How Humble Do I Have to Be?

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Three words I hate hearing most: “You’re soooooo lucky”.

Really? Am I? Was it “luck” that caused me to get where I am today?

When someone speaks those three horrid words to me, let’s talk in the context of ‘business’, I typically bite my tongue (shocker), but sometimes I’ll ask them, “Really? How many weeks did you work 90 hours straight? Because I pretty much did that for about 5 years. And oh – by the way, when I was working those 90 hour weeks, I also spent 1 hour each day reading articles, books, and surfing the internet – always trying to find new ideas, fellow innovators, and ways to better myself…”.

At that point, people usually come up with an excuse; yes, unless one is dealing with an illness – I call it an excuse. Either they were “working on their relationship” or they were “having family issues” or any of the other reasons one can think of for not kicking their own ass into the office, there was always a CHOICE that was made. Individuals make the conscious choice to prioritize their friends or other relationships before their jobs; they make the conscious choice to read “fluff” (I love fluff, BTW), like Candace Bushnell, versus reading books by Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell. I don’t believe there is any ‘perfect science’ to becoming successful, but I am a firm believer in creating your own luck. My fellow blogger, Ty Unglebower will argue with me in-depth about “Skill vs. Luck”, but when looking at studies of various entrepreneurs and whether their success has depended on Skill or Luck, scientific evidence points to skill.

I am also a firm believer that if you have a skill (which may be innate – and some may look at that as “luck”, hence the nature vs. nurture debate) and do nothing with it, you are doing a disservice to society.

People have always told me I’m tenacious and ambitious. I would argue that my success is based on Skill + strategic ambition. What I mean by strategic ambition is this; don’t be myopic in your endeavors. Most people think, “If I’m ambitious and work, work, work, and bring in the most revenue or sign the biggest deals, I’ll make more money or I’ll move up in life”. Wrong. That’s only one piece of the puzzle. Sure, it’s the easiest to see coming out of college and there is certainly a correlation between bringing in revenue (or reducing costs) and moving up in a company, but what else does it take?

Certainly, I would say a large piece of success is dependent on the people you surround yourself with in the office as well as in life. As I wrote in a past post, I’ve taken pay cuts to work with or for certain individuals. By surrounding yourself and only working with people who will better you, make you think, expose you to new ideas and management styles, you are learning every time you interact with that individual. Choosing the right mentor and being pro-active enough to secure that mentor is a huge part of being ambitious. It takes time to build a relationship with the right person; it takes patience; and you have to be strategic about ‘who’ you pick.

Another important piece is the desire to for continuous improvement (learning). As cliche as this sounds, if you’re not moving forward, you are only moving backwards.

Many people talk about “balance”. I agree we all need balance in our lives, however there is a time for balance and a time to go “all in”. If you make the conscious choice to go ‘all in’ (working 90 hours / day for example), you WILL lose out on other aspects of your life. When people say, “you’re so lucky”, they fail to realize the losses that come with that proposed “luck”. Friendships and other relationships are ruined. Most people either lose or gain a lot of weight as they either have no time to eat or eat too much. When people talk about ‘balance’ and the importance of balance, I agree; but I think there is a right time for you to balance your life and some of us choose to be extremists. Whether you agree with it or not, again studies show that the more time someone puts into their job, the more money they will make and the higher likelihood they will have of moving up in a company. Again, it’s a conscious choice.

What I have learned is that by ‘giving things up’ in the short-term, you not only reap the business benefits in the long-term; but the long-term personal benefits as well. If we go back to relationships again – any relationship is work. If you have been through work experiences that teach you that “hard work pays off”, you will associate work with success. hence, you are more likely to work harder on your relationship.

If you have worked and been pro-active enough to find a mentor; likely you would recognize that a connection with an individual is important enough to change a life. Once you have had a successful relationship where you are being taught, learning to take criticism, sometimes even “tough love” (like a mentor) and see that it has led to something positive…you are more likely to be able to take criticism and / or ‘tough love’ from other people in your life. You will likely not just be able to take it, but do something constructive and better yourself (and your relationship) by making changes.

