When Hubby and I were in Peru a few weeks ago, we ate supper in a near empty dining room one night at our hotel in Ollantaytambo, and chatted to an American lady at the next table. She sat alone engrossed in her i-pad until Hubby called over to her, “We haven’t seen many jackets like yours down here.” She had on a zippered, athletic jacket with a logo Hubby recognized from a college in upstate New York, just over the border from where we live. She raised her head, and laughed. That friendly comment of Hubby’s began one of the most interesting conversations we had with a fellow traveller on this trip.

Early spring on the farm in New Brunswick where I grew up.

We talked about politics, travel, careers, family, and then about Peru. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who opened up to strangers so easily and so joyfully as this lady from upstate New York. She laughed a lot. So did we, actually. She was travelling alone. She told us her husband doesn’t like to travel, so each year he says,”Off you go on your adventure.” And off she goes for three weeks while he stays home with their two kids.

Over the course of our conversation we learned that she’d gone back to school a few years ago as an adult. Had acquired her MBA. And now lives in Florida and works as a freelance consultant. Hence the freedom to take three weeks off when she wants. She has two daughters, one of whom will be heading off to university this fall.

When she learned that we’re retired teachers, we had a rousing conversation about education. She wanted to know about life in the classroom. I told a few of my best teacher stories. She wanted to hear all about retirement. Said she hoped when her husband retired she might convince him to do at least a little travel. I think we talked about road trips as an option.

Then we talked about our experiences in South America. Where she’d been. What she thought of all that she’d seen. And where we’d been. She had the same impression of Peru as we did. Love, love, loved it. But found the poverty difficult, and the Peruvian people admirable and inspiring. She said she couldn’t wait to get back home to make sure her girls knew that they had “won the birth lottery.” Hubby and I were both struck by that phrase. The birth lottery. We agreed that we’d all three benefited from the birth lottery.

Where we are born, and when. Who our parents are. What values they hold and pass on to us. And the luck and circumstances that flow from these beginnings. These things, every bit as much as how smart we are and how hard we work, determine the shape of our adult lives. And for a while this is what we talked about. And how our experiences in South America had reinforced this belief for all three of us.

I think that too many of us who live privileged lives believe that we do so because we have earned our good fortune, that we alone are responsible for whatever we’ve achieved. Hubby and I are not wealthy people. But we consider that we live a life of relative privilege. And that much of what we have, including the ability to retire at quite a young age with enough money to travel and do pretty much what we want to do, is the result of a strong start in life, good fortune, and a bit of luck. That and the fact that we were born in a time and place which allowed us to be successful.
Take me for example. My family was not rich. My mum comes from a solid working-class background. My grandparents worked hard all their lives to build a small business, and raise eight children. My grandfather was a diamond in the rough, to use that old cliché. He was not educated, nor was he elegant, or erudite. But he was a canny businessman, a very hard worker, and kindness and generosity personified. Like my grandfather, my grandmother had a tremendously strong work ethic. She was also smart, quick-witted, and a voracious reader. And she could turn out a pan of molasses cookies, or whip you up a crocheted cushion cover like nobody’s business. Probably reading a book at the same time. It was a combination of these qualities that my Mum inherited from her parents and in turn passed on to her four kids. These plus the value of education, and the importance of treating others with respect have formed how I look at the world.
Early fall on the trail along the Saint John River in New Brunswick

My mum is fond of saying that my sisters and I “put ourselves through school.” Which is true with respect to the monetary requirements. We did pay our own tuition and buy our books and supplies for school with student loans and bursaries. I clearly remember the last payment I made on my student loan when I was in my early thirties, and still only teaching part-time. I cashed a cheque for a thousand dollars, and used every cent to clear my loan. I remember chortling to the bank teller, “Better take it quick before I change my mind and go shopping.”

