The role of luck in success

Over at Rohan Rajiv’s blog, he has a short article about what considers to be the elements for success.  To summarize, he mentions that success is determined by your goal, the level of effort you put into achieving it, and a bit of luck.

We tend to exaggerate the role of luck in very successful people. We like to attribute the rise of people such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as luck, saying they were in the right place at the right time.  That’s implicitly followed up by the claim that we can’t be (or aren’t) that lucky.

It’s true that for both men, they had great circumstance, but they needed more than just that to be successful.  They needed to take advantage of those circumstances, work hard, and stay focused.

There’s no guarantees in life, and you do need a bit of luck to succeed.  Those are things you can’t control.  You also may have limited control over your circumstances.  The things you do have complete control over are your  focus, effort, and desire to look at your situation and make the best of.


Owning our decisions is one of the most important actions we can take. This means we need to do 2 things. We need be aware we’re making a decision, and then we need to commit to that decision. It’s not good saying we’ve decided to stop smoking, eat healthier, or maintain a positive attitude unless we also commit to taking actions that move us toward our goals. We also need to remove those things that inhibit that decision, like getting rid of junk food, throwing out the cigarettes, or deleting our Facebook profiles.

Owning a decision can be a challenging thing for people. It means taking responsibility, admitting that we are mostly the cause of the discomforts and challenges in our lives. It also means accepting that we’re not as perfect as we think and that we will fail. You decide to marry someone, only to discover a few years down the road, that you’ve changed and the person you’re with is no longer the right person. Do you commit to recreating your relationship with that person? Or do you decide to end the marriage? There’s no right or wrong answer, and each decision comes with the possibility of failure. In either case, you need to make a decision. You need to take action.

You also need the flexibility to recognize you made a poor decision and correct yourself mid-course. Is the new assignment is too much for you? A talk with your manager may get you more resources (time, money, people) to help you complete the project on time. You can’t stick with the new eating plan? So, you find one that works for you. You can still reach the goal you wanted, but it may mean trying many paths until you find one that works for you.

Owning your decisions can be tough, but it’s the first step to making the most of the time you have left. A the proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago and right now.

The Thinking Life


Much of my writing this month is influenced by a wonderful book called “The Thinking Life” by PM Forni. At under 200 pages, it’s a very short read. Those pages are full of useful information. If you only ever read one book on improvement, this is the book to read.

Forni is both eloquent and terse at the same time, using only the exact words he needs to make his point. At times, he comes off as gruff, but his words are meant to challenge us, to move us out of our comfort zone and to take on the central premise of the book.

Tha premise is that thinking is the foundation of the elusive good life many of us seek. His argument is that quality of our lives increases when we devote a few moments every day to thinking. That thinking can take many forms. Retrospection, introspection, decision making, planning, strategizing are all discussed in the book. At the end of each chapter is a series of questions meant to engage us in the book’s content, and help build our thinking skills.

I agree with Forni’s treatise. The explosive technological growth we’ve seen in the past few years is amazing. Most of us walk around with a more powerful computer in our pockets than used for the first lunar landing. We’re always connected to the Internet, ensuring that entertainment and information are never a moment’s notice. Distraction is commonplace. We are to avoid boredom at all costs.

I cannot understate the value and convenience these technologies bring to our lives. Their use as a way to excise boredom and to distract us is disturbing. Boredom is crucial to creativity and distractions prevent us from focusing on the important things in our lives.

I wish I had a clever way to close out this post, but I’ll l just reiterate the call for you to spend an evening enjoying Forni’s terse words.

Manager Leaders Mentors Followers

Every organization, whether’s is commercial, nonprofit, or private has managers, leaders, mentors, executives, and followers. Many people assume that managers and executives are leaders. While these individuals may have leadership skills, being either does not make you a leader. A dog sledding team can help illustrate the difference in these positions.

To be a leader, a person needs to have a goal to lead others to. It can be a location, a deadline, a financial amount, anything. This person also needs to have an idea of how to there. The best leaders lead by inspiration and guidance. They lead by example. The lead dog on a team is out front, pulling the team forward, changing direction as needed to keep moving forward.