Tying back around…is there such a thing as ‘luck’? Probably. But when you make your own luck in one aspect of your life, you learn how to bring it to other areas. If you are one of the people who are reading this and disagree with me, try what I said above…try it in one aspect of your life or your job. And if you’ve already tried it once, try the steps again…and again…at a certain point, you will find your way and you’ll then understand that there isn’t luck. There are decisions; and each decision comes with sacrifices. it’s up to you to decide what’s most important and when the right time is.

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  1. August 1, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    I don’t think I can agree that I would set the entire discussion up as “luck vs. skill”, because that would reduce me to believing that nobody who succeeds has ever worked hard. I simply don’t believe that.

    I would say, however (and have tried through my postings over at Too XYZ to elaborate upon this)that luck can and does play some role in the lives of both those who succeed, and those who do not. Good and bad luck often apply.

    But “luck” is an umbrella term that would include timing, circumstances, resources, location, access, network, etc. It may not be about horseshoes, but there is still an element of the mysterious, if not mystical in the idea of how some people have the chance to make use of their hard work, and others do not. How some people’s efforts lead to finding great mentors, connecting with great friends, attracting exciting relationships, traveling the world just to blog about it…and why others need help just paying rent.

    The studies you site set it up again in a “luck vs. skill” metric as well, when in my mind the two concepts are not competing with one another. They only apply, in my mind, if the thesis is, “Good luck explains why anyone succeeds”. But that thesis is not mine.

    What i do say is this; There are hardworking failures, and lazy successes in this world, and vice-verca. But for most people a little of both played a role.

    A person like yourself can achieve business and financial success by working as hard as you have, and I won’t argue that. But suspend disbelief for a moment and as yourself…what if nobody ever helped you? What if even now you had yet to encounter your first ever mentor? If you were still trying to convince anybody ANYWHERE that you were worth their time? Imagine if you still had not gotten a single helping hand, or were not taught a single piece of advice. If no matter what you did, you simply never had the chance to spend ANY time with ANY one who had succeeded at anything. What is all the sacrifices you have made had still been made, but you were making now the exact some money you did, say, 20 years ago?

    Knowing you, your attitude would be the same; keep pushing. And that’s great. I love that. But would your demonstrable success (the stuff people say you are so luck about) still be present without any such help ever? That is the sort of “luck” I mean. Not four leaf clovers.

    I humbly submit that not everybody who works hard does achieve their own, (or any) definition of success. Just as “luck” does not as a concept explain your personal success, I can’t conclude that not enough work or not smart enough work explains the failures of others. (Myself sometimes included.)

    For working hard can be such a subjective term. And many people who do it find themself at a loss, again and again, without mentors, without open doors, and without anything that transcends all of the hard work that they put into their lives and careers. (Again, I am an example in some ways.) Obstacles show up sometimes. And for some they show up over and over and over and over again, without relenting. When that happens through no fault of the person, I am inclined to think it slightly unfair to suggest they were not strategic enough, or that they didn’t surround themselves with the right people, or that they didn’t make appropriate sacrifices. In many cases, all three are true, and a person STILL doesn’t achieve what you and others have achieved from a material standpoint.

    Does this make you “luckier” than they? Not all by itself, no. It probably would not have happened without your 90 hour weeks. But I do sometimes think it is a matter of finding fertile ground for one’s hard work. Your hard work took seed in fertile ground. Mine, quite often, has not. Can anybody say why some ground is fertile and some is barren?

    You would keep planting…I don’t have as many seeds. Maybe it is an individual psychology involved, but either way, everyone has a limit of some kind, passed which they are inclined to say, “I’m just not getting anywhere, and I have nothing left to try.”

    Those that can keep at it no matter what…through years if not decades of living at home, never getting an interview, having to live on food stamps, or whatever it is, and still say, “around the corner is success” are certainly special types of people. People who can walk into a room in any town in America, no matter how remote, and leave an hour later with phone numbers an email addresses of people that they can partner with to create something wonderful. They are prodigies, in a sense, and I marvel at it sometimes.

    But just as it isn’t fair to expect those who take piano lessons to one day be as good as the prodigy (or savant), I don’t know if the notion of “all work and no luck” can be universalized either. You, and others who clearly work hard may just be better at bouncing back than the rest of us. That’s not a flaw, it’s just…not applicable to everyone.