But what my mum doesn’t recall when she says we “did it all on our own,” is the endless parade of used furniture that was moved into various apartments, for my sisters and me, and then carted back to the farm when we no longer needed it. All those Sunday night dinners at home when I lived in town and, afterward, was packed off, back to the city, with my laundry done and groceries for the week. Or the old car that my stepdad kept in good repair so I could drive it back and forth to school when I still lived on the farm. Or the bedroom back home that was always there for any of us to move back to when we needed it. Or simply the desire to get an education to begin with, a value that was instilled in us when we were young.

Many of my friends had parents who were wealthy enough to pay for their university education. But just as many had parents who did not see the value of post secondary education, and who did not encourage them to pursue anything after high school but paid employment. What would I be doing now, if that had been the case for me, I wonder.

In fall the old farmhouse gets extra colour

So recognizing the hand up that I had makes me realize just how lucky I’ve been. Not just lucky to have had my family’s support. But also lucky to have lived in a place where education is attainable, and things like student loans were available to kids like me whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for university. And it really gets under my skin when I hear people account for their success by referring only to how hard they’ve worked, and how smart they’ve been. Particularly when it’s said by people who were born into privilege. And most particularly when it’s said by people in power.

Of course we need to work hard to build on the start we’re given in life. Of course getting a good start doesn’t ensure we will be successful. We all make choices in life that either help or hinder our path to success. But to ignore the fact that time and place and circumstance play just as important a role in how we fare in life is…well… stupid… in my opinion. And smacks of hubris.

Annual spring flooding along the Saint John creates lots of detours and a few good pictures.

So this is what we talked about that evening in Ollantaytambo. How lucky we are. How privileged we are. Hubby and I both coming from working class families who had little, but passed on a lot of what became integral to our success. And this lady whom we had just met, an African-American woman from northern New York, who got herself an education, married a much older man who is Native American, went back to school to get a better education, and who is now running her own business and raising two daughters. We’ve all worked hard. We were none of us born into families who had wealth. We all were smart enough to get a university degree. But we agreed that being in Peru, seeing how hard people work, how friendly and smiling everyone seemed, and how difficult their lives are made us all realize that we had indeed “won the birth lottery”… as our new friend put it.

I think that we ignore this idea of “the birth lottery” at our peril. We should acknowledge that we are not necessarily entitled to our good fortune, our success, our privilege. That it didn’t just happen because we are smart and hardworking. Or “blessed” as some people say. Because when we assume that success and privilege is our natural birthright, then we must assume that it is natural for those same things to be denied to others. Like I said, hubris. And hubris, is a dangerous trap into which to tumble. Either personally or as a country. We English teachers love that term “hubris.” Overwhelming pride, a sense of entitlement, over confidence, that in literature always leads to one’s downfall. I mean if you remember your high school Macbeth … look what hubris did for him by the end of the play. And if you don’t remember… well, let me just say this… hated by all, defeated by his enemies, head on a pike, deader than a door nail.

Just saying.

Phew. I’m veering dangerously close to a discussion about politics. And that wasn’t my intention when I started writing. I began this post after I read an article that Lisa Carnochan posted on Medium.com. In the article, Lisa traces her current political values back to their origins, referring to her family background and incidents in her life that have helped her become who she is and what she believes. I’ve been reading Lisa’s blog Privilege for years. She was very kind to me when I started blogging myself, reading and commenting on my posts, encouraging me, and even recommending my blog to her readers. So if it’s political discussion you want, have a look at her new endeavour on Medium.com. She’s one smart lady, and a really good writer.

Now, it’s your turn. Anyone want to wade into any issue? Anyone? Any issue? We’re ready to listen.


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From the archives


Perils of Perfectionism

I am a life-long perfectionist. And it has brought me nothing but trouble.

Friend of My Youth

Talking about one friend of my youth today. With whom I was friends only briefly, but who was a big part of my childhood. Oh, and cats.

Patagonia: Like Falling in Love

We're travelling in beautiful southern Patagonia this week. Walking, hiking, eating, and enjoying the stunning scenery.

