Writing Thoughts: How to win the lottery

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I drove down to Louisville to have lunch with my lovely sister this week. In the car on the way there, I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, Reply All (a great recommendation from Cathy Day). Reply All is about “technology” and “the internet,” but really it’s about humans and all the weird ways they intersect with those two things. Sometimes the “technology/internet” connection is pretty thin and that’s just fine with me.

Listening to Reply All keeps an old person like me marginally hip to the whole world of things like famous Instagram dogs and bots and, in this episode, beauty YouTubers (yes, that’s a thing). There was a whole thing with a beauty YouTuber sending subliminal messages on YouTube, but that is not the point of this post. This particular beauty YouTuber had about 600,000 and in the episode it became clear that these were not particularly impressive numbers. To be an impressive YouTuber, you need at least a million followers. At least.

A woman listening to this episode wrote in to the Reply All guys to say that hearing these numbers broke her heart. The woman has her own YouTube show where her and some friends try various food (I think that’s the gist of it—you can see the limits of my YouTube knowledge showing here). She was ecstatic about having 600 followers. Like, she celebrated reaching 500 followers. Then she heard on Reply All that 600 followers was nothing. In fact, it was sort of pathetic in the world of YouTubers.

What was she doing wrong, she asked one of the Reply All guys. She worked hard on her YouTube show. She’d like to be able to quit her job and do her YouTube show full-time. Was there a secret Google algorithm out there somewhere that would allow her to become a real YouTuber, someone with a million followers? What was the secret, she wanted to know.

The Reply All guy didn’t really have an answer, but it made him think of a speech he’d heard at XOXO. XOXO is some sort of tech/internet conference. Don’t ask me. I don’t know what it is, either. But you can watch the speech he was talking about here. It’s a talk by Darius Kazemi, who is an internet…artist? Yeah, I didn’t know there was such a thing, either. Stay with me, though.

Here is the takeaway from Kazemi’s talk—becoming a YouTuber with a million followers is essentially like winning the lottery. It is mostly out of your control. Sure, there’s a base level of effort you need to put in. That’s like the equivalent of buying the lottery ticket. You have to buy the ticket. But once you buy the ticket, the rest of it is largely out of your control. It’s a one in a million chance.

This is not what many people will tell you. They’ll tell you that becoming the next big thing is all about stuff like hard work. Or building a community. Or being in tune with the zeitgeist. Or being persistent. People will imply that there is a secret to this kind of success and they have it and you, too, can be like them.

But Kazemi’s like, nope. Not how it works. You do have to buy the ticket. But out of 125 projects he did in a year, only about 8 of them really took off. The rest pretty much tanked and there’s nothing that really explains the difference between the ones that tanked and the ones that didn’t. It’s mostly luck.

If you believe in the truth of what this guy’s saying, I can imagine at least two possible reactions. One is despair. Whether your YouTube channel gets millions of followers or your book becomes a bestseller or your invention changes the world is largely about luck. You have to make the YouTube show or write the book or actually invent something. You have to buy the ticket. But after that, a lot of it is out of your hands. How depressing. What’s the point?

That’s not my reaction. I find the lottery model comforting and certainly truer to my experience. As a writer, I know there are some very shitty books that make it onto the bestseller list. You can do whatever mental gymnastics you want to explain why and how that happens, but I believe Kazemi’s right—it’s mostly just luck.

It doesn’t mean you don’t go on buying the lottery ticket. You’re never going to win if you don’t play. But it might be healthy to accept that playing by itself, and even playing really well, might not be enough. You have to decide if you want to go on buying the ticket.

Because here’s what Kazemi doesn’t say. So you never win the lottery. Did you have fun playing? Does that woman who wrote in enjoy doing her YouTube channel? Do I like writing? Most days, yes. Could I be okay with winning $100 on a scratch-off instead of the jackpot? Sure. The small victories are still pretty exciting. The rest of it is up to chance and there’s a deep comfort for me in knowing that.

P.S. I also listened to a fascinating episode about tulpas, which you can find here, and might sort of blow your mind.

P.P.S. Also this episode about medical mysteries and Hickan’s dictum.


  1. A wonderful post with a healthy perspective. Thanks for writing, Robyn.

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