    I’ll close by quoting from the piece;

    “If you have been through work experiences that teach you that “hard work pays off”, you will associate work with success.”

    Agreed. On many levels, agreed. But what happens when those who work hard never experience that hard work pays off?

    • August 2, 2010 at 11:10 am

      As usual; agree with 90% of what you wrote and 100% of it was thought provoking.
      Certainly, even by reading the title, you can tell this was written from the “ego” side of my personality ( ; and their is definitely a lot of ego throughout my writing; which I did not temper last night and usually try to do. I think what I was really trying to get across is that people say, “you’re so lucky” but what they forget to take into account is the number of sacrifices that were made to obtain that “good fortune”. This is what bothers me.

      I linked to you in here purposely because while you and I have completely different ideologies, somehow you are able to make me see (in your writing) where my theories are flawed and I like that.

      Because “luck” is intangible and can’t be measured (really), it begs to be an ongoing debate, right?

      Here are some thoughts:

      1. What i do say is this; There are hardworking failures, and lazy successes in this world, and vice-verca. But for most people a little of both played a role.

      – Certainly true, but I guess that depends on how we define success, right? Personally, I could broker deals and make more than enough money to live on; but I wouldn’t “feel” successful, b/c I don’t only equate success with money, I equate it also with doing something that’s fulfilling.

      In response to this: Agreed. On many levels, agreed. But what happens when those who work hard never experience that hard work pays off?

      I have no easy answer other than what I was told in the beginning of my career when I was applying to move up and kept getting turned down; “keep pluggin’ away. Eventually something will match”. I did, I kept plugging away. That said, I knew where I wanted to be. Right now in my life, I’m plugging away and working with no exact direction. I know I want to work in education and do something that 1) Has never been done before and 2) Is good for the student. I have yet to find this, so I’m as lost as everyone else.

      If you could name three things you want to do, what would they be?

  2. sadya
    August 2, 2010 at 5:02 am

    Ty, this is a wrong perception that in some cases hard work doesnt pay off. it always does- maybe not in the way you expect it to but it sure does. Hard work on anything – teaches us resilience, how to put passion in work , how to build your self esteem and more importantly it builds character. just because you dont see a tangible result doesnt mean your hard work didnt pay off. You are an actor, so even though an audition in which you’ve put your heart & soul into doesnt get you the part , you still become more adept at your skill & talent.

    Jamie- why cant people see that it takes years to become an overnight success. i hate the word ‘lucky’. its easy for us to presume that someone is lucky to gotten have as far as they did, we automatically discount the numbers of hours & talent that person has , that must have played a role in getting that far.
    My opinion on luck is this – others probably have it and i know i don’t but i dont think Im much missing out on much, and i think luck is something that wins you 2 tickets in a lottery . It cant & never has been a substitute for hard work.

  3. August 2, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Sadya, I am afraid I must stand by my initial position, though you have to “solve for X” as it were. X being one’s personal definition of success.

    If you don’t care about money, or sustaining/feeding yourself, or living comfortably, and only care about saying at the end of the day, “I went to work today”, then hard work is it’s own reward. In that since you are correct that switching out the definition of success could sort of make hard work always pay off. (Though to me that seems to be shifting the goal posts a little bit.)

    But if your idea of success is to be able to pay off your debts, or meet the right people, or live comfortably, etc, than hard work simply does NOT always pay off. Period. If that were true, everyone who is poor would have to be lazy. (And all lazy people would be poor.) I have just never subscribed to that notion.

  4. August 2, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Ty / Sadya – I think that what Sadya pointed out; that working hard will lead to “some” sort of success is true. However, to Ty’s point, I do not think it will necessarily lead to “tangible” success. It may lead to intangible successes (feeling proud and passionate about your work, etc), however the trick here is to find how we can take the intangible successes and make them tangible.

