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The secret to success

By August 11, 2015July 15th, 2018Leadership

First, a formal disclaimer:

A zillion others have espoused alleged wisdom regarding the secret to success. The great majority of purveyors of said “secrets” have struck me as self-important, self-promoting blowhards; painfully few of whom have any advice worth a damn.

That said, as I stare my 40th year as a businessman in the face, I feel the irresistible need to espouse my own alleged wisdom on this topic. Hopefully, you’ll find my spin on the “the secret” to have some value.

Over the years, I have become convinced that success – however you choose to define and measure it – is driven by 3 factors. Without all three, success ain’t gonna’ happen. The good news is, each of us has a high degree of control over all of them.

  • SecretToSuccessWork (methodically hard, dedicated, relentless work)
  • Intelligence (both the God-given and the learning-driven)
  • Luck (stupidly dumb, totally unanticipated, utterly serendipitous luck)

Those three factors, both individually and collectively produce something else:

  • Opportunity (more on this later…)

There’s not much that needs to be said about the need to work hard. The only valid reason to not work hard is serious illness. If you’re healthy, get back to work.

We are all born with some level of IQ. Although some research indicates that IQ can be enhanced, we pretty much have to make do with what we had at birth. Anyone, however, can dramatically (HUGELY dramatically!) leverage any level of IQ with knowledge. The phrase “Ancora Imparo” or “Still I learn” (usually attributed to Michelangelo) captures the notion well. Methodical, relentless pursuit of new and additional knowledge, no matter how old or experienced you may be, is the 2nd essential.

And then there’s dumb luck. Face it. Do not kid or think too highly of yourself. Some level of your success is totally due to serendipity. Dig through any successful person’s history and you’ll find them accidentally and repeatedly stumbling into the right place at exactly the right time. I repeat… some amount of luck is a prerequisite of success. (Think of it the opposite way. How many really smart, extremely hard-working people do you know that simply have never snagged the brass ring? Are we speaking of you perhaps?)

Back to opportunity. Even though work and/or intelligence and/or luck will generate a steady stream of opportunities, we still need to reach out and grab them as they present themselves. Until we take an opportunity, intelligently work it and have a bit of good fortune, success will remain elusive. Luck alone will not get it done. A work/intelligence combo alone won’t get it done either.

As with opportunity, each of the BIG 3 also increases the volume of the other two. Work generates knowledge. Knowledge generates ideas that need to be worked. Exploiting a lucky break requires more work and new knowledge. You get it. The whole pie can get bigger.


Obviously too, the BIG 3 don’t need to be equally balanced – or even ever can or will be equally balanced.

SecretToSuccess2SecretToSuccess4We have all seen the C student make it big. We have all seen the C-minus student who works and gets lucky and makes it really big. We have all seen people who have worked incredibly hard and overcome an endless stream of bad luck and still made it big. (Have you read Unbroken?)

We have all seen all kinds of different combinations, and different combinations for the same person at different times.

Personally, I’ve drawn hundreds of versions of the diagram shown here. Most while reflecting on my own wins, losses and ties. Many while reflecting on the wins, losses and ties of others.

Give it a try. I find it humbling and it never fails to tweak my perspective.

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