Derek Sivers

Ancestors, Luck, and Descendants


My Sivers ancestors came from Grantham, Lincolnshire, England on a boat to America in 1849. The boat crashed on rocks in the Irish sea, caught fire in the Atlantic Ocean, got pushed off course repeatedly by storms, and finally landed in New Orleans after two months. New Orleans was overcome with cholera, so they hopped a steam boat up the Mississippi River to St. Louis. Cholera killed nine passengers and the pilot of the boat. Days after they arrived in St. Louis, the city caught fire so they escaped in a covered wagon to Glenwood Iowa, finally arriving after three more months. In 1890, one of their sons ventured to the wild west of Colorado to pursue an opportunity.

Four of my great-grandparents came separately from Sweden to America around 1910. Two were poor farmers, two were middle-class urbanites, but all four were ambitious for prosperity abroad. They met in Colorado and Oregon, where my grandparents were born. After serving in World War Two, my grandparents moved to Portland to pursue an opportunity, with $25 to their name.

My parents met in high school in Portland in the 1960s. My dad is a particle physicist, but wanted to be more outgoing. My mom was homecoming queen, but wanted to be more intellectual. I was born in California in 1969, with a temperament somewhere in between.

Forty years later, a friend asked why I’ve been successful in life. I said I’ve just been ridiculously lucky.

He said, “No. Your success has come from choices, not luck.”

I said, “I disagree! What about being born in America? That wasn’t a choice! That’s luck.”

He said, “No! Your ancestors left a comfortable place to move to a scary unknown place because they felt it would lead to a better life for their descendants. To call your birth place luck is to disregard their foresight and sacrifice. Same with their choice of a spouse, how they raised their kids, and whether they saved for their kids’ future, or squandered it on themselves. None of that was luck.”

OK. Good point. It’s wrong to say our outcomes are all luck or no luck.

I still think most of my success was just luck. But it’s nice to acknowledge that the choices of your ancestors led to the circumstances of your life.

And the choices you make will affect the lives of your descendants for many generations to come.