drugs

A month since the surgery, and I’m invited back to hospital to get some results.

Girlfriend comes with me, and as we sat outside the surgeon’s office I happened to mention that she might find the surgeon appealing. As much as I could tell, which isn’t very much at all, he seemed like the kind of bloke girls like: he has a booming, confident voice, hair, hands and teeth. There was something hero-doctor about him.

I had no idea. She was positively gooey about him by the time we’d had the results, although part of me wonders if she’d be quite so keen if the results weren’t quite so positive. I found a photo of him when we got home, and made it into her iPhone wallpaper.

For those who care, I had chromophobe renal cell carcinoma (cRCC). He showed me a photo of my kidney. Here it is. The lower image has my drawing of the correct size/shape of a normal kidney.

Dear reader, you’re probably hurling all over your laptop, but I think this photo is seriously cool. How many of us get to see one of our own internal organs on a slab?

The cancer is pretty big, as you can see, but it’s slow-growing and doesn’t appear to have broken out and spread anywhere else.

Kidney cancers don’t respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy (who knew?), so if the same cancer occurs anywhere else in my body there isn’t much they can do.

But fortunately, cRCC doesn’t spread very easily, and even  if it does come back I’m having a series of scans for the next 3 years to spot it early. There’s a 50-50 chance of a recurrence, but if it rears its pug-ugly head again they’ll do a microsurgery to whip it out.

And I’m being put on a trial of a new drug, which is a “smart chemotherapy”. It’s been trialed already on people in end-stage cancer, and now they want to try it on somebody like me: just had the cancer, but it’s been removed with surgery. They want to see if, in lower doses, it can prevent the cancer from returning.

“Here are enough pills to last 3 months”, says the man. I take the pills. “Be careful with those, they cost £6,000 for a month’s supply”.

Gulp.

So I’m on this for 3 years. That’s a total of £216,000 of drugs. Add to that the cost of surgery (let’s say £10,000) and a six-week hospital stay (let’s say £2,500 per week, or £15k) and full body CT scan every 3 months for 3 years (let’s say £3,000 per scan) and you come to a total cost of….

Fucking hell. That’s £350,000.

Fucking hell.

All to keep me alive? Me! Am I worth it? Seriously? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just hand me £100,000 on the understanding that I drink myself to death in a Dutch brothel within a month.