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The role of luck in success and survival

New book by Joshua Piven, “As Luck Would Have It,” offers a survey of the phenomenon of luck, presented through incredible first-person stories and includes research on how to prepare for luck, how to deal with it and how to make choices that will help us benefit from it.

Back in 1981, Tommy Tutone got its lucky break with the hit tune “Jenny/867-5309,” but without proper “luck management,” they failed to turn their one-hit wonder into a successful music career. That’s just one of the many compelling real-life stories of good and bad fortune that Joshua Piven came across while co-writing the “Worse-Case Scenario Handbook” series. And can now be found in his new book, “As Luck Would Have It: Incredible Stories, from Lottery Wins to Lightning Strikes.” Piven discusses the book on “Today.” Read an excerpt below.


Steve Roberts is having trouble reading the numbers.

It’s dark outside, and he’s driving, so try as he might, he can barely make them out. It’s late, and he’s tired, and the woman on the radio is announcing the winning numbers over and over, since the drawing was hours ago, and the winning combination was sold. Yet still no one has come forward to claim the jackpot. With his ten tickets, each containing ten series of numbers, there’s no way he can listen to the announcer on the radio, watch the road, and read the tickets at the same time. Instead, he tries a quick glance at each Big Money Ball number, knowing that, without that number, there’s no chance he’ll win the Big Game.

But it’s no use, he just can’t see the numbers. He doesn’t bother pulling over, since it’s after 11:00 p.m. and he’s tired. He’s had a long day putting in and inspecting pools in the Michigan suburbs where, in May 2000, the hot, humid summer — his busy season — is just getting under way. He gives up on the tickets. And anyway that hot dog he ate at lunchtime, the one he bought just before he decided to pick up some tickets, isn’t sitting too well. He’d just as soon get home, see his wife and kids, maybe have a beer and a snack, and go to bed.

What are the odds that he’s the winner? Who ever heard of a guy like him winning the Big Game? Much less today’s jackpot, the biggest in the history of any lottery. And anyway, he’s never even bought a lottery ticket in his life. Wasn’t it always the guys who bought a ticket every day for twenty years who won? He puts the tickets back into his pocket and laughs — a tired, exhausted, end-of-a-long-day laugh. Then he sighs.

What was it up to now? Something like $363 million? He pulls into his driveway. It’s nearing 11:30, and he has to be up early in the morning. He sighs again.

A lottery win is luck in its purest form: unexpected, unpredictable, and with external causes over which we have absolutely no control. And, of course, there are the tremendous odds. These vary with the game and the number of tickets sold, but the odds of winning a multistate lottery are in the tens or scores of millions to one. These odds generally rise in direct proportion to the dollar amount of the potential payout: More money means more media hype, which means more people buying more tickets, which means a larger jackpot, which starts the cycle all over again.

But winning a big-money lottery game, while clearly lucky, often comes with a price, and that price can quickly turn untold millions into a liability instead of an asset. With big money comes big publicity, and on the heels of publicity come those looking for an investment, a loan, or simply a handout. Furthermore, many lottery winners are unprepared for their huge tax liability and for the suddenly needy relatives, the scheming business associates, and the jealousy and resentment of their friends and colleagues. Add in the huge psychological burden of dealing with sudden wealth and you get a depressing but sobering statistic: Two out of every three lottery winners either lose or spend all their winnings within five years.

Still, winning the lottery may seem like a problem well worth having. That wouldn’t be me, we think. I’d invest all my money. I’d play it safe. But the fact is that managing the good luck of a lottery win is not as easy as it might seem. Several researchers have even identified a psychological disorder, termed “sudden wealth syndrome,” that can result from a large influx of money and can severely hamper our day-to-day ability to function in the world. And these symptoms can afflict those who get sudden, unexpected wealth not just from a lottery ticket but via an inheritance, or even from an unexpected business success. Examining the story of Steve Roberts can tell us much about how we can manage the good luck of sudden wealth in our lives, so that we can learn how to use good fortune to remain fortunate.

