Talent, luck, or hard work?

Why are some people successful and some people aren't where they want to be? Is it talent? Luck? Or hard work?


I think I have a few talents now. But none of it came easy. I made lots of mistakes. I also had to work hard to get where I am. I worked long hours. I went back to school (while I worked full time). Maybe I am slow or just stubborn, but I did finally learn a thing or two. And I love my job.

And look at Outliers: The Story of Success; Malcolm Gladwell shows over and over these guys we believe "well, they are just really talented" really worked damn hard to get where they are.  Bill Gates, one of the smartest most talented guys you can think of (or at least one of the most successful), worked his rear end off for over 7 years BEFORE he dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft.  Mozart, depending on when you think he was a master worked for either 10 to 20 years to get there.  Most chess grand champions seem to take 10 years to reach that level (Bobby Fischer made it in 9). 

So, I don't think we can caulk it up to talent…


I don't know about luck; I don't seem to be all that lucky. I have never won the lottery.  And I don't think luck has played much in my career path.  Any "luck" I had was based on me working hard to set it up.  I have worked hard at my network. I went back to school and have a Masters degree.  I read constantly.  I try to ask intelligent questions (ok, I said try…).  I try to come to most situations with an open mind.  I try to be generally pleasant and someone that people don't mind working with.  I learned long ago it might be better to work at the HQ of a company.  I learned to constantly look for opportunities, try to talk to the right people, and make sure your have the right skills so when the opportunity comes you are ready for it. 

Luck doesn't hurt, but I don't know if we can give it all the credit (or even most)…   

So, what does that leave?  Hard work!

Are you working hard to do what you love? Are you willing to work hard? Like working your ass off every minute of the day hard work?  Honestly, I don't think most people are…  How about you?

Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard

Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard is one of those books that once you read it you go "well, that was common sense," but then you think "if it was so common sense, why haven't I been doing that?" Why have I been trying to make change the hard way?  Why does some (ok, maybe quite a few) of the "things" I want to change never happen? Or are only partially adopted?  

Change is hard (speaking specifically about change in business, but it is true in all facets of life). But if the change is needed, shouldn't I do the best job I can to make it happen? So, why didn't I put as much thought into making the change happen, as I did in figuring out what needed to be done?  If I think the change is needed then everyone else should understand that too and just do it! Right?  🙂  I was guilty of many of the standard approaches most people use that just don't work, as the book points out. 

I can't do a full review of the book (I wouldn't do it justice).  I also won't use the Heath brothers analogy of elephant and rider, but it does get it's point across.  But I will try to highlight some of the techniques they suggest:
  • Look to see if someone is already successfully addressing the issue you have. If someone else has found a solution, why not copy it?  Either someone else in your organization, a competitor, or business in another industry. More than likely you are not the first person to run into this issue, how are people handling it already?
  • Instead of trying to address the big picture all at once, try a very specific change. The example in the book was instead of trying to address obesity, educate people to switch to 1% milk instead of whole milk. 
  • Be very specific in communicating the end result or what the end state should be.
  • Getting people to feel that the change is needed, is much better than that they think the change is needed.  Think late night SPCA television ads (I support the cause, but the ads just kill you to watch, even worse if you have young kids watching with you). 
  • Make the change seem do-able, so it is not overwhelming to the people you are trying to reach. Make it as small as you can (think 1% milk instead of whole milk).
  • Build an identity around the change and then encourage the mind set. The example from the book was Brasilata calling their employees "inventors” and how they implemented the changes suggested by the employees. But just a title change alone isn't going to change anything long term – look at McDonald's "team members…" You have to walk the talk too. 
  • Change the environment to encourage the change you want. Think Amazon's one-click buying. 
  • Look for ways to make the change a habit.
  • Behavior is contagious, so find ways to encourage the new action.  Think seeding the tip jar to encourage people to give tips.
Like I said, once you see the suggestions it all seems so common sense after you read it, but I know I will use this framework from now on. 

But the Heath brothers did a much better job explaining this all in their book (and they provide many more examples and suggestions).  So what are you waiting for?  Go buy the book already! 

Outside links:

Seth Godin’s talk last week in NY on his newest book, Linchpin

I have attached a 45 minute-long live recording of a session Seth Godin did last week in New York. As Seth said “No slides, no script, just a riff.” 

The talk would probably make more sense if you have read his book (Linchpin: Are you Indispensable?)…



My other blog posting on Linchpin:

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

The Seven Abilities of the Linchpin

Focus on what is going well?

We have always been told to work on our weaknesses.  And I think in general that is good advice, but lately I have seen more and more people talk about focusing on their strengths or focus on what you do right (warning, I just bought Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard).  And I do think this is excellent advice.

I had one employee who would get grouchy at times (especially if she felt she was dealing with incompetence or stupidity – you've meet these types of people before right? "old grouchy man" in a young persons body), but she did a great job most of the time and was well liked by her peers.  I talked about this employee before in my The Rules for Managing People post.  I took her from a front line role, where she could get into trouble and moved her to a tier 3 role where she excelled.  She would study at night and on weekends to strengthen her technical skills to be better at tier 3 support.  Later she even took on a QA role to help stop some of the customer support issues we were experiencing.  I could have worked with the employee to improve their attitude (and I did and continued to do so honestly), but it would have been a battle for both of us.  It would get better for a few days, but then the employee would slip back into their normal behavior. Frustrating for the employee and frustrating for me.  I would have ended up having to fire the employee I bet.  But by focusing on their strengths and what they did well, I ended up with an awesome Tier 3 support person and later the best QA person the company had.