A manager manages things. In most companies, this translates into money, but it also applies to projects and people. A manager’s role is to understand each of his reports, and how best to position these people so they can complete work on time and on budget. The driver of the sled team fills this role. He understands the relationships between his team, and how to set the lineup. He watched over their energy, knowing tired dogs aren’t as fast. He ensures they are fed and taken care of. His aim is to get everyone to the destination.

A mentor is easy, that’s a person a manager or a leader can turn to for guidance. In our example, a veteran sled driver is a mentor. He can teach valuable lessons and help prevent tragedy.

An executive is someone who set strategy. He defines the actions to take and not to take. He then “executes” on this strategy by getting managers who will create the teams needed to implement the strategy. A good executive will then revert to a manager, managing his managers to ensure his goals are met. The owner of the delivery company that hires the sled team would act as the executive. This person defines what goods are carried, what areas the company will serve, etc.
Finally, last but not least are the followers. In many organization with hierarchy and trees, these are the nameless people on the bottom. Yhey are important. A good sled team is not may up of one dog and a driver.


It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain an opposing thought and not accept it.

It is the mark of a self-control to not panic when it seems like everything around you is falling apart.

It is the mark of maturity to recognize when an opponent is right despite how much you disagree and dislike him.

In all cases, the sign of being human is to acknowledge your emotions but to not act on them. Rather, taking a slow, measured, and thoughtful response is the best way to handle most situations. There are situations that call for immediate action. A firefight, for example, requires immediate and decisive action. Your enemy is not going to give you time to think and respond before shooting you.

Those situations in life are rare. A competitor may have launched a vicious smear campaign against you. You may think the best action jump in, defend yourself, and then counter. You’d be fighting blind. You need to first take a few moments, understand what is being said, and whether you can ignore it, or whether you need to start legal action.

Your child’s temper tantrum is another example. No doubt, listening to a child whine and cry is aggravating. Responding with anger only makes the situation work. The most effective way is to make sure your child is safe, and then walk away.

This should be our default mode of response to the world. To take stock of what is happening and respond in a measured fashion. Jumping right into the action at a moment’s notice leaves us tired and unable to enjoy ourselves.

Slow down and respond as needed.

Dealing with rejection

If there’s one word in the English language that people fear the most, it’s the word “no”. How many times have you avoided asking someone out on a date for fear of that word? How many times have you avoided asking your manager for raise for fear of that word? How many times have you avoided taking a chance on putting yourself in front of people for fear of that word?

Rejection is hard for us. It reminds us of our failings. It reminds us that the person we see ourselves is not the person others see us as. It hurts us, and we tend to avoid that hurt us.

The only way to deal with rejection is to get rejected. Some people have devised a method where you ask a stranger every day a question to hear the word “no”. In doing that, you not only work on your fear of rejection, but you also get a chance to work on the fear of speaking with a stranger.

That’s not enough, as the opportunities for rejection happen anywhere. A random stranger, at work, at home. What’s important is that in all cases to remind yourself not to respond immediately. Take a deep breath, remind yourself this isn’t personal. Look at your request from that person’s point of view. If you don’t understand the person rejected you ask that person. It may seem painful, but no harm will come to you. In fact, you’ll feel a lot better, since you may have discovered an area that you need to improve on. Or you’ve discovered it’s not worth your time trying to seek this person’s approval. You’ll have peace of mind. You’ve also avoided the blaming the other person for how you feel. That’s a significant step for peace of mind and detachment (more on that in a later post).

In the end, confronting rejection face to face leads to a better situation.

The power of decisions


The cornerstone of our lives are the habits we choose to develop, and the virtues we choose to embrace. In both cases, these are choices. The choices we make on a daily basis impact the quality and the quantity of our life.

How many choices do you make a day? How many choices are you aware of? How many times do others make a decision for you? These questions are worth answering, for the simple reason that it’s often the case we arrive at a life-changing choice but are ill-equipped to handle it. Too often, we let our emotions make the decision for us. In some cases, the consequences are dire. We’re at a party, we get “caught up” in the moment and drink too much. On the way home, we get into an accident and end the lives of 3 people.