Roberts (he asked that his real name not be used) is a workaday guy, albeit one with a fairly successful swimming pool contracting business. At age forty-eight, he’s doing pretty well for himself, bringing in $100,000 in a good year, although like everyone he knows he’s also saddled with a mortgage and a car payment. With one son still in college and his daughter about to enter high school, he’s having trouble keeping his savings in the five digits. Still, things are pretty good, and with a few more hot summers, he figures he might be able to dig a pool for himself.

The Big Game is a seven-state combined lottery. By May 2000 it has rolled over so many times that everyone has lost track of when the last Big Money Ball winner was. While many people pick the winning five numbers, they win only smaller payouts, generally about $150,000 each before taxes. Unless you have all five numbers and the Big Money Ball number, you do not win the jackpot. The May 2000 Big Game jackpot, at $366 million, is the largest in U.S. history, eclipsing even 1998’s $296 million Powerball jackpot, which had been split among thirteen lucky Ohio machinists. (A December 1999 Spanish lottery, called El Gordo, was valued at $1.2 billion but was split among thousands of winners.)

The night before the May 9 drawing, Peg, Steve’s wife, sees a news story on the size of the jackpot, now over $300 million, making the pot the most valuable in the history of multistate lotteries. Peg is by no means a gambler; she’s never even dropped a nickel in a slot machine. In fact, she and Steve have good-naturedly teased their friends about buying lottery tickets. With the odds against winning so high, what’s the point? You’d probably have a better chance striking oil in your backyard!

Still, she thinks, so much money! What would anyone possibly do with it all? Give it away to family and friends, she supposes, and to charity. And pay off the mortgage, of course. Pay off the car. She comments to Steve on the size of the jackpot and, with skepticism thick in his voice, he agrees that, if he’s somewhere where he can pick up a ticket quickly, he will. But he knows he probably won’t: He has a full day of work on Tuesday, and he’s seen the news stories, too. Those lottery places have lines stretching around the block.

The next day Steve has of course forgotten all about the Big Game. Instead, he’s thinking about the pools he needs to inspect and, if necessary, repair. With the weather getting hot already, he knows that by Memorial Day suburban Michiganites will be clamoring for relief from the stifling humidity.

At lunchtime, Steve heads over to Mr. K’s Party Shoppe, twenty miles north of Detroit, to pick up a hot dog and a Coke. While standing at the counter, he suddenly realizes that the store has a lottery machine and, even more amazingly, there is no line at all. He opens his wallet, figuring that he’ll pick up a ticket with the few loose dollars in his pocket, but quickly realizes that all he has is a hundred-dollar bill. He pays for the hot dog and, figuring what the hell, asks for his change in lottery tickets, receiving ninety-eight one-dollar tickets. He’s never played before, so he doesn’t have a lucky number, and anyway he’s in a hurry, so he just asks the kid behind the counter for “easy picks,” random numbers generated by the lottery machine. The clerk asks him if he wants the lump-sum payout or the annuity option; the annuity pays more in the long run, of course, but gives him no control over how his “winnings” are invested. He chooses the annuity. He laughs to himself. He can always change his option later, after he wins.

That night, as he fumbles with the tickets in his truck, he again wonders why he bothered buying them — and why he bought so many. He’s hardly rich, and he’s not a gambler (except occasionally on a game of pool). Ninety-eight dollars, while not likely to break the bank, is still a decent amount of money for him, and lottery tickets are not exactly a smart investment. Indeed, for someone like him, a strong believer in saving for the future, buying lottery tickets seems more like voodoo economics than sound financial planning. Oh well, he thinks, we all make rash decisions now and then.

As he listens to the voice on the radio, he glances down one last time. He does not see a matching Big Money Ball number, although in the darkness he can’t be sure. But who knows, maybe he’s just won $150,000. That wouldn’t be so bad. After taxes, it comes to something near a hundred grand. He could live with that.

When he finally gets home, he’s so tired he goes to bed immediately.

