Success: Hard work or Luck?
I have received a couple of requests to do an article about success. Is success dependant on hard work or is it all just chance? I spent some time thinking through these concepts and have developed a three colour theory on success. Firstly, we need to be on the same page with our use of the terms ‘Success’, ‘Hard Work’ and ‘Luck’ – all three of these terms have a huge number of applications and meanings. For the purpose of this article, here are the definitions:
Success = Achieving a personal goal to do, have or be something
Hard work = Application of personal energy, effort and time in the sense that it requires some degree of personal sacrifice or exertion.
Luck = Chance or random coincidence outside of your direct personal control, or if you insist – an act of God.
The definition of success here is the critical factor. Bashir, who asked me this question, used the following example: two people with similar backgrounds, with the same education and of the same cultural and language grouping are employed at the same time in a large company. After 5 years one of them has a middle management position and earns double the salary of the other who is still in a clerical position ‘at the bottom of the ladder’. What made the one more successful than the other?
My immediate question to Bashir is, “Who are we assuming to be the more ‘successful’ of the two?” to which Bashir might reply, “Huh? The first of course! The one with the position and the money!!” And that’s exactly the problem with how we see success. If our personal goal is to make a million dollars, we tend to rate the success of everyone around us by that same goal, i.e. Carol hasn’t made a million dollars so she’s not as successful as Bruce. But according to my definition of “Achieving a personal goal”, Carol may be entirely successful at her goal of ironing the laundry for the day, and in Bashir’s example, the middle manager is only ‘successful’ in the context of a personal goal that goes something like, “I want to be a manager and earn double my current income in the next five years”. For all we know, the clerical guy might be more successful if his personal goal was to have a simple 8 to 5 job with low responsibility and no take home work so that he could spend more time enjoying his wife and kids.
As you can see, answering the question ‘Is success hard work or luck?’ has a lot to do with what someone is trying to be successful AT. I propose that luck and hard work play different roles depending on the context of success. The rules change depending on what we’re talking about in the same way that Newtonian physics doesn’t seem to apply at a molecular level, for which we use a different set of rules which we call Quantum physics.
I propose three ‘contexts’ for success: The Red Zone, The Blue Zone, and the Twilight Zone.
In the Red Zone our success is entirely dependent on us doing something about it. Unless a bolt of lightning escapes the twilight zone to thwart our attempts at success, we will achieve our goal through at least some sweat and effort. Of course the whole notion of working ‘smarter not harder’ can also apply here, but nevertheless, work is required. Examples of achieving Red Zone success are:
- Having a clean home. The dishes aren’t going to wash themselves no matter how lucky you are or how much God loves you.
- Becoming a novelist. You’re going to have to write a book to achieve this, there’s no getting around it.
In the Blue Zone our success is not entirely up to us, but it’s not entirely out of our influence either. In this zone our own efforts tend to improve our probability for success even if they don’t ensure it. Examples include:
- Recovering after a car accident injury. Our own desire to recover and subsequent interventions (hard work) will have a positive effect on the success of our recovery but we cannot determine the ultimate specifics of our recovery. There may be unknown neural or spinal complications outside of our control which have countering effects, thereby ‘lowering’ our chances of success.
- Getting employed. You can go to a job interview and say all the right things and wear the right clothes, but someone else decides if you’re the right candidate for the job. Performing well at the interview will ‘increase your chances’ for success but not guarantee your position.
- Winning the lotto. Even though the probabilities are almost entirely against this, success still requires human intervention in the form of buying a ticket. This is very close to Twilight zone success but still in the blue zone.
In the Twilight zone our success has (seemingly) nothing to do with our own efforts at all. At first glance it would seem that this type of success is entirely random or accidental. Examples include:
- Inheriting a fortune. You didn’t ask for it – you didn’t work for it – you just got born in the right place at the right time.
