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Do you think Dylan knew what he was doing with his songs? Did he really think that deeply?

Let’s start at an oblique angle and work our way into this idea; in fact, let’s start with an act of sacrilege: Do you think that maybe Warren Buffet was just lucky?

People have an amazing ability to explain their successes in terms of their ability, foresight and effort, and their failures on the basis of chance, luck, and karma. But maybe, just maybe, it is all – every bit of it – explained by chance, luck and karma.


Interesting commentary worthy of individual reflection for all of us.

Regarding musicians and song-writing, the truly rich and famous tend to be dominated by two camps of artists. One camp consists of people whose process seems to make them more of a conduit for the material as it arrives from somewhere else -- they simply are there to perceive it, write it down and record it. Paul McCartney -- famous for waking up one morning and walking to the piano and playing the entire song Let It Be -- is one example. Neil Young describes his process in a similar vein. People in this camp are obviously capable of PERFORMING their material but, at least early in their career, can't really articulate HOW they composed it or what it drew from. Only after many years, some grow to understand the "theory" behind what they created.

The other camp of rich and famous musicians literally studied enough of the tools of their craft that they can literally sit down and PLAN to assemble a song based upon the unique aspects of their instrument and the conventions of music (intros, verses, bridges, modulations, codas, etc.) Artists in this camp frequently report carrying around a notebook and tape recorder to ensure they capture EVERY small idea that occurs to them to avoid forgetting them since the big pearls of inspiration don't come all that often to them. Artists like this frequently state they literally approach song writing like you and I approach our 40 hour/week job. (They probably still have way more fun, but they literally have to consciously devout significant, consecutive hours on a scheduled basis to produce their work.)

Regardless of what camp of creativity they belong to, I doubt most musicians can predict what material is going to click on a worldwide basis. There are lots of stories of artists and producers finishing a listen to a final track for the first time and saying "That's a hit!" but only in a sense very localized to place, market and time. I'm sure George Martin and the Beatles knew "She Loves You" was going to do well but I'm pretty sure none knew it would remain recognizable to the entire world 50 years later.

Regarding investment success, the factors behind the performance and fame of individual investors is akin to the survival of large corporations on the NYSE. Does the continuous presence of a company on the NYSE somehow "prove" that the people who founded the company purposely set out to organize a business and a management team with the skills needed to survive 100 years? No way. It just means in a complex economy, there are a few businesses which wind up involved with certain products or functions which are essential to the larger economy over long periods of time. All the management and employees have to do is not get too greedy and screw it up and let someone else take them over or drive them out of business.

If you read much of Warren Buffett's commentary over his career, he continually refers to having won the "ovarian lottery" by being born in America amidst a system that allowed someone with his particular analytical skill set to make a living by managing capital and companies at an abstract, hands-off layer. I think he produced much of his own "luck" by being humble enough to recognize the limits of his ability to predict performance and understanding how the system would work if you build in a buffer for your investments by maximizing the delta between current worth and purchase price. As he likes to say, he makes all of his money at buy-time. He only captures it at sell-time.

In general, I think people DO over-rationalize their success in their career and their lives and over-attribute it to their own hard work and smarts. Clearly, there are cases where people had an idea, went against the stream of nearly everyone around them who thought it was foolish, persevered and made a fortune and achieved success and happiness pretty much on their own cuz no one else would buy into their idea. However, for most people, including most middle managers, execs and CEOs, they just bounced through a system that needs a certain amount of high-paid decision makers and they happened to be in the right place at the right time to land the gig. In a narrower set of cases, once in those gigs, they had the ability to influence their own pay and reach stratospheric levels of compensation not just 2x-3x or 20x-30x but 200x-300x that of most of us.

In my case, my career and income track was altered about 13 years ago by a total chance conversation I had with a colleague who happened to be walking down my cubicle aisle on his last day before starting a new job at another company. I didn't know he was leaving so I wouldn't have thought to stop by for the conversation on my own and we weren't close friends at the time, just well-respected colleagues. After he mentioned where he was going, I half jokingly said "if you see anything when you get there that might be up my alley, lemme know." A month later, he did, I interviewed for a staff engineer position and took it.

That new firm was a dot-com experiment that thought it was growing and had a lot of "other people's money" (temporarily) to throw around and wound up boosting my salary by over 50% and gave me a title I NEVER would have achieved at the stale company I left. That boost in pay and higher title helped land another gig after the dot-com startup failed which has kept my income at a level over TWICE what I was earning in that original job. All because one guy I casually knew happened to be making his farewell walk through the department at a time when I was in my cube rather than stuck in a meeting. I know 10-20 people just as technically savvy as me who didn't get that pay bump and have experienced a lot more volatility in their career track and income over the same period. I can take some of the credit for my good fortune but it would be delusional to believe no one else contributed (actively or unwittingly).

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