by Jim Bruce
Today’s Tuesday Reading is an essay by Julian Koh, Associate Director of Telecommunications and Network Services at Northwestern University. Julian is an alumnus of the MOR Leaders Program. [He may be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.]
I was recently fortunate enough to take a vacation where I had two very interesting conversations surrounding the topic of luck. The first was with one of my fellow travelers (let’s call him Anthony), who happened to be a very successful 80-year old businessman and the founder of a financial services firm. After hearing about what I do in my current role, Anthony was interested in hearing about my career path and how I got to where I am today. I started out, as I usually do, with a line that I’ve always firmly believed – “I’ve been incredibly lucky.” He quickly cut me off and said that he believed that people who gave credit to luck for their success were selling their own skills and choices short. He went on to expound on a philosophy that we’ve probably all heard before in various forms, boiled down into a number of adages – “You make your own luck,” “God helps those who help themselves,” and “People who say that they’d rather be lucky than good are often not that good to begin with.”
The second conversation was with our naturalist guide (John) for the trip. Someone asked how a particular behavior on the part of one of the animals we were observing actually gave them an advantage, and John responded with (and I am paraphrasing slightly because I wasn’t recording him), “That is one of the biggest misconceptions about evolution and natural selection – people jump to the conclusion that every change somehow confers either an advantage or disadvantage. They latch onto the random nature of mutations, but what they fail to think about is that the random conditions that favor or disfavor a given mutation or change can just as easily have absolutely no impact whatsoever.” So, a bird may randomly sprout a third wing, and that wing may just stick around in future generations either because it actually gives the bird an advantage or (and this is the point John was trying to make) because the environment that the bird is living in at the time doesn’t actually make that extra wing a disadvantage. The wing itself is not the advantage or disadvantage; rather, it’s the role that the wing plays (or doesn’t play) in how the bird interacts with its environment that makes that determination.
Both of these conversations made me think about luck and the role that it has played not just in my career, but in my whole life. Those who know me well would say that I am often a middle-of-the-road kind of person who tries to see what valid points might be on any side of an argument. I could see that Anthony had a point – I definitely have made conscious and unconscious choices that positioned me well to advance in my career and take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves, and my self-effacing Midwestern attitude was putting those things on the back burner by leading with the line about being lucky. We should all be making those efforts to align our trajectories with what we want for ourselves and those near and dear to us. It is far better to take an active role in trying to shape our lives than just letting life happen to us.
What I feel that Anthony was missing, though, is that those opportunities themselves were often the product of luck or at least things that I had no control over. For example, one of my old bosses passed away from cancer 10 years ago this June. If he had stayed healthy, he would probably have the job I have now, and I would likely be one rung down on the org chart. Instead, the randomness of a cellular genetic mutation gave him leukemia, he sadly passed away, and I was well-positioned to eventually move into his shoes (where I still feel like an imposter from time to time, but that’s another essay). Along the same vein, I only started full-time employment at Northwestern because a director whom I somehow impressed as a student worker submitted my name as an applicant for a position as a network engineer without my knowledge. Otherwise, I would have run off to California to join the dot-com boom, and my life and career would have been markedly different.
With respect to John’s comments about the concept of randomness and how it relates to evolution and natural selection, for me it came back to examining my choices and their consequences not just in the light of whether they were good or bad in the end but also with a third option – which ones were neither? How many times have we tried to anticipate something and prepare for it only to have the conditions change out from under us so that whatever we were trying to do had little to no overall effect? Luck cuts not just two ways, but three, and that’s even if you ignore all the other shades of grey in between.
The other point that was driven home was that you can only control yourself. Only you can ultimately choose how you are going to behave, which option you pick, and what kind of person you want to try to be. You have no control over how other people are going to react to what you say and do, and you have no control over what external conditions the rest of the world is going to throw at you. If you plan and prepare and execute well, you increase your probability of your desired outcome, sometimes to near-certainty, but that element of randomness can always alter the actual results in any direction.
So where am I going with all of this? Yes, I’ve worked hard, and I have been successful by most measures, but to completely ignore the factors of luck and randomness not only assigns unfair and biased credit to my actions but also leaves me ill-prepared to deal with what random chance places in my path. I am the product not just of my skills and talents and choices but also all the external factors, privileges, advantages, and disadvantages that have been baked into my life, my family, my friends, my colleagues, and our shared histories. Don’t rely on luck, but don’t discount it either ‑ some people are winning lotteries, after all, and that bird might just find a use for that third wing.
Julian has given us a lot to think about here. His next to last sentence – I am the product not just of my skills and talents and choices but also all the external factors, privileges, advantages, and disadvantages that have been baked into my life, my family, my friends, my colleagues, and our shared histories. – rings particularly true to me. As a Christian and a believer that God does answer our prayers, I’m more in tune to putting the skills and talents I’m given to good use and looking for what I can learn when things don’t go the way I hoped and expected and what I can learn from all aspects of the experience.
Perhaps you might take some time during the week to reflect on your journey and how you have made use of the good things and learned from those that were not so good.
Make it a great week for you and your team. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.