In some cases, the consequences are not so dire. Making a decision to spend $2 on a cup of coffee is unlikely to have much impact beyond less money and some decent coffee. The key is to know which choices have long ranging consequences and which are trivial. In both cases, the trivial and the consequential, the realization a choice is about to be made is important.

We can’t mull over every decision we make, there’s not enough time. We do need to be aware of the choices we make, regardless of the size, and decide which ones need planning. We also need to know when the emotions caused by a circumstance (like the party) are effect our decision making and adjust. Only a few people have the resources need to make it through life without conscious decision making. The rest of us need to understand and own our decisions.

Meta virtues and habits


I can restate yesterday’s statement that attitude is everything can in another fashion. A positive attitude is a meta-virtue, a virtue that enables all other virtues. It’s also a meta-habit. Obtaining and maintaining a positive attitude is something that requires conscious daily effort. Once this habit established, other habits can follow.

It’s an example of the thought cycle. The thoughts we hold drive our beliefs. Our beliefs drive our emotions. Our emotions drive our actions. The result of our actions influences our thoughts.

There’s not a lot of meta virtues and habits. The other meta-habit is daily meditation. This builds patience, temperance, reduces stress, builds creativity, etc.

The other virtue is self-restraint. Notice that like maintaining a positive attitude, self-restraint involves a physical component. Every day, there are opportunities to practice self-restraint or give into excess.

Even further up the chain is our decision-making ability. Self-restraint is a choice, positivity is a choice. Many people automatically make decisions. Even more, let others make decisions for them. Few people take ownership and make mindful decisions. Not every decision needs to have an internal debate. There’s simply not enough time. A better practice is to note when you make a decision and the outcome of that decisions. Did it meet your expectations? What do you think you could have done differently?

Attitude is everything

How many times have you heard that attitude is everything? How many times have you heard to think positively? How many times have you sloughed that off?

Positive thinking can get a bad rap from many people. The iconic Stuart from SNL, standing in front of a mirror, saying “I’m good enough” is telling. People who wear a thin smile, saying everything is fine while around them, things fall apart.
That is not positive thinking. That’s delusional happiness. Positive thinking involves knowing what things we can control. It involves holding a proactive mindset. It involves having a plan of action. It involves self-control and temperance.

As an example, you may be apprehensive about the upcoming year, given the results of the 2016 US presidential elections. Sitting at home, watching the news and posting to social media is definitely not a positive attitude. Neither is the attitude that everything will turn in your favor. What is a positive attitude is determining what you can do about the situation. You can donate to political organizations. You can get involved in your local community. You can use technology to find like minded people and work to bring about the change you want.

The most important thing you can do is to focus on the things in front of you. Your career, your friends, your family. Focusing on these will have a much more significant impact on your life. The more you focus and strengthen the things in front of you, the greater impact and reach you’ll have.

Taking a stand

I once wrote a post about how people need to stop improving yourself. I wrote it for computer programmers. The gist of it was that unless you have a definite goal, “taking action” is pointless. This was on a site that advocates for people to wrote blog posts, attend conferences, and work on side projects besides to working. In other words, it encouraged people to have a second job. I don’t want to dissuade people from doing this, as it can be successful. The point was that unless you have a destination in mind, these activities aren’t as useful as others, like physical activity, meditation, etc.

As strange as it may seem, I see parallels between this viewpoint and people on social media who avoid religious and political posts. Money, religion, and politics are the 3 things we’re never supposed to discuss. That’s because these are emotional topics where people hold strong beliefs and feelings. The 2016 election is where we saw a failing. More registered voters abstained from voting than ones who did. As a result, the current president lost the popular election by 3 million votes.

That’s the danger of avoiding politics and religion. The people who do not avoid these topics have a tendency to get into power, and it never ends well. We all have political and religious beliefs, and we all need to get involved. There are benefits to religion, and there are benefits to politics. There are downsides as well, and the potential for difficult conversations. We need these because we need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.

These topics are important, like building good habits and self-improvement. They should not take over our lives. Like learning to code many languages doesn’t help much, spending time on the politics subreddit, or posting to Facebook won’t help us have a say in the national conversation. Writing technical blogs posts no one reads is about as useful as evangelicals holding signs on the sidewalk at public events.
We need to find ways to actively and purposefully engage in these topics, without letting them overrun our lives.