June 19, 2016

What role does luck play in success?

What role does luck play in success?

Is success a result of luck or do individuals succeed because of their own tenacity and skill?

President Obama and Purdue University President gave two very different commencement speeches in the past two weeks. President Obama’s speech at Howard University noted the role “luck” plays in success; Daniels pointed out that graduates can succeed, independent of luck. I strongly agree with Mr. Daniels in many cases, although, at the margins, luck makes success more or less challenging for many people.

Some successful people experience no, or very little, adversity. Their parents are wealthy and very supportive; they live in wealthy communities and build relationships early in life that position them for long term financial success; and they find high-paying jobs that insure their financial futures.

This scenario is actually less common than it was a generation ago, because there are fewer safe, secure jobs than there once were, and because global competition for every job is more ferocious. However, there is no question that some people are blessed with good fortune from birth, starting with the family into which they are born.

On the opposite extreme, there are children born into a single parent, low-income family. Their mothers are utterly unable to nurture their capabilities and they are assigned to awful school systems in dangerous neighborhoods. They never complete school, and are severely isolated and probably have almost no chance to succeed in life. They have been victimized by multiple elements of bad luck.

However, the vast majority of people fit into the middle category. They have capabilities sufficient to succeed, and will experience setbacks along the way. How they respond will determine whether the “unlucky” event derails them or becomes a learning experience that increases their odds of success.

I empathize with those who start life so far behind and have devoted much of my philanthropic activity and time both during and after my Pitney Bowes career to providing resources to support and lift the severely disadvantaged people. That being said, within a group of severely disadvantaged people, I have seen some people who accept the helping hand and get lifted out of poverty and others whose self-destructive behavior is mystifying and who find a way to hurt themselves and those who try to help them.

For the majority of the “disadvantaged” population, I would note the following:

  • The most valuable support an adult can give them is to believe in them and communicate that belief to them. Everyone needs to be told that he or she can succeed and will be supported.
  • Those who mentor young people need to make them understand that setbacks will occur and that what matters is how they react to them. I like the way Eric Reis describes setbacks in the context of start-up businesses: “validated learning opportunities.” The most important factor in reacting to setbacks of any kind is to understand how to maximize life and business lessons from them.
  • Implicit in the previous comment is the recognition that tenacity, adaptability and continuous learning are more important than the credentials or even the skills that someone brings to a task, a job, or even a career path. As a sports fan, I am often struck by comments from great athletes that they attribute their success to something other than the skills with which they were blessed.

Saturday morning, June 18, 2016, I was listening to an interview with the great, retired baseball player Tim Raines (who should be in the Hall of Fame). Raines told the interviewer that one of his brothers was far more talented, but that he was more single-minded, adaptable and focused on continuous improvement in doing what it took to succeed and eventually become a great Major League player. The comparison with his brother is relevant because there was no difference in the “luck” factor: both were in the same family and had the same resources and advantages available to them.

  • The enemy of broad opportunities for success is the growth of excessive credentialing for jobs, whether those credentials are imposed by misguided government licensing and certification laws and regulations or by lazy private sector recruiters who create onerous prerequisites for jobs, especially educational and experiential ones.

I have no doubt that, like many CEOs, if someone drew up a set of standards for the Pitney Bowes CEO position based on traditional standards, I would not have been chosen. Earlier in my career, I did not have the requisite job-specific or industry-specific experience to be the chief HR officer in 1990 or the President of Pitney Bowes Financial Services, and was not really fully prepared for the CEO position when I assumed it. However, the Pitney Bowes Board and CEO chose me based on my potential, not my credentials.

With very few exceptions, such as choosing a specialist physician for a task in which experience truly matters, we overvalue experience and undervalue potential. Every effort we can make to open up the pool of candidates is worth making.