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‘Chance Is the Biggest Predictor of Success’

Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman explains why he’d rather be successful than remembered

In his new book But What If We’re Wrong?, author Chuck Klosterman dedicates a section to the strange, circuitous career of legendary author Franz Kafka.

Kafka achieved the rare fame of having his personal style become its own artistic category, Klosterman writes. Kafka’s stories about being caught in bureaucratic nightmares and the intense suffering of everyday life were so distinct, sad and hilarious that they gave rise to a new literary genre. “Kafkaesque” now describes any scenario that’s as miserable as it is dreamlike. Any piece of art about the DMV being an inefficient timesuck — or a surreal trip to the weed doctor — owes a debt to Kafka.

But in his lifetime, Kafka was a sickly, unappreciated, self-loathing insurance agent who toiled in obscurity and died penniless. This was mostly his own fault, as Kafka suffered so much self-doubt that he viewed most of his writing as unfit for publication. Many of Kafka’s greatest works — The Trial, The Castle — weren’t published until after his death, by friends acting against his wishes.

Kafka’s posthumous fame raises a hypothetical question: Would you rather be a commercial and critical success in your lifetime, only to be forgotten by subsequent generations? Or would you rather receive no recognition during your life, but be immortalized after death? The latter seems more romantic, but the former certainly pays better.

MEL posed this question to Klosterman, whose ninth and latest book is a series of thought experiments about how future generations will come to regard the present. Below, Klosterman discusses his own legacy, learning to embrace marriage and why chance is the biggest predictor of success.

In But What if We’re Wrong?, you say one of the few things you’ve ever been totally right about is that you married the right woman. In Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs [published in 2003], you wrote about how no woman will ever satisfy you, and one day you’ll be married and you’ll talk about how you married the absolute best woman but you’ll know deep down that won’t be true. Tell me about that evolution.
When you write a book, you have to be as honest as you can at the time you’re writing it. That’s all you can do. In the last book, I Wear The Black Hat, at one point I talk about how in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs I had this real negative section about the band Coldplay and how now, as I’ve gotten older, I think about that. And sometimes kids will still come up to me and say, “Hey, you’re awesome! I hate Coldplay, too!” And I’ll feel strange about that because the reason I wrote that was not to attack Coldplay (even though I didn’t like them). It was to illustrate how we use pop culture to explain our own problems and it’s our way of working through issues in our life. But the thing is, I felt that way [about marriage] in 2002, so I wrote it. And I felt something differently in 2012, and I wrote that. You say, “How does that evolution work?” but that actually is what evolution is. It wouldn’t be evolution if I was always the same. If everything I wrote completely mirrored how I felt in the past, that’s what I would almost consider a schtick.

Do you think about your own legacy?
The honest answer is that most people who going into writing kind of do. That’s part of the reason you’re writing, in a strange way.

If somebody said you had to choose: You could be a commercially successful, respected writer in your lifetime; or you’ll be unknown in your lifetime, but famous many years after you’re dead. When you’re young — say, 23, or whatever — you always think the second version is better. But as you get older, you realize the first version is much better.

Why do you think that change takes place?
When you’re young, you think to yourself, My life hasn’t really started yet. So everything you think that’s going to happen seems like a life that you’re going to be entering. It’s like the preface of your own history.

But then, now, this is my life. I’m in the middle of my life. I’m married, I have kids. The relationships I have, the success I have or haven’t had, the way I’m perceived — these things are happening now, and I guess I don’t see the value anymore in having people I’ll never know think I’m interesting.

Because if someone thinks I’m interesting now, it helps my life. It allows me to have a kind of dream life where I get to make a living by speculating about what strangers in the future will think about now. When I say it like that, it seems insane.

Do you consider yourself to be living your dream life?
I definitely consider myself fortunate. The biggest factor in how your life turns out is not how talented you are, or how hard you work, or your ability to network, or any of those things. It’s chance. But you hate to admit it. You hate to say that.

It’s not luck. Luck is different. Because luck means a leprechaun is deciding what happens. It’s just chance and we all have chances. Every person has the chance to have the life they want. I mean, some people probably never do. If you’re living in some war-ravaged country in Africa, you don’t really have a chance for anything. But most people have windows of opportunity throughout their life. And they’ll jump through some windows and some windows will close. The chance is really which one you jump through.

I know too many talented people who aren’t successful to believe chance doesn’t plays a role in this.

Listen to our full chat with Chuck here:

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