Luck matters

Luck matters. We hate to admit it, but it does.

Let’s start with DNA. Your genes are responsible for 50 percent of your happiness. It’s called the “genetic set point.” Don’t buy this? Talk with twins who’ve been apart for forty years. Or take a look at the research. The conclusion is clear: half of your happiness is determined at your birth. You can pick your jeans but not your genes.
Green hat
Now consider demographics. How much wealth you are born into. The color of your skin. The place where you grow up. You don’t control these either.

Luck matters.

Yet we convince ourselves it does not.

If life’s been hard and success elusive, many people want to blame you. You don’t work hard enough. You’ve made bad choices. You’re not taking responsibility. And, guess what. There may be something to these charges. You do have flaws. You do screw up. Yet tell that to the college professor who has the same degrees, title, and income as his close colleague yet can’t provide as well for his kids and has less financial cushion. The big difference? Whereas his colleague’s parents gained wealth on their home by buying low and selling high, his parents missed out because banks redlined their neighborhood. (Too many Black residents.) So now he sends a much higher portion of his income to his parents to cover their medical bills.

Same intelligence. Same effort. Different outcome.

Luck matters.

And not just bad luck.

Let’s say you’ve made it big. Impressive job. Growing business. Nice house. Or perhaps, instead, you’re solopreneuring and live in a mini house, because you decided to simplify. You made the choices that got you here, right? You seized opportunities and took smart risks. Or you simply put in longer hours than others. Luck had nothing to do with this.

Except that it did. Your parents are white, so they got the loan that helped them buy the house that is responsible for half of their wealth appreciation. And you got healthy genes, so you spent your childhood playing sports or going to dance camp rather than getting surgeries to correct for chromosomal abnormalities. It’s like that famous quip about one of our recent Presidents: “He was born on third base but thinks he hit a triple.”

Luck matters.

But, wait, you didn’t grow up wealthy. And, you were sick a lot as a kid. But now you’re a success. Clearly, this is a case of overcoming obstacles and making the most of your talents, not luck, right?

Maybe. But it’s one thing to work hard and make smart choices and another to attribute all of your success to these actions. In reality, you got breaks others didn’t—the mentor who took an interest in you, getting into the right company at the right time, or the siblings who sacrificed so you could move ahead. You seized these opportunities, but you didn’t create them.

Luck matters.

It’s time for us all to come clean about this. Not just to call BS on our fables of success and happiness, but for three powerful reasons:

  1. Gratitude. Acknowledging the role of luck is an act of gratitude. People who are grateful are happier than those who are not. So if you want to be happy, fess up to the primacy of luck.
  2. Humility. People who know they’re not the sole architects of their lives tend to be more open to their own fallibility. They admit mistakes, seek opportunities to learn, and spend less time being arrogant know-it-alls.
  3. Focus. When you realize the power of luck, you pay more attention to it. You see positive breaks that others miss. And when bad things happen, you don’t obsess about what went wrong, but focus on your creative response.
Let’s get real. Luck matters.

#WDS2014: Loving Nerds, Igniting Practice, and Growing a New Mind

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

It is called the World Domination Summit—or WDS for short—and billed as a three-day gathering for remarkable people living in a conventional world.   I signed up to lure my brother to Portland for a visit—and because three Millennials called it “epic” and two Boomers said it was “refreshingly positive.” I showed up to see what all the fuss was about—and meet people I could hire to help me share my ideas more broadly. And I left—take a deep breath, because here’s the heretical part—neither wiser nor more inspired but with a deeper commitment to what I’ve been intending to do for years.

WDS openingparty

This post is not a recap of the experience—for initial summaries check out here, here, and here—but my reflections on its meaning for me, a 44-year-old leadership coach who doubles as a father, husband, and Paleo Jewish mystic empiricist.

At Home with Writers and Nerds

It would be a stretch to say that that WDS is “my home.” Although I liked everyone I met and was intrigued by their stories, I would not say that these are “my people.” Consider:

  • The center of gravity of WDS is the Millennial Generation. I haven’t seen demographic stats, but I bet the median age hovers around 32. I’m 44, and I work mostly with Boomers. In fact, one of my closest colleagues has a boyfriend whose 90th birthday is coming up soon.
  • This group seemed hip to the latest trends. In my mind, a new band is anyone whose first album appeared after Hall & Oates peaked.
  • Many people I met were early in their journey of living unconventionally. In the words of one, “My life changed after I read The Art of Non-Conformity [a fine book by WDS founder Chris Guillebeau].” It’s been 22 years since I gave conventional life the boot by dropping out of medical school and 15 years since I started meditating on trains and in cafes.
  • The prototypical WDS narrative goes like this: “I was in a successful corporate career, then got bored/sick/restless/devoid of meaning, so I started my own thing, and I’m much happier.” My business works primarily with managers in large companies and public agencies. I challenge them to change themselves before they change their situation because (1) Otherwise, they’ll simply bring old habits and ways of being to new situations, and (2) Research shows that our situation in life (job, spouse, city) accounts for only 10 percent of our happiness.
  • Lots of folks spoke glowingly about how inspired they were by their first WDS. I can be inspired, but it takes a special experience. Plus, it’s been ten years since I realized that “ahas” amount to little without ongoing deliberate practice.