The next morning, as Peg pours orange juice, they watch the early news. The talk show Good Morning America is interviewing twenty-three-year-old Melvin Kassab, the man who sold the winning ticket. Steve comments to Peg that he looks really familiar. In a second he makes the connection and says to his wife, “That’s the kid from Mr. K’s, the one who sold me my ticket!” Peg thinks for a second, then asks Steve how closely he looked at the lottery tickets last night. Their eyes lock, and she immediately goes over to the counter and grabs the tickets, still sitting in a neat pile where her husband left them last night. She looks at the first of the ten tickets, reads the Big Money Ball number, then says quietly, “Steve, we have the Big Money Ball.”

But it can’t be. It must be a mistake. They both check again, carefully comparing the numbers on the ticket with the winning numbers, which are coming up on the screen every few seconds: 33, 2, 1, 12, 37, and Big Money Ball 4. They look at one another, freeze, and then time stops completely.

What is it like to realize, in an instant, that you have suddenly become one of the richest people in America? Not by merit, not by hard work, not by good fortune (as in an inheritance), but rather by pure luck — indeed by virtually the purest form of luck, unplanned, unexpected, against incredible, almost unfathomable odds, and by a means that you have eschewed your entire adult life.

There’s no single emotion, or rather there are too many emotions at the same time. Steve Roberts experiences a very brief period of elation, followed by a period of abject terror. What if someone realizes he has the winning ticket and tries to steal it? What if the ticket gets lost or, worse, damaged? What if someone does something to his kids, perhaps a kidnapping? He quickly calls the Michigan Lottery Commission and is asked to read the validation numbers below the bar code printed on the ticket. He does, and they confirm that he is the winner. Then come the warnings: Do not get the ticket wet, or it is null and void. Do not rip the ticket or otherwise mutilate it, or it is null and void. And please, do not lose the ticket.

For half an hour, Steve and Peg do not speak. Alone, each contemplates the unimaginable wealth they have just been handed. How much will it be? A hundred million? Two hundred million? More? And what difference would it make if it was more? Would they really be able to spend an extra hundred million? What if there are multiple winners? What will their take be then? How much will they give to their families? To charity? Will they move away from Michigan? Where will their daughter go to school?

Steve quickly puts the ticket in a waterproof bag. He and Peg drive to their daughter’s school and make up an excuse to pull her out. Then the three of them drive to the Michigan State Lottery Commission offices, where a throng of reporters has already gathered. Because more than twenty people had picked the correct five numbers (but not the Big Money Ball), there are many other winners arriving, each entitled to a $150,000 payout. With each arrival, the shouting begins anew: “Are you the Big Game winner?” “Did you win the big money?” “How much did you win?”

Fearing for his family’s safety as well as their privacy, Steve says nothing as he enters the building. After validating his ticket, the lottery commission decides on a ruse to protect the family’s privacy for the time being. Steve will be issued one of the large “TV checks” that winners hold up in front of the television cameras. Except, they all agree, his check will read $150,000, not the $181.5 million that he’s actually won (there was one other Big Money Ball winner). Steve is relieved, but he knows it’s only a temporary reprieve. By law he will be forced to go public when the lottery commission officially announces he’s won.

The commission begins to tell him the practical ramifications of his extraordinary luck. His $181.5 million? Since he’s suddenly in the highest tax bracket, it’s closer to $120 million, after paying the tax man. Does he want the lump sum or the twenty-year annuity? He changes his former preference and chooses the lump sum, and the payout instantly shrinks to $90 million. Does he plan to give any of his winnings away? Of course. Does he realize that gifts over $10,000 are subject to the federal gift tax? No, he hadn’t known that. To avoid this tax, he is informed, Steve will need to form a “lottery club,” basically a partnership that allows his designated recipients to share in his winnings without paying the tax. His head spinning, Steve must now decide who will join this exclusive club, and how much money each member will receive.

