Luck is Not a Business Model

My son William, an actor, student and short-order cook, recently sent me a blog post by Michael Ruhlman in which Mr. Ruhlman quotes from the book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook  by Anthony Bourdain. Both profane and profound, Mr. Bourdain has made a career out of his eclectic experience as both chef and author, and his first book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, rocked the culinary world and led to television fame.

The blog post is entitled “So You Wanna Be a Chef” and the excerpt from Mr. Bourdain’s book is a litany of all the reasons not to commit to attending culinary school and/or to the world of professional cooking. He ends his admonition to the reader by admitting that in spite of his own bad choices early in his career, including his battle with addictions, he got lucky. “And luck,” he writes,” is not a business model.”

Those words resonated with me and I hope they will with you, too. Don’t get me wrong–I believe in luck. Every time I circle the block looking for a place to park in downtown Wheaton, I call on the spirit of my deceased father whose “parking karma” was epic. Sure enough, a space opens up for me! I usually give a nod to the heavens and say, ‘Thank you, Daddy.” Is that luck or timing? I don’t question it. I’m just grateful.

My dad was also fond of saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” He was a big fan of the “luck-is-not-a-business model” school of thought. A child of the Great Depression, my dad believed in hard work and had my sister and brother and me apply for work permits before the candles were blown out on our sixteenth-birthday cakes. My parents, both influenced by the Protestant work ethic, insisted that we pay for half of anything we wanted to buy that was a big-ticket item. I’d been pocketing cash from a lucrative baby-sitting business since I was 12 and to my luck (there it is again) and delight, we lived next door to a couple who had two small children and who loved to party. This was back in the day when babysitters got paid fifty cents an hour–double after midnight. I committed to saving for my first pair of contact lenses which was going to cost around $100, an astronomical sum to me then. For more than a year I baby-sat to earn my half of the investment and never felt richer than when I had that $50 set aside. Lucky? Maybe. Lucky enough to have parents who taught me the value of hard work.

You’ve heard of the star who is discovered, an “overnight success” who ruefully admits in a magazine interview that there were 20 years leading up to that sudden surge of fame. Nothing happens overnight–at least not that I know of. Those of us who do strategic planning believe in the power of declaration, putting pen to paper (or cursor to mind-mapping for those with a bent toward technology), planting seeds today that we’ll harvest not tomorrow, not even the day after that, but maybe years from now. Success takes vision, patience, tenacity and grit.

And maybe just a little bit of luck.

[Photo by © Ralf Roletschek – Fahrradtechnik und Fotografie]

The Secret of Success

My daughter Kitty recently shared a link to a TED Talk with me, a presentation by a woman named Angela Lee Duckworth. Dr. Duckworth, once a McKinsey consultant, left the world of management consulting with one of the country’s most prestigious firms to go teach math to seventh graders in the New York City public school system.  She observed that her students who succeeded were not always the ones with the highest intelligence quotients or those who came from what we would consider good homes. Her interest in these factors led her back to school to receive a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania where she now teaches. Her platform and her research are based on the theory that the biggest indicator of success is “grit.”

Several impressions washed over me when I listened to her Ted Talk entitled “The Key to Success: Grit.” First, I was bowled over by the idea that this talented young woman would leave a job at McKinsey, replete no doubt with a significant salary, a healthy expense account, bonuses, stimulating assignments and a career ladder that reached to the sky, to go teach seventh grade math.

Upon hearing that, I had a flashback: In seventh grade, we had a biology teacher named Joyce Something. I remember her as being rather serious and drab, but during  the year she got engaged. She changed right in front of us: her eyes sparkled, her once unkempt hair was now tied with a bow. And during one class, the boys started teasing her about getting married, focusing specifically on the honeymoon. She ran out of our classroom in tears.  I remember raising my eyes to the ceiling and uttering this prayer: “Dear God, please let me never teach seventh grade.” So my admiration for Dr. Duckworth wasn’t just that she left consulting for teaching: she left to teach seventh graders.

My next observation was that Dr. Duckworth’s scientific research was a direct reflection of what my dad always told me about success. However, he didn’t use the word “grit.” His version was “stick-to-it-iveness.” All the brilliance in the world, he said, can only be harnessed if we’re willing to do the work. My dad, too, was a professor, but I think his counsel on stick-to-it-iveness was based less on his experience in academia and more as a direct result of being raised as the youngest of six on a farm in Nebraska during the Depression. My grandmother was a Methodist minister and part-time gas station owner, widowed by the time my Dad was 10, a woman who did everything she could to make ends meet for her children. If our religion as a family was Methodism, our mantra was hard work. I’ve learned as a business and career coach who helps people and companies with strategic planning that all the brilliant strategies and ideas in the world don’t amount to anything without action, without execution. And that takes grit.

Lastly, I thought of a quote I’ve heard over the years attributed to Calvin Coolidge. “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence,” he said. “Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

In fact, Angela Lee Duckworth says grit is often inversely related to talent, and she implies that follow-through trumps talent any day of the week.  “Grit is sticking with your future — day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years — and working really hard to make that future a reality,” she said. This sobering insight gives me new determination and inspiration to commit to following through, doing what Gregg Levoy in his remarkable book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life calls “the pick-and-shovel work” that it takes to achieve our dreams.  For a calling to manifest into success, it looks like we have to do the work. I figure that Dr. Duckworth, Calvin Coolidge and my dad can’t all be wrong.