And yet, in at least two ways, I felt great affinity with other WDS peeps:

  • The Writers. It seemed like everyone had a blog or was planning to start one. Many had published books, some of them quite good. Sheepish admission: although I’m a voracious reader and newly published author, I’ve never really hung out with writers before. Consultants, yes. Executive coaches, for sure. But writers? Not so much. Now I know better. Example: David Delp. We had a great chat at a meetup. Then I looked at his blog and realized: wow, that man has depth and humor and knows how to express it.
  • The Nerds. Ti-shirts and buttons proclaiming the virtues of being a Nerd have been around for years. Yawn. Never paid them much attention. Yet when I saw one at WDS, something clicked for me. I always associated being a Nerd with science and math. And I coach a lot of engineers who’ve been promoted past their natural comfort level with people. Yet, here, Nerds were writers, artists, and solopreneurs. Geeks in creativity. That’s a new one. It’s still sinking in, but it’s giving me new reason to reinterpret all the teasing I got in high school for getting good grades (and having a massive head of hair).

So there you have it. At home with the writers and the nerds.


Igniting Deliberate Practice

The test of a good conference, seminar, or workshop isn’t whether you leave inspired. After all, the half-life of inspiration is about ninety minutes. Nor can you tell a good conference by how many people you meet, or even how many deep connections you make. These metrics are important, but they don’t automatically translate into anything. IMHO, the true test of a good conference is how well it ignites you to deliberately practice a pivotal skill.

  • Deliberate practice. In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin popularized this term to describe how elite performers in sports, the performing arts, and other fields rise to the top. Deliberate practice means repeating an action over and over again with the intent to improve, getting feedback from a skilled coach or mentor, and persevering through boredom and hard work. Think about those piano lessons you took in elementary school—or hitting the tennis ball against the wall.
  • Ignition. Starting anything new is challenging. Sustaining it when old habits pop up—even harder. What differentiates people who turn new practices into lived habits? They have a primal desire to do or be something—and this desire is so strong that it that compels them to act. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle calls this impulse “ignition”:

Ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening…[that] works through lightning flashes of image and emotion, evolution-built neural programs that tap into the mind’s vast reserves of energy and attention. [It’s about] the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.

What are you more committed to deliberately practicing today than you were last week? Yesterday, while hiking on Mt. Hood, my brother and I asked each other this question. My answers:

  • Meditation. For a year, I’ve been experimenting with a new approach. Instead of sitting for 20-30 minutes once a day, I sit for 3-5 minutes 5-7 times a day. It’s hard to do, but the results are good: more consistent ease and clarity throughout the day. And the “0 to 60 time” (how long it takes to get into a peaceful meditative buzz) goes from minutes to seconds. It’s time to do this practice even more consistently.
  • Blogging. My brother challenged me to blog twice a week every week. So here we go…
  • Twitter. I’m going to make this my primary social media platform. (Hint, hint…please tweet this post)
  • Strength training. Lifting weights 3-5 times a week makes a huge difference for my mood. It’s also good for T—like many men my age, I have low testosterone. Yet I’ve been incredibly inconsistent. So I’m recommitting to 4 times a week.
  • Ice Ago Paleo. At the WDS Blogging Academy, Chris Garrett encouraged us to embrace our geekiness. Well, I follow a Paleo Diet, except I sometimes eat ice cream. So I’m Ice Age Paleo. My new commitment is to continue with the Paleo while reducing the frequency of the glacial drift.

Growing a New Mind

People at WDS like the word “epic.” Here’s what I have to say about that. The truly epic thing about being a human being—instead of a gorilla, snake, or ant—is that growing up doesn’t end at adulthood. Even when our bodies reach their maximum height, our minds have the capacity to grow—not just once, but multiple times. Depending on which research you read, there are from three to ten stages through which our minds can grow after we’re physically mature. Each stage allows us to make sense of the world in new ways and handle more complexity than the previous stage. Some people call this “vertical development” because it’s not just changing what you see; it’s changing the person who is doing the seeing. If you’re interested, it’s worth studying—and a good place to start is Changing on the Job by Jennifer Garvey Berger. But for most of us, three stages matter most, and the first starts before adulthood.