  5. Sadya
    August 2, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    if the acquisition of all material things/ tangible things was the definition of success , then Lindsay Lohan is very successful. i agree that paying bills & living comfortably are the indicators of success , then surely at some point in your life , you or anyone who puts in hard work , will be successful at it.

    look at it in terms of Penelope Trunk defines failure, she says you can only call something a failure if u didnt learn a damn thing through that experience.
    my belief that hard work sooner or later pays off , comes from my own experiences & others too. and as Jamie says in her post – if she were to look at her career say 5 years ago , she’d probably say ‘man will all this hard work ever pay off, what if it doesnt’ and because she dint think ‘what if it doesnt’…voila her hard work paid off.

    i guess its important not to put a time limit on when you want your efforts to be translated into tangibility. (i want it now! we all say that) . It takes time and patience, and of course the sheer belief that you were born to be a success story..

  6. DRG
    August 2, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”
    -Thomas Jefferson

  7. August 3, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    A thought-provoking post and equally thought-provoking comments. (Thanks to Sadya for sending me here through BrazenCareerist.)

    I’ve always been from the philosophy that you need to put yourself in a position to “get lucky,” and that requires work–DRG’s TJ quote says it succinctly as anything. Absolutely, I was fortunate to have been born into a family that valued education, and I’m thankful that I had a dad who was an entrepreneur who opened my eyes to that as a career option.

    On the other hand, I’ve put in a lot of time and energy into being skilled at what I do, making my business attractive to clients who can use my talents, and connecting with people who can help me get where I want to go. Viewed from a micro level, sure, there was serendipity involved in steps along the way; on the macro level, I think of it as my own version of punctuated equilibrium.

    On a somewhat-related tangent, I was always quietly annoyed by the people who commented to me and my wife that we were “lucky” to have her be a stay-at-home mom while our kids were little. There was no luck involved at all. It required numerous hard choices and sacrifices on our part, much the same as those that are required of an entrepreneur. And it was 100% worthwhile.

    Bizrelationship, you’ve earned an RSS 🙂

    • August 4, 2010 at 9:50 am

      I like the way you phrase “there was serendipity” along the way; and it sounds like you understand what I’m going through – having mad hard choices several years ago (work coming first) and coming out of that phase now.

      In reference to “serendipity” playing a part, have you read the book, “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell? In it, he speaks to not necessarily “luck” or “serendipity”, but more so ‘being in the right place at the right time. Example: Bill Gates. He lived near one of the first programming available computers in the 70s/80s. Hence, he had the access to ‘learn’ how to program far before anyone else did. Granted, he made the ‘choice’ to spend 20 hours / day programming – but sounds like serendipity played a role.

      • August 4, 2010 at 1:46 pm

        Haven’t yet read Outliers (it’s in my Amazon queue), but I really enjoyed The Tipping Point. That’s an interesting anecdote w/Gates, and a good illustration of the principle we’re all getting at here, whether you call it luck/serendipity/right-place-right-time.

        Hard choices are part of the deal, whether you take the freelance route or the corporate one. But what I enjoy about being a solo act is that I have WAY more control over what those hard choices are and how I handle them. And, by way of answering your headline, I don’t think you necessarily have to be 100% humble in your own head. But I reckon the best answer to the “You’re soooo lucky” comment is, “I know, I wouldn’t trade it for the world!”

  8. August 5, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    I believe it is in Outliers, where Gladwell tells the story of a Jewish lawyer’s rise to the top of the legal world because he took on cases that the established firms found beneath them. He becomes a success because he works hard at his craft but also because public opinion about his craft changed (becoming more accepting and positive). If luck/fate/destiny hadn’t changed the public’s attitude about his craft I don’t think he would have been as successful. I hate to sound like a cop out but I believe you need a little bit of both. Your enthusiasm for pursuing your goals is admirable but I think you shouldn’t poo poo on the rabbit’s foot so casually.

    • August 7, 2010 at 12:32 am

      I’m not sure if I’m “poo pooing” on the rabbit’s foot so much as I was / am genuinely frustrated when people say, “you’re so lucky…”. That said, I’m in a similar situation to the “Jewish Lawyer” right now. I work in the higher education industry; it’s been booming for 8 years. Had I started working in “online education” or “distance education” 12 years ago, I certainly would not have the opportunities I have now as the ‘public’ did not accept it – so your point is certainly well taken.

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