Luck, Talent, and Effort
Exerting Influence Over a Chaotic Universe
It’s graduation season, and I have received a number of solicitations for advice from younger friends and relatives where planning and executing a successful career is concerned. [you know you’re old when they start looking to _you_ for wisdom. Poor kids, they don’t yet realize that we’re all freestyling the whole time]
From my perspective, success in all of life is dependent upon an interplay of three spheres of influence: Luck, Talent, and Effort.
Call it what you wish: Luck, divine intervention, karmic irony — much of what defines our success is beyond our own control.
Where were you born? What assets are available to you? Did you get her number before the train pulled away? Did you step to the side before the piano fell to the sidewalk?… A tremendous amount of our success pivots on experiences and activities that are fully beyond our control. Depending upon your personal philosophy and ontological disposition, this might be a strong or weak force. But there is no denying the role that it plays in the larger picture. Recognition of Luck also breeds humility. A string of success runs the risk of causing us to feel invincible. The recognition that some portion of success is simply the result of good fortune helps keep our egos in check and prepared for the inevitable downturn.
We are all born with specific mental, psychological, and physical gifts. These Talents may be direct, as in a slightly longer forearm that allows +2% spin on a baseball pitch, or indirect, such as a mechanical creativity that allows us to imagine and fabricate tools that help tackle tough physical chores.
The beauty of the Talent attribute is that we’re all born with some portion of it. Discovering where and when those Talents may be most profitable to the bearer may be a challenge, but if you can find a groove where your own Talents are uniquely appreciated, there is no limit to the success you may achieve. What would have become of a figure like George Patton if not born into a life that included West Point, Rommel, and the Egyptian desert? What might’ve been the prospects for an athlete like Michael Jordan if he lived during a time without basketball? The point is that as powerful and flexible an attribute as Talent may be, it still requires the right environment in order to thrive.
The great equalizer — Effort is the most individually controllable of all the key spheres of influence. Indeed, from a cultural perspective, while we may appreciate Lucky timing and marvel at raw Talent in action, the highest echelon of appreciation is reserved for those who owe their success substantially to Effort.
Luck is out of our hands, and beyond finding the proper environment for application, raw Talent may be as well. But everyone has the basic physical ability to apply her or his energies toward the advancement of safety, profit, and happiness. Perhaps one of the reasons that Effort is held in such high esteem is because each of us, every day, is presented with opportunities to choose how to exert it in our own lives. This makes for a deep database of personal experience against which to compare the visible Efforts of others we encounter throughout our days.
End of the Parable
In a world of parable, the attributes described above might present the total picture for success. Be Lucky, leverage Talent, maximize Effort. Alas, the universe in which we reside, and the relationships between these attributes, is substantially more complex. By embracing the complexity of this seemingly simple system, all sorts of previously unrecognized opportunities appear. Its no accident that the illustration included with this post is a Venn diagram — for it is the interplay of these attributes is what makes them really interesting.
INTERPLAY: Luck & Effort
“Good luck is another name for tenacity of purpose” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Aphorisms abound where the interplay of Luck and Effort are concerned, and for good reason. While I am a believer in Luck as a legitimate sphere of influence in its own right, there is no question that hard work and expertise create fertile soil for it to take root.
Often the foothold that Luck provides cannot be expanded without significant Effort. For all its power, Luck is often elusive, slipping away at the least opportune moment. Effort, meanwhile is always right at hand. We are the masters of our own Effort, and there is never any mystery as to the level of energy we invest there. Depending upon the pursuits against which we exert that Effort, progress can be anticipated to a greater or lesser extent. When digging holes, there is a direct, linear, and blister-based relationship between Effort and performance, while navigating a career as a rap artist can be more difficult to map. When forecasting future performance, Luck can be terribly fickle. Best to plan based upon effort, and hope for a bit of luck sprinkled-in as a bonus.
INTERPLAY: Effort & Talent
Talent, on its own, can be impressive to witness. And with just a little bit of shared context, Effort makes a bold impression. But in those cases where these two attributes are effectively wired-together, the results can be extraordinary.
Popular culture provides plenty of examples of highly Talented individuals who match and/or exceed those skills with passion, energy, and Effort: Tiger Woods, Taylor Swift, Jack Welch, Barack Obama… Its exciting to see top performers match their God-given gifts with equal measures of sweat and labor. In a world peopled by creatures that are genetically so very similar, sometimes the smallest edge makes all the difference.
Talent and Effort interplay at the opposite end of the spectrum, as well. I was lucky enough to have mentors during my formative years who pushed me to not simply rest upon my own Talents. Rather, I was motivated to recognize my areas of weakness and minimize those through constant and robust Effort. Just because we’re playing to our strengths doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore our weaknesses. You may be nervous speaking in public, naturally thin-boned, inclined to bully others, insensitive to the subtleties of polite conversation, or soft on mathematics. Time invested hammering on these shortcomings pays dividends in terms of appreciating the challenges associated with those pursuits, the achievements of anyone with the courage to operate beyond the bounds of her/his natural strengths, and the joy of utilizing the very Talents you do possess. Ultimately, as Effort is the very best way to build skill, this is also a fantastic strategy for closing the gap.
INTERPLAY: Luck & Talent
Was that Talent, or was she just lucky when she took the shot?… The hallmark of the interplay between Luck and Talent is its blurriness on the border.
Was it Luck, or was it Talent? We often can’t accurately gauge where even our own performance is concerned. Sometimes we conclude the latter, only to discover how wrong we were when the former suddenly vanishes. Humans lack the fine-grained sensory perception necessary to always differentiate reliably between these two attributes. In the case of the trapeze, or a billiards tournament, or even in the world of marketing, that very difficulty is what makes watching the unfolding narrative so exciting.
Ultimately, a successful life requires all of these attributes: Luck, Talent, and Effort. Those that we directly control provide the opportunity for us to calibrate inputs against expected results. Work hard, play to your strengths, court luck where you can find it. Those over which we exercise less authority provide humility and appreciation for the many different people and circumstances we are exposed to through our lives. Walk softly, bolster your weaknesses, appreciate the charms that others bring to the table. Understanding the borderlands between these attributes, and the interplay where the physics of one bumps-up against that of another affords opportunity to make magic in the margins, if just a little bit. Though often, in life, a little bit is all it takes.
Organizing people, process, and tools for scalable delivery — Partner, Digital Practice Lead; NewVantage Partners
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on July 6, 2018.