With so many decisions to make, Steve decides to go home and do some thinking. But when he pulls into their street, he sees a crew from Channel 7, the local ABC affiliate, in front of the house. Has there been a leak? Does the press know he’s the big winner? Soon more news crews show up, and Steve decides he needs to get his family out of the house. After they contact a friend in the Justice Department, Steve and his family are spirited to a hotel in Frankenmuth, Michigan, for the night. There, finding sleep impossible, he begins to think about how he will distribute his winnings.

He decides to give his immediate family members — mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters — $500,000 each. He also decides to pay off the mortgages of other family members, including aunts and uncles, which will allow them to take early retirement. He will pay the college tuitions of some nieces and nephews, and buy new cars for his two grown sons. Because of estate tax laws, he also decides to set up annuities for his children. And he will give lots of money to various charities.

Next morning, the official press circus begins. Steve and his family have been driven, via limousine, to the civic center in Lansing, the state capital. There, entering through an underground garage, they take Governor Engler’s private elevator to a meeting room, where they are officially congratulated by the governor. With a press agent supplied by the lottery commission at his side, Steve enters the press conference room. Packed with reporters, the press conference is nationally televised, and the questions are pretty much what he expected. “How does it feel?” “What are you going to do with the money?” “How often do you play the lottery?” It’s all a blur. At some point, Steve’s press agent informs him that there is a list of two hundred people seeking interviews. Invitations from the morning shows begin pouring in. Steve flies to New York to appear on the Today show and Live with Regis & Kathie Lee. He is interviewed by Bryant Gumbel and Diane Sawyer.

Then, almost as soon as it began, the publicity starts to fade. Within a week the nationals stop calling. After two weeks even the local news reporters pack up their equipment and drive off. Steve is finally able to get back to his life. He decides to work through the summer, at least to finish the jobs he began in the spring. But he soon realizes that his old life is gone. It’s as if, at age forty-eight, he’s been born into a new existence, one with incredible wealth but also incredible pressures, pressures that he’s never experienced before. He now has a new job: wealth management. And everyone’s got a hand out.

A recent survey by Forbes found that 37 percent of the four hundred richest Americans are unhappy. According to Steve, there’s much truth in the old saw that money can’t buy happiness. “Money can’t make you happy, but it can make you more unhappy,” he says. In fact, psychologists have coined a term, affluenza, to describe a wide range of symptoms that can result from sudden wealth, including shame, anger, fear, guilt, and rampant materialism. Affluenza, sudden wealth syndrome, or whatever the diagnosis, the condition of being instantly rich can have profound consequences, not only psychologically but also socially.

Steve discovered that his good fortune meant acquaintances and friends soon began asking for loans or “investments” in their businesses. He found that normal conversations he had had in his “preluck” life were now emotionally charged land mines, forcing him to filter his words. “In the past, if one of my friends got a new car, it was naturally a topic of conversation,” he recalls. “But now, if I talk about a new car, it’s bragging.”

Similarly, Steve found it difficult to maintain some of his former hobbies, because his newfound wealth was always a topic of conversation. “I used to really enjoy playing competitive pool, and I played in some tournaments,” he says. “But now, people say, ‘Why is he playing? He doesn’t need the money.’ So I don’t compete anymore. Simple things just become much more complicated.” While he maintained his close friendships, other people became standoffish and, eventually, drifted away.

Indeed, psychologists have found that, while acquiring a vast sum of money can make life easier in many ways, it often makes personal relationships much more difficult. “A flood of economic power can be really destabilizing to your sense of personal balance,” says Mark Levy, a California psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. In particular, those who are not born into wealth but rather acquire it through luck (the lottery, the stock market) or other means (business success) often lack the skills necessary to manage money, not simply financially but in their relationships as well. Coming into money will also fundamentally test the basis of relationships, many experts say, and will quickly make bad or unhealthy relationships worse.

Steve continually encountered friends and even slight acquaintances who asked to borrow money, and he mostly obliged them. He estimates that “99 percent” of them came back for more. “At the beginning, you just have no comprehension of the power you have, the responsibility that comes with having so much wealth,” he says.

Excerpted from “As Luck Would Have It” by Joshua Piven. Copyright© 2003 by Joshua Piven. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.