48 thoughts on “On Winning the Birth Lottery”

  1. Sue this is beautifully written! I am honored that you read my post, and honored that someone as grounded as you in hard work and education found what I had to say valuable. I tried not to lecture, just to honestly examine my own beliefs and how I got them, in hopes that others might do the same. I have to say, sounds to me like your family also understood how to care for people, as well as hard work and education, and that you've inherited that capability as well. Thank you so much. Maybe if we call this gratitude, learning to appreciate our "birth lottery," as you call it, that will expand the capacity we all have for compassion.

    1. Thanks, Lisa. Your good opinion means a lot to me. I didn't get into my specific political opinions about specific issues, mostly for the same reason you stay away from that on your blog. But I guess it's not hard to extrapolate what those opinions might be:)

  2. What a fabulous post! The birth lottery, yes. I always try to remember my mother's phrase, "there but for the grace of God go I." We were all dealt different cards, and it annoys me when I encounter people who think we all got the same hand, and that they are better off because of how they played it, and not what they started with.

    1. Thanks, Sue. Using the hand of cards is a great analogy. It always surprises me when people seem to want to deny others the same help we've all had at some point in our heritage.

  3. The luck of the "birth lottery" has really hit home since our grandson was born last summer……I look at him and think how very fortunate he is to have been born into fortunate circumstances. His parents are both smart, well-educated and have a very strong work ethic. They work hard and are able to provide a safe, stable, loving environment free from want. And it nearly breaks my heart that not every single baby is lucky enough to be born into such circumstances.

  4. This is a wonderful post, and I could not agree more. My parents were poor by most standards, but we were taught to work hard and there was no question we all needed to learn to "paddle our own canoe" (as my dad so bluntly put it). That said, we definitely won the birth lottery and I feel very fortunate to have been able to get an education, work hard and do fairly well in life. Those who think they haven't been fortunate remind me of the old saying: Born on third base and thought he hit a home run. 🙂

  5. Sue,this is a meaningful and beautiful post
    It is fascinating how we could find a completely stranger while travelling and share our life stories,isn't it?
    I was always considered myself priviledged to be born in my family,full of love,caring,compassion,curious and openminded,with a work and studying ethics (and a lot of other blessings). I've studied and worked very hard but have never underestimated conditions from where I've started
    Political and economical situation here could not be compared with Western Europe,US or Canada at all,but despite all problems, I feel very happy
    Having health,job and retirement security for almost all categories of people and completely free education for everyone during my youth-it was something we all took for granted. Things are changing,not always for the better
    You travel stories have enriched me in more than one way

    1. Thanks, Dottoressa. Free education is a big one, isn't it. Ours is not free, but still attainable. I remember when we travelled to Costa Rica, we were told how the country stood down its armies and used the extra money to fund education. Isn't that amazing?

  6. Great post , Interesting & thought provoking Sue & I agree with all you say – there's such a lot of hubris in the world just now & many people are fooled by it .
    My dad was a very clever man , interested in everything , a philosopher, an inventor of things too & there were many discussions ( arguments even ) over the dinner table . We were a family of strong opinions & we always said dad could argue with himself if no one else was available . He didn't do too well in the birth lottery , wrong time , wrong place & a father who , because of a dreadful childhood , struggled with his own family . So I don't feel my dad fulfilled his true potential but he seemed happy with his lot , which I suppose is what matters . Great success & happiness don't always go together . Perhaps sometimes the perfect childhood can make your adult life a little unsatisfactory ?
    I also wonder what effect our individual gene mix can have on our achievements . My hubby , a conscientious person , did well in his career but his siblings , very different personalities , didn't . You've set me thinking , which is good .
    Wendy in York

    1. Thanks, Wendy. You are so right….as usual. Monetary success doesn't always ensure happiness. I always felt sad that my stepdad did not have more education. He only attended until grade 6 (12 years old) but as the eldest son he was needed at home. He loved to hear about everything from politics to science. I remember coming home from university and regaling him with stories of what I'd learned in my animal behaviour course.
      As to the gene mix…well.. that's a topic Hubby and I often discuss. It's fascinating, isn't it? And since I have half siblings and a step sibling, the nature vs nurture thing is always interesting to me.
      Gad… you and I are just going to have to sit down with a pot of tea and have a good old natter one day.

