The next, next big thing

One of the constants in competitive sports is hearing about wonder kids. The other constant is the fact that most of these wonder kids don’t make it. I’ve been reading excerpts from a book called “Next, Next Big Thing” that profiles 15 such football/soccer wonder kids and the stories in there are very poignant.

The wonder kids share powerful stories about their journey exposing various factors like injuries, a bad relationship with a coach, personal problems, timing, etc., that got in their way of becoming top flight footballers.

The stories reminded me of a chance conversation in London with a train ticket inspector who was an Academy player at Chelsea football club. He shared that most of the high potential kids stop playing because of injuries. The ones who emerge are either lucky to avoid them or have incredible mental strength to find a way back.

Similarly, reading each excerpt has been a profound reminder of both the importance of mental strength when the chips are down and the power of luck in shaping any success.

While we tend to have plenty of conversations about the former (“grit,” “perseverance,” etc.), we often neglect attributing our success to the latter. Perhaps we should… and perhaps we’d appreciate what’s good in our careers a lot more when we do.

Involving others in solving problems

There are pros and cons to involving others in solving problems. There are two quotes that represent both sides of the argument. The first is “many hands make light work.” And, the second is “too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Both of these quotes focus on the work itself. And, they’re both right depending on the context.

However, of late, I’ve found another interesting benefit when involving others – luck. Sometimes, solving problems requires a bit of luck; it involves an accidental find or a flash of insight that cracks the problem. And, over the past few months, I’ve found myself in situations where a little bit of extra luck went a long way in solving a tricky problem.

Every once a while, it is better to be lucky than good. And, when we feel we’re running out of luck, involving others can help turn the tide.

Luck or skill

It is helpful to distinguish between the effects of luck and skill. Our human bias is generally to attribute most of our success to skill and that of those around us to luck. Of course, that isn’t very helpful.

The ability to seeing things as they are versus how we’d like them to be is a particularly powerful habit. And, yes, it is a habit. In this case, distinguishing between luck and skill helps us in two ways.

First, it helps us make better decisions by virtue of us having the right map. Imagine being stuck in a new city and following the wrong map. That’s how we’d make decisions if we aren’t truly aware of what our skills are. It is a critical component of self awareness.

Second, it helps us learn more from those around us. If we get good at identifying the valuable skills that others possess, we can both learn from them and, in cases where those skills are complementary, make it a point to surround ourselves with people with those skills in the future.

At the end of the day, how we deconstruct success into luck and skill is still just our point of view. But, it is important we attempt to do so periodically and test our assumptions from time to time. The more we can move this from our truth to “the truth,” the better for us and those around us.

Geography and success

Ever since Jared Diamond wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel,” multiple historians have come out with books explaining why attributing historical dominance to such factors isn’t right. A better theory, they explain, is to study the link between geography and success. Peter Zheihan, in his book, “The Accidental Superpower,” crystallizes this view beautifully. The success of a society is inextricably linked to its geography. More specifically, there are 3 factors that typically lead to dominance –

1. Ease of internal navigability – In past centuries, this meant being connected internally by waterways that helped with administration, trade and a sense of unity. This was a big reason for the dominance of the Egyptian civilization.

2. A location that isn’t easily attacked – Great Britain enjoyed this geographical advantage during the rise of their empire. And, the Egyptians enjoyed the security of the desert that surrounded them.

3. A land conducive to agriculture and industrialization – This would ideally involve arable land, a large enough population and convenient location of land to internal navigation systems.

geography and success, superpower, self, competition, luck

Even one of these factors can give rise to a superpower if it is accompanied by mastery of technological power. For instance, one of the crucial technologies that tilted the balance of superpowers was deep water navigation. The Spanish and Portuguese mastered travel by sea. But, once England learnt this, they became a superpower. Germany’s dominance was due to land that was conducive to industrialization. All these powers did multiple things right (and wrong) once they became dominant – for instance, Germany invested heavily in universities and research. But, the cause of their dominance was geography.

America’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it actually has all of these 3 factors in spades – most navigable rivers, an East coast that is practically a river due to sheltered “barrier islands,” a place that is practically impossible to attack, largest amounts of arable land on the planet, a large population and arable land that is, at most, 150 miles away from water for transport. All of these combined to give the US an incredible advantage in the past 200 years.

As you can tell, it is a fascinating book. I could go on explaining what I’m learning and reading but I thought I’d bring this back to ourselves. As I understand the incredible impact of geography on success, I also realize that it is likely to be very similar when considering individual success. There are 3 takeaways here –

1. When studying success, we rarely talk about geography. But, being born in Hollywood and the bay area respective likely played a big role in John Lasseter becoming John Lasseter and Steve Jobs becoming Steve Jobs.

2. Never compare paths. No one was was born with the exact same circumstances as you. In a sense, every person’s geography is different. And, if you’ve moved away from your home land, it is likely to be very different. Comparisons are not productive because you don’t understand the benefits of their geography or they, yours. The only thing that matters about your path is that you did the best you could to achieve the best possible process and outcomes. The rest is gravy.

3. Our own geography is completely arbitrary. Instead of being born into our families, we could have been born into a slum in India or Africa with very few means to make our way up. It is remarkable that you and I were born into circumstances that allow us to read, write and take food, shelter, and the like for granted. It is so important that we maintain perspective, stay humble and be happy.

And, lest we forget, it is also so important that we make our geographical advantage count by being the best we can be.

Needing luck

When you follow a good process, you lessen the need for luck. It’s when you follow a bad process that you gravely need luck.

The last time I found myself fervently hoping for luck, I reminded myself that, if this didn’t work out, it was because I was paying the price for a bad process.

Hoping for luck is something I seek to eliminate – good skill trumps good luck in my book. Luck is always welcome, of course. But, skill is more reliable.

And, I’d take consistency over sporadic brilliance any day.