I focused on what this employee did well and their strengths and in the end it was rewarding for the employee and for the company (and, honestly, for me too).  I could have focused on what was wrong and tried to "fix it."  But I don't think I would have ended up with even close to the same results.

So next time you look at an employee, instead of focusing on what she's doing wrong, try looking for something new she does right that you never noticed before.  And reinforce that behavior! 

10 Steps To Your First 90 Days At A New Job

There is the standard stuff when you start a new job; like finding your desk, getting your laptop, and a phone.  Of course, you have to fill out the paperwork, learn how to enter your time sheet and expense report and all that.  But now comes the scary part, what do you "DO?"  What you do next is going to set you up for success or failure at your new job.  I have been putting some thought into this recently and I think I have a decent plan in place.  Please tell me what you think…

10 Steps To Your First 90 Days At A New Job

  1. Start learning during the interview process. Why are they hiring this position? What happened before? What will it take to succeed? What are the expectations for the person coming into this position?  Can you talk to a friend that is also a customer?  How about researching the competition?  You don't have the pressures of the job yet, now is the time to get up to speed as much as you can on your own.
  2. Once in place continue to ask a lot of questions.  "Why" should be your favorite word. Ask why.  And why again. Talk to everyone, both in the group and outside. Have an open mind and listen.  Look for trends from multiple people.  Don’t assume anything, feel free to ask "what the ROI is" or "why something is so complex." I know it sounds crazy, but I have found business as usual does not always get the scrutiny a new project would get.  I have asked in the past and have been told "That is a good question and we should know the answer, but we don't right now."
  3. Make sure you listen to those who don't agree with you.  Do you truly understand what they are trying to say? If you don't find anyone that disagrees with you, A) you haven't found the right people or B) people don't feel safe telling you the truth. 
  4. Once you have identified the issues start prioritizing, you can't change everything all at once. And make sure you have some quick wins on your list.  Nothing succeeds like success…
  5. Understand that change is scary to some (most?) people and YOU are an unknown.  You are the new guy.
  6. Be open to other's ideas and suggestions. Be flexible.  Use an inclusive decision style.  
  7. Do you have the right Lieutenants in place? Are you getting the right guidance and feedback? Are they up to the task? Success is so much easier when you have brilliant, hard working people around you. It is much easier to share the limelight with a great team, than to get there all alone.  Don’t forget about a good mentor.  Who is helping to guide you through the history and politics?
  8. Don't get caught up in busy nonproductive work.  Attending meetings and answering email may feel productive (and is so satisfying to check off your list), but is it really the best use of your time?  Not only do you need a to-do list, maybe you need a don't-do list too…
  9. Move quickly, this is your honeymoon, you probably won't be giving this chance again.
  10. Communicate, communicate, communicate, both up and down the chain.  It is better to over communicate at this point (actually, most of the time).  You have multiple channels to get your message out, use them all; not just email and impersonal meetings. And make sure your audience understands your message. Your presentation to the board probably won't look like your presentation at the all hands meeting.

Do you agree with my list?  What do I need to change? What have I forgotten?  Is anything on the list that shouldn’t be?  Come on help me out!  I am hoping to be in my first 90 days on a new job soon.  How can I get up to speed quickly and start making an impact?

Think long term when planning a job change

Think long term when planning a job change. Think about what is going to truly make you happy 5 years from now. Ok, now how about 10 years from now? Not "I would make more money" or "at least I won't have to work with XXX anymore." It is not normally about a few more dollars and it is definitely not about what you are running away from. What makes you happy at work? We spend a third of our life there, shouldn't you at least be doing something that makes you happy? What about work makes it worthwhile for you?

  • Do you like the challenge work provides?
  • Is it the people you work with?
  • Is it the mission of the company? (Hey, it could happen! Maybe you work for the Sierra Club, right?)
  • Is it the work you do? (I love technology. I was having lunch with a guy yesterday that is "Mr. Security." Awesome guy too.)

What is it that makes it worth going in every Monday morning? Yeah, most of us need a job, we all have bills to pay. But money doesn't make you happy (don't get me wrong, it doesn't hurt either!). What fulfills you at work? If you can't answer the question of "what makes you happy" maybe you have some thinking to do before you make that next job change…

It’s ok to fail

I was thinking about my post yesterday and I think I could have gone even further.  The hardest lesson at my last start up wasn't just getting people comfortable with the idea of being wrong or having a dumb suggestion; it was actually "it is ok to fail (sometimes)!

Employees were scared to try anything new because they were scared of what would happen if they failed.  But I believe "if you are not failing now and then, I bet you are not truly trying."  You have to be prepared to fail now and then if you are trying new ideas and new ways of doing things. No one has 100% hit rate. I had to show my employees that failing intelligently wasn't necessarily a bad thing.  You don't get the brilliant idea without throwing out a few duds. And, over time, the more you try the better you get.

When is the last time you failed?  Why has it been so long?

Clarification: What is failing intelligently?  Failing intelligently is trying out the new idea in a sandbox. Or in a test environment. Or running the idea by the subject matter expert first.  Or figuring out how to recover quickly and easily if the idea doesn't work (i.e. take a back up before hand).  Failing blindly or without thought and planning is just failing…