    2. Perhaps we could arrange for a crossing of paths if your U.K. Trip comes off ? It'll have to be coffee for me though – I can't get tea passed my teeth 🙂 Some great comments here Sue , as usual

  7. I'm a long time reader but first time commenter; thank you for sharing your travel experiences.
    My husband and I have had several conversations about the birth lottery; increasingly in recent months. We live in an area where most people, including many of our friends, have seemingly drifted towards acting in an entitled manner and with disdain for others not as fortunate as they. This troubles us greatly, and we struggle to maintain relationships with people who have been lifelong friends and good people but who differ so greatly on what seems to be such a basic understanding of humans. I see this gap growing wider in current times, which is troubling and a source of much pain. I'm nearing retirement (2 years) and my husband is retired, and we are hoping to spend more time helping those who did not win the birth lottery during our "golden years."
    It's a lovely blog you have, Sue.

    1. Why, thank-you. So glad you took the time to comment. It's funny, isn't it, how we can know someone for years and not really know them? Or maybe it's just that when we're younger we are too occupied with the day to day stresses? In my case I'm not sure when I was much younger whether or not I really had firm opinions, and I definitely didn't have the confidence to express them.
      Hope you continue to stop by the blog… even if you don't comment:)

  8. Yes, I know what you mean. Many years ago I actually bested my politically very aware teenaged daughter when she complained "it wasn't fair" that she had to blow out her hair for it to look good. My response, "you want to talk to talk about fair? You could be four-years-old, living in South America and working in the Nike factory." We North Americans are all lucky because it's **possible** to have upward trajectories or live in relative comfort in peace. Yesterday was Yom Hashoah (Holodcaust Remembrance) and what did those people ever do or not do to have met death that way? They were victims of rotten historical time and place. Whether you discuss current news or office holders, politics are embedded in your ruminations.

    1. That's a good story, Phoebe. And "upward trajectory" is a good way to express what we expect out of life. In Peru it looked as if people worked hard, really hard just to maintain the status quo. And that's not even considering the people devastated by floods there. Or the families of friends of mine who live (or lived) in Syria.
      And you're right. While I try not to talk about specific political issues here on my blog, my political opinions are always just below the surface, as they are for all of us.

  9. In my humble opinion, the most important lesson I've gleaned from travel is the similarities of what people around the world want in their lives. Whether in South Africa, China, Cambodia or Canada – people love their children and want them to have an opportunity for a better life. They want to be given a chance to succeed. They want a modest, safe place to live and access to affordable healthcare.They want to be left alone to enjoy work, family and friends. They want to worship in their own way. No matter where I have been, I have been struck over and over again that our leaders would be wiser should they avail themselves of travel- not in 5 star resorts but on the trains and busses average people take. Personally I cringe when I hear the President of the US speak as if he "hit a home run" all on his own- when we all know he was actually "born on 3rd base!"

    1. That is so well said, Buffalo Gal. And I also agree about travel being eye-opening. Except for five star resort travel which teaches us little, except that the scenery is beautiful, and that luxury can be had anywhere, sadly.

  10. Beautiful post! You said so well what I have often thought as we've traveled to some of the world's poorer areas and been so impressed by the people who didn't "win the birth lottery". Those have definitely been humbling experiences for us.

  11. Thank you so much for your beautifully written, strong post. Of all the blogs I read regularly, yours is my favourite — I think because you manage to strike such an excellent balance between the fun reflections on fashion and the more meaningful and thought-provoking explorations and opinions such as today's post and your travel reflections, which are so enjoyable.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words. The vote of confidence for the non-fashion posts is most appreciated. For while the fashion stuff is fun, the other posts are usually closer to my heart.