  • Self-sovereign mind. The only perspective you can take is your own. Everyone else’s view is a mystery. When other people see things differently, it’s not much of an internal conflict. Forget “We Are the World.” Life starts and ends with “I Am the World.” Or as Rodney Dangerfield said in the movie Back to School, the route to success in life is “looking out for number one without stepping in number two.”
  • Socialized mind. You now can see the world through other people’s perspectives. Life is not just about what you want. This is progress! However, there’s a catch: you can become embedded in others’ perspectives. Your parents hate the idea of you becoming a writer, so you study architecture. All the adults you grew up around are homophobic, so it takes forever for you to come out of the closet. (Or, in the case of one friend of mine, your mother encourages you to be gay, so you have to apologize to her that you’re straight.) Or you get married and discover your partner has very different ideas about how to raise kids than the ones you were taught. You cannot simultaneously hold both perspectives, so you feel a deep inner conflict.
  • Self-authorized mind. Finally, you can see multiple perspectives while maintaining your own. When you had a socialized mind, other people’s perspectives held you. Now, you hold these perspectives. It’s just like that metaphor from the negotiations book Getting to Yes. Rather than just being an actor on the stage, you “go to the balcony” and can see the action on the stage. Your ability to grok others’ views without sacrificing your own is, yes, you guessed it, epic. It’s also an achievement that takes years to develop.

The true zeitgeist of WDS? An invitation to leave the socialized mind behind and step forward boldly into the self-authorized mind. It’s a powerful invitation, one well-timed with where many participants are in their lives. This, in my view, is the main reason why people fall in love with the gathering. It’s not the speakers, meetups, high-fives, or hot air balloons.  What they—we—are really falling in love with is the version of ourselves that is eager to burst forth.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that growing beyond the socialized mind isn’t easy. It takes years. And a lot of—yes, I’m going to say it—pain. When we grow beyond the socialized mind, that version of ourselves dies. And death ain’t no party. In fact, although people claim that they fear public speaking more than death, that’s a bunch of crap. We fear death a hundred times more. We just deny the reality of death so skillfully that we forget how frightening it really is. (See The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker).

Here’s where I think WDS could do better. Acknowledge that living an unconventional (or, I would say, post conventional) life involves more than leaving your company, creating a great platform, building your mailing list, or recruiting an awesome tribe. It requires a profound inner reorientation of who you are and how well you can master life’s complexities. Even while relishing the freedom and joy of creativity, we also learn to honor and grieve what we are leaving behind. Finally, growing our minds involves—yes, you guessed it—loads of deliberate practice. Think Great Namaste every day for two years.

Mary Oliver, again:

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

And, I would add, who will you become?

The Race of Our Lives

The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.
—Bill O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance Company

We’re in the race of our lives. It’s not between the “good guys” and “bad guys” but between the complexity of our world and the capacity of our minds to manage this complexity—and the amount of energy we have to fuel us.


We know from Jim Collins’s survey of 1400 companies that transforming from “good to great” requires Level 5 leadership: a paradoxical blend of professional ambition and personal humility. We also know from longitudinal research of small- and mid-sized organizations that organizations’ capacity to transform is directly related to top executives’ ability to integrate different perspectives, use a broad repertoire of power approaches, and self-correct.

That’s where leadership comes in.

On-the-Job Experience Plus Deliberate Practice

It’s rare for major business journals to talk about experience-based leadership development. So I was pleasantly surprised to see an interview with Cynthia McCauley of the Center for Creative Leadership in Strategy + Business. McCauley describes why on-the-job experience, rather than formal training, is important to developing leadership:

Leaders who step into new situations face challenges that call for untested abilities. They continue to develop their capacities and successfully take on higher levels of leadership responsibility. That’s consistent with what we know about adult learning and development, too: People learn how to do things when they’re put in situations where they have to do them and practice doing them.

This may sound obvious, but few organizations build leadership development around on-the-job experience. Instead, they offer formal training and possibly mentoring or coaching. Therefore, there is a great opportunity to improve leadership quality by matching leaders who are good at learning with experiences that teach them what they need to learn. McCauley provides four tips to organizations interested in doing this:

  1. Plan initiatives carefully, monitor learning carefully, and track executives as they move up the organization.
  2. Customize learning experiences to each individual.
  3. Invest disproportionately in supporting leaders during times in their careers when they need concentrated development. In addition to on-the-job experience, provide peer learning, coaching, and related training.
  4. Provide experiences that cross organizational boundaries.

