Charting The Course

The Secret to Success – Hard Work or Luck?

By Mitch Siegler, Senior Managing Director

Mitch SieglerAsk a self-made man or woman about the secret of success and you’re likely to hear “hard work,” “true grit” and the like. E.B. White said “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” Ask a really successful person in business, politics, art, athletics, medicine, science – whatever – and more often than not, you’ll hear them attribute their success, at least in part, to luck.

Warren Buffet frequently attributes his good fortune to having lived in the U.S., during the 20th-21st centuries and having a particular knack for business and finance – capital allocation – a skill of dubious value in sub-Saharan Africa and which would likely have not made him über-wealthy had he lived in an earlier era. I’ve heard more stories than I can count about successful folks who walked away unscathed from a childhood accident, feel fortunate simply because they were raised by parents with a healthy marriage or had a teacher at a young age who took a particular interest and provided guidance or mentorship that is still recalled decades later.

The Latin expression “fortune favors the bold” rings true but so does “luck is blind”. Of course, you have to buy a ticket if you want to win the lottery but there’s also not much you can do about being in the wrong place at the wrong time – like those poor souls on the 9/11 airplanes.

LuckSometimes, the luck argument is used to support a political agenda, like equal opportunity. In 2012, President Obama famously stated that it’s largely luck and those opportunities which come to those from higher socioeconomic status when he said “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that – somebody else made that happen.” While the President’s word choice was clumsy at best, it’s hard to argue that America’s education system, scientific research and infrastructure contribute to the success of many American dreams. An outstanding teacher or mentor can also have an outsized impact.

Of course, hard work and luck can be interconnected, even synergistic in contributing to success. Thomas Jefferson nailed it when he said “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Hard work means different things to different people. It might mean “the “sweat of the brow” to a farmer or coal miner, “true grit” to a marathon runner, “shoe leather” to a commissioned salesperson, “thinking outside the box” to an investor, “knowing where to cut” to a surgeon, “creativity” to an actor or artist or “working smart” to a software engineer.

Impulse control – delaying gratification until later – can be a variant of work, also contributing to success. The medical technician who attends nursing school in the evenings to move up demonstrates this commitment clearly. So does the guy who moonlights with a second job or drives an old jalopy and eats peanut butter sandwiches to save for a down payment on a house or bankroll a business. These folks are making a sacrifice today for a better tomorrow.

In the ‘60s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel made a splash with his now-famous marshmallow experiments. Kids were offered a choice of one marshmallow now or the prospect of two marshmallows simply by waiting 15 minutes. Kids being kids, some just couldn’t wait but many could – and follow-on studies demonstrated that those who waited had had better life outcomes, as measured by higher SAT scores, greater educational achievement, lower body mass index and other measures.

One especially crucial area of luck is a person’s health, which insurance actuaries are wise to. This includes the power of genetics (pick your parents carefully), lifestyle (diet, exercise, stress) and avoiding accidents (birdwatchers have fewer accidents than skydivers). Certainly, many of these factors aren’t controllable but combine a lousy diet with an aversion to exercise, add in a pack-a-day smoking habit and a penchant for fast cars and you can be unlucky in the health department pretty darn quick.

Now, back to work. In his best-selling book “Outliers: The Story of Success” Malcolm Gladwell talks repeatedly about the 10,000-Hour Rule, which posits that the key to achieving excellence in any endeavor or profession – golf, tennis, music, software programming, litigation, whatever – is putting in the time, literally practicing the correct way for 10,000 hours. Gladwell says “the biggest misconception about success is that we do it solely on our smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work.” His goal with Outliers was to show that there are lots of other variables involved in an individual’s success [and that not] everything that happens to a person is up to that person.”

LeadershipLots to consider and this is pretty heady stuff. But maybe we should try to keep it simple. That’s the leadership philosophy of former U.S. Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin who believe that leadership – at every level – is the most important thing on the battlefield. A team with effective leadership wins out over a bigger, better-equipped force and can overcome the harshest of conditions and circumstances. The same principles can be applied in business and life. In their own way, Willink and Babin took a page from Thomas Jefferson – the harder we work, the luckier we get. Here’s to good luck.

Mitch Siegler is Senior Managing Director of Pathfinder Partners, LLC. Prior to co-founding Pathfinder in 2006, Mitch founded and served as CEO of several companies and was a partner with an investment banking and venture capital firm. Reach him at