- Sudden death. You’re Donald Trump about to complete your latest hotel venture and your helicopter crashes to the ground or you’re struck by lightning. Not your choice, but you have to live with it… or die with it in this case.
- You get ‘found’ by a talent scout. There are millions of really beautiful girls in the world but some talent agent travels to Morocco and finds a village girl who he takes back to the US and turns into the world’s next big supermodel. Her beautiful friend is still collecting water from a dusty desert well. Hard work? I think not.
There are any number of theories that attempt to ‘explain’ the results of the twilight zone including God, a universal ‘force’, fate, karma, etc. but for the purposes of this article we will leave these ideas alone, except to agree that things happen to us that we don’t control.
These zones could be represented with two circles, the Red and Twilight zones, intersecting at the blue zone as in the diagram below:
Any personal goal or ambition we have will fall into one of these ‘zones’. Understanding which zone the goal is ‘in’ is important for understanding why we regularly fail or succeed in achieving those goals. For example, someone who constantly feels like a ‘failure’ in their job searching because they have a misplaced belief that they don’t need to ‘do’ anything except ‘wait on God’ might find themselves wondering why they never succeed. Job hunting is a Blue zone activity which becomes more inevitable the more effort/energy is applied to the search. Then again someone might spend days and days doing a rain dance in the Sahara in dry season and wonder why their ‘efforts’ are not being rewarded, i.e. attempting to increase twilight zone success. I will write more on these ideas in future articles.
I want to focus here on the Blue zone – an area that is not unlike a strategic war game, where regular good tactics usually overcome the ups and downs of bad dice rolling. My sense (untested at this point) is that some people are more skilled at understanding the probabilities at play in their success and the ingredients required for managing those probabilities and improving their chances at success. So let’s consider Bashir’s question about the middle manager and the clerk. I will assume that the two people in question had a similar personal goal – to get promoted in the company and earn lots of money – one succeeded and the other ‘failed’. This goal is clearly a Blue zone goal: their success, although not entirely in their own hands, will be influenced by various factors (I’ll use the term ingredients) including attitude, communication skills, work hours, problem solving and other personal sacrifices or efforts by the individuals involved.
Here are some of the ingredients I believe increase the probability of success:
- Perseverance: Often the probabilities increase simply because, in time, the competition moves out or moves on, leaving you in a better position to “fill the gap”. Giving up too soon negates this principle.
- Knowledge: This increases your ability to apply your efforts wisely and play a more tactical war game. Reading and practice are critical here.
- Resources: It goes without saying that many probability reducers go away when you throw a little money at them.
- Self belief: Low self esteem is sure to lower your chances at success. Self belief influences every thought and action of your life.
- Courage: The ability to suppress terror and take action despite fear of loss, rejection, humiliation, conflict etc. is a key ingredient for success.
- Relationships: Developing a strong network of allies will weigh the dice in your favour.
- Communication: You’re more likely to attract the resources and people you need for success if you have good communication skills. People also take you more seriously.
These are just a few ingredients for improving your odds in the Blue zone. Of course all the luck in the world won’t help you if you throw double 1′s, or a bolt of lightning leaves the twilight zone and zaps you, but because we have no control over these mishaps of luck it makes sense to apply your efforts to improving your odds until success becomes inevitable.
My good friend Basil suggested that the Blue zone is where the good stuff happens – the creative stuff – the innovations. I agree with him. I think we’ve all been zapped by a few unexpected ‘acts of god’ in our lives, and when that happens we tend to be scared of going too close to the twilight zone and prefer to scuttle around in the Red zone where things are entirely predictable and ‘risk free’. You may find that your ‘impossible dreams’ are not so improbable when you start applying some of the ingredients I have suggested. Remember, to win the lotto you have to buy a ticket – and although I don’t respect gambling because of the insane odds, I think some of the so called ‘risks’ we’re so afraid to take have very respectable odds when it’s all broken down.
Please send your comments. I’m especially interested to hear what you think are the factors that influence the odds in the Blue zone.