This is great stuff. To strengthen it, I’d suggest three powerful complements:

  1. Identify pivotal new conversations. Conversations are the building blocks of leadership. When leaders take on new experiences, they have an opportunity to enter new types of conversations with new people. What are these specific conversations and what does it take to do them well? For example, let’s say you’re a line manager who has managed organizations of 500-1000 people and you’ve been asked to take on a staff role that reports to the GM of your business. You now have three direct reports rather than ten, and most of the people you need to influence to get things done are outside your authority and unaware of your past track record. What kinds of conversations do you need to have with these people? What prior conversations with your direct manager, the GM, will set you up for success? These are questions worth asking at the outset of any new assignment.
  2. Deliberately practice these conversations on the job. In Practice Greatness, I describe the four elements of the on-the-job practice cycle: preparing, acting, reflecting, and getting feedback. In this interview, McCauley mentions reflecting but doesn’t explicitly suggest preparing or getting feedback. All four elements are essential to accelerating learning from experience.
  3. Deliberately practice these conversations with a coach or mentor. I think leaders would learn much faster if we offered them opportunities to practice speaking and listening outside the pressure of everyday work. What if practicing leadership conversations looked like practicing tennis: you say a few things, reflect on how it felt, get quick feedback, adjust, and try again? This is how my coaching clients and I spend one third of our coaching sessions. Although this approach is an outlier in the leadership development field, it is mainstream for other endeavors in which people are consciously practicing for high performance.


Before You Lean In, Own Your Space

Fifteen months ago, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead came out and took the country by storm. Grounded in research and filled with personal anecdotes, the book sparked a national conversation about power, privilege, and the distribution of responsibilities between women and men in the workplace and at home. I’ve spoken with many people (mostly women but also a few men) who were inspired by the book and just as many who felt it contained useful insights but fell short in important ways. In this post, I’d like to share the very first reaction I had to the book and why I think it’s relevant to all of us.

Women exec upright on table

My reaction to the book began with the title. What does it mean to “lean in?” Sandberg recommends this to women as an alternative to leaning back—in the Board room and around conference tables where important decisions are made. Leaning in means speaking up, stepping forward, and being willing to take on jobs with loftier titles and bigger responsibilities. To me, this is valuable advice to women who aim for larger impact and recognition. It’s also useful for the smaller but still significant percentage of men who hold back and remain quiet when the stakes are high.

As a metaphor for claiming your place at the table, leaning in works well.

However, on a purely physical level, leaning in strikes me as woeful advice. When you lean your body in, the upper half moves forward before the lower half. It’s a posture of imbalance, one that actually diminishes your power and flexibility in responding to life’s challenges. Instead of leaning in, why not simply sit or stand upright? If you watch many powerful leaders around the very conference tables Sandberg describes, you’ll find they are neither leaning back nor leaning forward but upright. They hold the same posture while standing or walking. This posture evokes respect because it conveys composure and unflappability. When you stand upright, the message you are sending to yourself and others is clear:

I own this space.

Wherever you go and whatever you are doing, you have a right to be there. You belong. This is not something that other people can give you. It’s something that you claim for yourself by the way you hold your body, the words you use, and the full expression of your presence.

I own this space.

Explore the concept now. Imagine a circle around you that extends two feet in front of you, two feet behind you, and two feet to each side. This is your space. You don’t have to ask anyone for permission to be here. It is yours.

I own this space.

Many women apologize for being where they are. “I’m sorry,” they say, while crossing paths with people at the grocery store, walking past others in a narrow aisle at the library, or moving their chair so someone can walk by in the conference room. It’s an innocent remark, often made habitually and unconsciously. It seems like a polite alternative to “excuse me.” Except that it’s not. Unless you bump into someone or step on their foot and it’s clearly your doing, “I’m sorry” means that you belong in this space less than the other person. This is a subtle yet severe diminishment of your power, one whose impact grows through repetition. In most situations with most people, there is no need to apologize.

I own this space.

Ironically, it’s also great advice for men who have no trouble being assertive. You own the space around you—and only that. You do not own the space around women—or other men. When you interrupt a women who is speaking or claim credit for her idea as your own, you do damage not only to women, but to the world as a whole. A world in which people, women or men, don’t feel like they own their space is less safe, less productive, and less thriving than one in which all of us own our own space.

This is why, when I first saw the cover of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, and every time I hear someone talk about it today, a simple thought crosses my mind:

Before you lean in, own your space.