  12. I cannot agree more. Neither of my parents had intact families — my dad's father died when he was a baby and my mother's left when she was 12. Neither family had much money, and if you look at the statistics on single parent households this could have been a disaster. Both mothers rallied with the help of extended families and with hard work and minimal financial support both my parents graduated from high school and college (neither of their mothers did). I often think about how different my life would have been if those two strong women had not persevered. I especially respect my paternal grandmother who not only lived through her first husband's death at 24, but also a stillborn baby, a second husband's death while she was pregnant and a son lost in the battle of Iwo Jima.

    1. What a great story. Your grandmothers sound like such strong women. Especially your paternal grandmother. Ironically my mum was widowed young as well… she was 23 with three children under 5.

  13. My husband and I also speak of the role our birth circumstances played in our lives, and I will be stealing the phrase "winning the birth lottery." I also appreciate that you used the word "hubris." Folks who seem to think that all it takes to succeed is to pull oneself up by the bootstraps don't recognize that we are fortunate if we HAVE bootstraps. Yes, "hubris" is exactly the right word.

    1. Feel free to use that line…since it wasn't mine to begin with. Love the idea that you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you haven't any book straps… or even any boots for that matter:)

  14. How very on point. I have been having similar conversations recently and mostly with friends who, like me, are in the 50-60 bracket and looking back on having been born in very fortunate times and with a narrow window of opportunity. That window is slamming firmly shut now, especially for our children and their generation but I believe they will be fine because a. we had them safely and with the inestimable power of the NHS to come to the rescue b. we were educated in a world pre-80s when it wasn't all about money and climbing various ladders c.we were fortunate enough to be born into loving families where there was enough money but not too much so we have not been able to hand on any inherited wealth but just to encourage them. d. they are adaptable and capable. Personally, I would add the boon of not being born into any hard-core religious framework and having the freedom of thought and choice that so many women just won't experience. I don't care about not being wealthy but I would hate to be curtailed.

    1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. We had lots of conversation around this idea at my book club last night. About encouragement and support being so much better in the long run than inherited wealth.

  15. I'm a PANDA (previously advantaged now disadvantaged ;~)
    Previously disadvantaged is the PC term in South Africa.

    My mother taught me to love reading and learning, and I regret for her that she didn't get a university education in languages. And that I, casually took it for granted that I would go to university.
    Now we have the Fees Must Fall campaign and I admire that Finland has free education.
    Depends where a country's financial and social priorities lie.

    1. I too "casually" took it for granted that I would go to university… but mostly because my Mum had somehow instilled that idea in my sisters and me. We learned when we were in Argentina that post-secondary education is free there as well. And several countries in Europe but I'd have to look that up to be sure which ones.

  16. Yes, I definitely agree we do take for granted the circumstances that we are lucky enough to be born in. I have definitely been thinking this lately especially when I hear stories about refugees. That's one reason I do really try to give back. #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  17. "I think that too many of us who live privileged lives believe that we do so because we have earned our good fortune, that we alone are responsible for whatever we've achieved." You phrased this so well. I have been giving this a LOT of thought the past two years and I continue to be humbled as I listen to the stories of those who have overcome much to get where they are today. I'm a hard worker but I know that much of my success can be attributed to where I started out. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  18. This is a fantastic post. Very thought provoking, and makes us very thankful that we did ok with the birth lottery. Your story of meeting this lady and your interesting discussions are why we love travel. Meeting a stranger then realising you have much in common. Really enjoyed this read than you. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  19. I have devoured your post and all the honest, personal and strong comments made by your readers. I will be sharing your article with my teenage children tomorrow (so they hear these thoughts again from someone other than me) and also ringing my parents to say hi and thanks again 🙂 … Annette #TheWeeklyPostcard

  20. Very enlightening read! It's definitely a true statement and so many people are always jealous of me bc I'm from California or the US. But in reality, I'm equally jealous they're from Italy, France etc. I didn't chose to be American no less than someone else chose to be Swiss. Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard

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