Many people think that their success is solely due to their hard work. They planned, put in the effort, and achieved what they set out to do. They deserve credit for what they have done. However, I also think they benefited from a large helping of luck. More importantly, I think we do everyone a disservice when we claim complete control over and credit for our own success.
|Me on a recent hiking group outing with the Hudson River behind me.
A Story of Success
The short version: I was a smart kid. I did well in school, and got into a good college and a better grad program. I earned a Ph.D., got a great job after graduating, and then an even better job several years later. Along the way, I published papers and patents and grew my network. I worked hard, charted my path, and succeeded. This is the story that teenage David would tell, of completing my destiny to have a great career in computing.
That story is short because it leaves out a lot of details. Let’s start with the easy omissions: I was born to two loving parents who raised me in a well-to-do neighborhood with good schools. I may have been an awkward child, but all the adults (and many of the children) expected and encouraged me to succeed. Unfortunately, many people do not grow up with that support. I was very lucky.
A Story of ChanceThe long version includes a number of lucky breaks. I ended up at graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in part because my friend and classmate went there a year earlier. Seven years later I was hunting for a job as I finished my doctorate. The company and research lab I ended up with had a strong pipeline from UIUC. If I had gone to another school, I would have been less likely to end up where I did. Further, I was hired right before a hiring freeze. My hiring manager sped up my paperwork to make sure I got in. So, if I had been on the market a few months later, I would not have ended up with the same job. I loved working in that lab and got to know many amazing people, including IEEE and ACM Fellows, National Academy Members, and a Turing award winner.
Soon after joining the company, I joined a weekly hiking group at work. Many fellow hikers became friends. I know them solely because they also like hiking and worked at the same company.
A Second Chance
Moving forward several years, I had built a nice role for myself, in which I got to work on interesting projects and was well rewarded. However, my company was not growing and had gone through periodic layoffs. I didn’t worry about my job, but I did worry about how much I could accomplish in that environment. Then, across a year, several unrelated but important things happened.
Several members of my team had a side project that suddenly became successful. They and their project were moved to a new division. I was excited for my colleagues, but it also meant I needed to find a new team. Around the same time, my youngest child was finishing daycare and starting kindergarten. His daycare was located at the site of my office, and I had been dropping him off and picking him up every day. Finally, one of my hiking buddies had been laid off and started a new job at a startup I had never heard of before.
Because of the reorganization, I had to re-evaluate my job. Because of the health of the company, I was willing to look elsewhere. Because my son was done with daycare, I was no longer tied to my current office. Because of all these things, I decided to look far and wide for my new job.
One of the places I looked into was my friend’s startup. The one I only knew about because of him. The one he worked at because he had been laid off. I told him what I was looking for and described my skillset. It turned out that his company was looking for my exact skillset at that exact moment! I interviewed and was hired.
Let’s see all the small changes that could have happened and kept me from my current job. If my colleagues’ project hadn’t taken off, I’d have no need to look for a new job. If my son was younger, I’d still be tied to the daycare. If the company was healthier, I wouldn’t have looked outside it. If I didn’t hike or my friend wasn’t laid off, I’d be completely unaware of my current company. If all of this had happened a few months earlier or later, the company wouldn’t have needed me.
Do the Random Parts Matter?
At this point you may object: David, there may have been a lot of chance involved, but things would have worked out well for you anyway – the particulars were random, but your being successful was not by chance.
You may be right. But there are two important points to consider. First, my life would have been very different in ways I couldn’t have planned if I hadn’t ended up where I did. I had an acceptable competing offer in hand – I would have ended up at a very large company, instead of a small one. All my experiences would have been very different and I strongly doubt I would have become as well known in my field as I am. I may have been successful, but it would have been a very different version of success. It would have looked like a very different plan.
Second, I have the privilege of having a lot of opportunities. Yes, I have worked hard to provide myself with opportunities, but as covered above, I have benefited from many factors outside my control. Many people do not have all those opportunities or never get the right one.
Increase Your Luck
Hard work and planning matter: they are necessary for success, but not sufficient. So, by all means, celebrate your victories. You earned them. But also acknowledge your luck and be grateful for it. I am.
Finally, consider what you can do to increase your luck. You can put yourself in good situations where things are likely to go your way. I did that by working hard in school. I did that by applying for many jobs so I could compare multiple offers. I also did it when I chose to do something I love – hiking – which happened to introduce me to many people who would become friends.