Success and luck

For years, my favorite Michael Lewis piece has been his New Yorker magazine article about Shane Battier, The No-Stats All-Star. (I wrote about why that piece spoke to me here.) As of last weekend, I may have a new favorite: his recent baccalaureate address at Princeton. The entire address is worth watching, but here’s the quote that has stuck with me:

If you use better data, you can find better values; there are always market inefficiencies to exploit, and so on. But it has a broader and less practical message: don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

 Watch the address:


Whenever I’ve been asked for career advice, I have a few common recommendations. The first is that whenever I’ve had a career choice to make, I always optimize for learning. Even when I’m not entirely sure how that learning will benefit me, I’ve figured out that the act of learning itself is often what I find most energizing about my work. If you’re learning, you will never be bored and you will acquire skills that can help you down the road.

Second, I’ve tried to follow the example that I encountered in my first “real” work experience, when I was a law clerk at the EFF after my first year of law school. I worked for Shari Steele (who’s now the executive director), and had several opportunities to interact with an amazing collection of smart people like Mike Godwin, Jonah Seiger, and Jerry Berman. I was extremely fortunate to find myself in that office that summer, and in many ways, I owe a lot to those early interactions. I learned that getting an answer often just requires asking the question. I discovered that many people — even famous people who you’d think would be too busy to chat with you — are more than happy to help. (And those that aren’t? Just ignore them. Life’s too short.) These days, I try to answer the questions I’m asked. I remember what an impact that had on me nearly 20 years ago, and what a difference it can make for the person who gets the answer they didn’t expect. Read this post about a crazy phone call I made to GE’s headquarters during that summer at EFF. Bottom line? Early in your career, ask the question. As you advance in your career, remember what got you there and answer the questions when you’re asked.

The more I’ve thought about Lewis’s comments, I’ve now got another recommendation that I’ll share with those who ask me for career advice: allow for luck. I have been extraordinarily lucky in my career. Sure, I’ve also applied what I knew, worked my ass off, and been pretty resilient through some rough patches along the way. But the minute you stop believing that luck plays a part in where you are, you stop being the person who can benefit from luck. As Lewis notes, you start believing you deserve everything you’ve got:

In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve [it]. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.

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