Converting “Dumb” Luck

How Standup Paddling Lead me to Google[x] and Facing Down a Maori Haka with the World’s Greatest Ocean Navigators

Originally posted on National Geographic Voices.

Just ahead of us stood dozens of large Maori who pounded their bare chests, summoning blood until their skin glowed red. The cold gray skies and brisk ocean winds made our situation feel more grave. The whites of the angry men’s eyes doubled in size as they bulged. Tongues shot down to their chins. Weapons flashed with blinding speed as everyone jumped in unison. Powerful screams hit us with the force of a hurricane. We were fortunate that this “haka,” a traditional Maori war cry, was not to precede a battle, but to welcome us as friends and respected voyagers.

Maori haka
Maori haka

Life is full of chance events. Sometimes they even determine our future more than our own careful planning. We call this “luck.” If something happens completely outside of your control, then we call that subset “dumb luck.”

But when you convert dumb luck into something valuable, you’re demonstrating a skill, and that takes practice. When you position yourself so that “lucky” things seem to happen around you more frequently than chance predicts, then that is most certainly not luck at all. Let me explain the highly improbable yet fortunate events over the past year of my life.

Twelve months before I met the Maori in New Zealand, I set out on my standup paddle board on a hot sunny day into the blue-green tropical waters of Hawaii, claiming a few hours alone to clear my mind. Leaving the long white sandy beach behind me, I suppose now that I was paddling in the general direction of California, more than 2,500 miles away. But nothing was farther from my mind than 60–80 hour work weeks in Silicon Valley. And yet, my adventure with Google[x] was about to begin with a canoe, anchored just a mile away down the beach.

Anyone from Hawaii can tell you the story of Hōkūle’a, the famous Polynesian voyaging canoe that sailed to Tahiti in 1976 using only the stars, currents, and birds as her guide. She helped prove the theory of Polynesians as master navigators who regularly traversed the vast Pacific Ocean like a highway system, millennia before Columbus stumbled into the “New World.” Every student in Hawaii can explain Hōkūle’a’s critical role in sparking the Hawaiian cultural renaissance, restoring pride and bringing back a people and language from the brink of extinction. Everyone feels her tremendous “mana” — a spiritual energy that draws you to her for reasons beyond explanation.

Hōkūleʻa in Kualoa
Hōkūleʻa in Kualoa

 

As I was paddling that afternoon, I noticed crowds gathering on the shore. When a nearby paddler told me it was a ceremony for Hōkūle’a, I instinctively caught the next wave and paddled straight towards the inspirational canoe. Many others were doing the same thing.

It was pure dumb luck for me that Hōkūle’a happened to be anchored on that exact beach at that exact time. An hour later she set sail along the coast, far out of my site. Had I been there an hour later, or had I headed home sooner, none of the following events would have happened. But just as potential energy inevitably and increasingly converts to kinetic energy when an object falls, this moment of my story is where the power of dumb luck is eclipsed by focus, preparation, and a series of other “chance” events.

This is when I saw an opportunity and made something happen.

Of course I had no idea what might happen if I paddled over to Hōkūle’a and sat in the water next to her for an hour while the crew prepared for departure. Usually nothing noteworthy happens when you position yourself in the middle of the action. I “met” Bill Gates once, which is to say that I almost knocked into him at the Four Seasons on Lanai. I sat at a nearby table in the restaurant for the next thirty minutes, hoping for some way to speak with him without annoying his family during lunch. But nothing happened and I eventually moped back to my room. I dreamt of alternative plot lines for my life that began with a chance encounter with the world’s wealthiest man.

So, it was not “purely” dumb luck when someone on Hōkūle’a yelled out my name as I sat on my standup paddle board. A former colleague was on board, helping Hōkūle’a as a volunteer. We chatted briefly and followed up by email. A month later I met the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) staff to discuss using Google Maps and Street View for their upcoming circumnavigation of the Earth with Hōkūle’a and Hikianalia.

This is where worlds collide in a beautiful way…

Google[x] is the division within Google responsible for “moonshots,” which are in the “the gray area between audacious projects and pure science fiction.” The term refers to President Kennedy’s “we choose the moon” speech in 1962 when he declares the United States would place a man on the moon by the end of the decade, even though they did not yet know how to do so. From self-driving cars to atmospheric balloons providing Internet access to nanoparticles that detect cancer, Google[x] dreams of making impossible things a reality for the betterment of mankind.

There’s a Google[x] video that explains “Moonshot Thinking” in which a Google[x] engineer, Rich DeVaul, explains how this type of thinking has been critical in the history of humanity and responsible for our greatest achievements. “Think about the Polynesian islander on the dugout canoe, deciding one day they were going to go that way,” Rich states as he points his hand to a distant point off camera. “No one had ever been that way before; no one even knew if there was anything that way before. It was amazing and it changed the world.”

So, during the meeting with the PVS, someone showed me this video and asked me to contact Rich. I got “chicken skin” from this exciting coincidence. What were the odds of a Google[x] engineer referencing Polynesian voyaging?

I spent an hour writing a short email to Rich. We connected and discussed our mutual interest in Hawaiian culture. Magical things started to happen. Eventually the PVS crew came to California to visit my team at Google Maps. We also stopped at Google[x], where legendary Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson shared the story of Hokulea and inspired the audience with Hawaii’s own moonshot thinking. World-renowned scientists and engineers asked question after question with curiosity and the sense of wonder that makes children so endearing.

Nainoa Thompson navigating without modern equipment
Nainoa Thompson navigating without modern equipment

Several months later, a position on Rich’s team in Google[x] opened up for a new project he was starting (unrelated to anything I’m discussing here). I jumped at the opportunity to work with someone as accomplished and inspiring as Rich. Independently, I continued to volunteer my personal time helping PVS best use Google’s products to achieve their goals of communicating the voyage to a global audience. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to join their crew and meet up with them in New Zealand, where I took part in the Maori welcoming ceremony.

Reflecting on the events of the past year, this all still sounds like fiction to me. Too good to be true. So many chance events. So much luck. So much joy. You couldn’t engineer something like this. Or could you?

It didn’t have to unfold this way. Nothing would have occurred if I didn’t paddle across the bay towards Hōkūle’a to put myself in the middle of the action. And while these events lead me to Google[x] and Hōkūle’a, I can imagine an infinite number of alternative plot lines that would have seemed equally improbable that day. Some good. Some bad. Maybe one in which I ended up sailing to Samoa and working with a Nobel Prize winner. Or another in which I nearly drown and get fired from my job. Those sound crazy, but only because they didn’t happen.

I believe that you can create your own “luck.” You need to be observant, willing to take some risks, and comfortable with wearing your heart on your sleeve. Put things out into the universe and ultimately something incredible will occur. And when it does, you should be grateful that dumb luck gave you that moment, but you’ll have yourself to thank for all that follows.

See more photos of Hōkūleʻa & Hikianalia arriving in Waitangi, New Zealand.

Hokulea at sunset

All photos copyright of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

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