|Allegory of Fortune by Balthazar Nebot, c. 1730 (public domain - Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, via Google Art Project)|
Luck, in many ways, is the opposite of control.
In fact, we have less control than we think. Swirling around each of us are innumerable variables, each independent of the other, and intersecting with our lives when we least expect it.
These variables contribute to our failures and our successes, but we’re not in a position to control them.
We can’t control what people will think, nor can we regulate elements that are external to us. Our emotions and our comportment are entirely within our own power; how we express them will send a signal to the world about how we wish to be perceived.
As life greets us with many twists and turns, we find ourselves in situations we didn’t cause and that we can’t control. In many ways, it can feel terrifying.
At the same time, it can feel liberating. Because the only thing we can control is how we react.
And that very action—deciding how we’ll react—is what will make our luck.
— Maria Konnikova, 2020
Call it luck, call it fortune, call it chance or superstition, it’s all the same: circumstances that are outside of our realm of influence. But if we put ourselves in the proper mindset, we can tilt ourselves one way or another, as a sail catches wind.
In his 1851 essay “The Wisdom of Life” (hey, how’s that for a healthy ego?), Arthur Schopenhauer wrote:
“A man’s life is like the voyage of a ship, where luck acts the part of the wind and speeds the vessel on its way or drives it far out of its course. All that the man can do for himself is of little avail; like the rudder, which if worked hard and continuously may help in the navigation of the ship; and yet all may be lost again by a sudden squall. But if the wind is only in the right quarter, the ship will sail on so as not to need any steering.”
Have you noticed some people who seem to fall into good fortune? Who never have headwinds?
It may seem that way, but odds are they’ve faced difficulties. What sets them apart is how they reacted. If they’re resilient, they kept pushing on, tacking and jibing as the prevailing winds changed.
When they finally arrive at port, the waters are calm as the boat finds its slip, it seems like it’s been smooth sailing for them. But they know how they had to change course in order to arrive safely.
When you look at the success of Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan bootlegger, early Hollywood mogul, and diplomat, you would think he was born on Easy Street.
“On the Wall Street of the 1920s, Catholics were borderline cases and often found it harder than Jews to enter high finance. Snubbed by Protestants, they turned to stock market speculation by default, and Jazz Age plungers were disproportionately Irish. Armed with ticker tape and telephones at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Joe Kennedy made a fortune in stock pools.” (Ron Chernow, The House of Morgan, 1989)
But in those early days, Jack Morgan refused to see him because of his dual stigma of being a speculator and a Catholic.
In the years following the stock market crash, Kennedy because chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission: a powerful role, and an influential one too, given Jack Morgan’s snub of Kennedy a decade before.
Kennedy enjoyed another twist of fate: when he became United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James (UK) from 1938-1940, the ambassador’s official residence was at Princes Gate—the former home of Junius Spenser Morgan and J.Pierpoint Morgan (Jack’s grandfather and father) in London.
In those early years, Kennedy had no ability to change Morgan’s decision or his prejudice. He did, however, have the ability to change the company with whom he would associate and the kind of work he preferred to do.
— Euripides, c. 429 BC
In retrospect, decisions we make with respect to our direction can seem like folly or pure genius. The reality is, we do the best with the information we have at the time.
When I decided to join Ford, I knew the company needed to make a comeback and I foresaw the rise of social media in the general public. I predicted the intersection of the two would be a great boon to Ford.
While my prediction was correct, what I didn’t know at the time was the looming financial meltdown and government bailout for some of the auto industry that would result. Ford managed to burnish its reputation during that time.
I retrospect, I looked like a genius, but it was partially due to luck.
The lesson: be well-informed, be curious, and trust your instinct in order to be prepared for whatever Dame Fortune sends you.
Fortune is a fickle thing, gossamer-like in nature. It’s impossible to catch and fold it neatly in our pocket. Glimpsed one way, it can seem strong and certain. But it can also fall apart at the touch.
Once we realize that, we can gently stretch or bend it to our advantage, ever so slightly.
In Friday’s edition of the newsletter for premium subscribers (here’s how to become one), we’ll be discussing merit, and how luck plays into our thinking on equality.
Meanwhile, I’d like to invite you to join me on Thursday, March 18 at noon EDT for the inaugural live episode of Timeless Leadership, where about the virtues and principles that make great leaders.
My very first guest will be Laura Gassner Otting, best-selling author of Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life, which debuted at #2 on the Washington Post bestseller list.
Laura is a serial entrepreneur who has started and sold a successful international executive search firm, built philanthropic and political action committees from scratch, and was a White House appointee on the team which created the national service project, AmeriCorps. Laura is like a punch in the face wrapped in a warm hug.
And I’m lucky to have her on the show.
Their community values are the essence of Timeless Leadership: respect, empathy, community, and fun.
They take culture seriously there, and the focus is on quality conversations.
When he launched the first of his “fireside chats” on March 12, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created important moments of intimacy through audio. He connected directly with listeners all across America.
You’ve heard my voice, but this kind of Fireside Chat isn’t just about me. Because with Fireside, you’ll have a voice as well. I want you to engage me in live conversations. Discussions. Debates. Discourse.
You know, the way humans used to talk to each other before the internet came along. We’ll be doing this in a public forum, just as the Romans used the Forum for public engagement over two thousand years ago.
Thanks, and I hope I’ll see you there. Or on the internet.