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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Luck vs. Hard Work?

About 35 years ago, the business press began publishing articles centered around the theme of “work smarter, not harder.” Some of them I found to be marginally useful and most seemed to be discussing time management techniques. The advice sounded great when you first read it but did not always work in the real world. For example, many said return all phone calls and e-mails at a set time each day usually after you get your personal “to-do” list done. Logical, right? Well, in a service oriented business such as advertising you do not keep a client waiting for six hours.

Also, I always took moderate offense at those whose claimed that all great managers and executives left promptly at five o’clock. Sometimes you had to work hard and simply put the time in on many projects. As a media executive, I knew that virtually no one was eager to hear what I had to say in most presentations. So, I worked hard to differentiate both me and my team in meetings. It might only be a factoid or two that was new to them or telling them about their company or spending that they did not know. It took time--sometimes a great deal of it. Yet, it almost always paid off handsomely.

So, I was and remain a fan of hard work or doing due diligence.

At the same time, you often hear how luck is just as important as working hard. To me, when people refer to someone as lucky it is often due to jealousy. How many times have you heard, “He gets all the breaks” or “She is just lucky.” Often, the complainers are the ones leaving at 5 pm and do not see how hard the “lucky” ones are putting in the long hours. Luck does play a factor in the broad sense. I remember my father telling how lucky I was “to be born in America and growing up in the 2nd half of the 20th century.” Malcolm Gladwell brought up the same point decades later in OUTLIERS. Just by being born here and then within a supporting family environment one had a leg up on 95+% of the rest of the world. Yet, there is also the old cliche of “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”  As a youngster there were people who did seem to have a lot handed to them. They would inherit a modest retail operation, law practice, insurance office, or travel agency from their parents. Well, the internet and online marketing has devastated many of those operations and those who have survived were not simply members of what Warren Buffett dubbed the “lucky sperm club” but people who worked hard and have adapted to the changing landscape.

I asked some panel members and a few others about luck vs. hard work. Here are few of the better responses:

--Experienced and ageless marketer--“Don, I think luck plays a  part in getting to the right place at the right time.  After that I don’t think luck wins consistently. It’s all about preparation, persistence, and a reasonable dose of intelligence and common sense doesn’t hurt.”

--Self made mega-rich entrepreneur--“Luck is wildly overrated as a big factor. There are no shortcuts to success. It takes passion, dedication, and focus. People who talk about luck all the time are usually lazy bastards who never really tried.”

--Long time ad agency principal--Hah! Define Luck.
I love the axiom “The harder I work the luckier I become.” (originally from Thomas Jefferson although many including I used to attribute it to golfer Gary Player--editor)

Right place. Right time?  It happens but I prefer to think the odds are improved when you are working your butt off.

Obama did NOT get to be POTUS by luck.

If you work hard you might get lucky--or not. But, if you work hard and are smart you will be successful.”

To me, I find you can make your own luck. My entire life I have always been an omnivorous reader. Each week, I devoured each issue of AD AGE, BUSINESS WEEK, FORBES, FORTUNE and the Wall Street Journal and New York Times daily. Over time, I would be able to answer questions in meetings or presentations that surprised people. Dozens of times, colleagues would say, “I loved the way you pulled that answer out of your behind.” Well, I did not. I had and still have fairly good recall and I was able to answer questions based on my extensive reading. So, the more I read, the luckier I got! To this day, I still read economic theory (Smith, Keynes, Mises, Hayek, Friedman) for an hour a day to stay sharp. So, with rare exceptions, hard work takes heavy precedence over luck.

With every rule comes striking exceptions. In the late 1970’s, I was walking up a flight of stairs. A young lady was walking down. I smiled and said hello. She stopped, introduced herself and we talked for a minute. As we parted, she said, “I hope that I see you again.” In a few days, we will be married for 37 years. I was and am very, very lucky.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or leave a message on the blog.

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