Do not be too harsh on yourself: life comes in waves

Herman Singh explains that a few life decisions can make an enormous difference.

Waves in the environment around us – and where you are in them – can dictate your success in life.

A large body of research has demonstrated that life outcomes are primarily a function of two things: luck, and your level of effort, and this has certainly been true for my own life, as a sample of one.

Both elements are very exposed to an element of randomness and the element of timing, namely., where in a wave you are. And you can influence them only to a certain extent. This explains why so many individuals who are perceived as highly talented are not as successful as you might expect, and why many with modest abilities have risen to the top.

Luck talks to the element of randomness and unpredictability. A few decisions in your life could make enormous differences: decisions like the school you go to, or whether to go to university, the subjects and field of study that you select, your first job, marriage or even investments. Who you meet and what projects you work on as well as who your bosses are all affected too, and the impact of these decisions could go either way.

If you are born into a middle-income family with two graduate parents, then you have great prospects, but what if they were both Ivy League graduates or were millionaires? On the other hand, a big challenge in inner cities is the prevalence of single parenting, and a society dogged by crime and violence. It is rare to see success emerge from there which is why, on the rare occasion that it does, we do tend to celebrate it widely. So where you start in life could very well dictate where you end up and what you achieve.

Many successful people in the world today were lucky to have been born where, when, and with what family they were born into. An example is the Bill Gates generation, including Larry Ellison (Oracle), Steve Jobs (Apple) and John Chambers (Cisco). They were all born in the 50s and 60s just in time to be trained on the new computing revolution and to have been living and working in California and more specifically San Francisco and San Juan (Silicon Valley is not really a designated address).

Yes, capability and skill feature in there somewhere, but as we can see with many Twitter, Instagram and YouTube stars, “talent” today is very subjective and trend-centric. Fashion is about waves of perceptions, moods, needs and emotional states of the global community. Programming skills are key for a few years then IT architecture or ERP skills and then digital skills are rated as talent for a few years followed by data analytics. In the future it might be empathy.

Essentially, the world has evolved in fits and starts, and this plays out in waves. Like surfing, your best ride depends on where you are placed with respect to the waves. And of course, it depends on mindset and capabilities as well.

The Covid-19 wave is a bummer, especially for those younger people who survived the credit crunch of the 2008s and the student loans, and who now have to try to build a network with no access to institutional memory or a sales connection network.

If you were entering your career at the startup phase of firms that subsequently became successful, then you would have ridden the wave to success. Google has the highest number of “millionaires who used to be secretaries” in the world, thanks to their early employee share option plans.

So, do not be too hard on yourself. It’s like trying to compare yourself to the Pharaohs, the Roman Emperors or the Czars of Russia, all of whom amassed tremendous wealth and power but happened to be at the right place and with the right family in the right region. The same is true for the oligarchs in Russia who amassed huge wealth as the old Soviet Union dissolved and previously state-owned assets were parcelled out to well connected individuals. Right place, right time.

Similar patterns existed in South Africa in the ’90s with the early days of BEE, where six well-branded individuals were able to secure the bulk of the deals, leading to a perception that the empowerment process was not broad-based. This, in turn, led to BBBEE legislation to ensure that equity was better achieved. Right place, right time.

Humans hate to hear that they are not in control or in charge of their lives. We also claim credit for all great developments in our lives (that is known as the fundamental attribution error) while blaming the waves for the downside.

Western culture promotes the view that we must take charge and drive our life outcomes. That we alone are responsible for our destiny and that nothing stands in the way of success, but our willingness to work hard and be entrepreneurial.

But any detailed analysis will demonstrate that all that we can realistically do is to make the best of the situation, whether it is good or bad. We see that now with the millions of small, well-run businesses going to the wall because they were not essential services or, worse, were in the location-specific, contact-based, experience economy.

So luck is out of our control and may be with us or against us, but what is key is to focus on what IS in your control. Your network, brand and competence are all key parts of that, as well as embedding yourself into the best eco-systems for success. And so is being open to new ideas and being opportunity obsessed.

Finally, it’s vital to develop resilience and learn agility so you can pivot as new opportunities arise. In other words, you need a life strategy that is dynamic and living, that shifts and changes as new information becomes available or you develop new insights.

Today’s children must decide on a career direction when they are in their teens! That tactic may have worked 40 years ago in a more stable society but today we need to train kids for jobs that do not even exist yet. That old model of fire and forget is no longer viable for careers.

This requires that you think of your life as a business with a life strategy. The challenge for personal strategy, as with business strategy, is deciding where to play and how to win, i.e., in what sphere to focus your attention and how to position yourself in that sphere in order to succeed.

The shifting environmental waves are like the strategic landscape for a business. You need to navigate your way through them. Businesses think very carefully about where to play by matching it to their capabilities not their interests. Humans do it the other way around.

We focus on our interests even if we are not good at them. Activities that should be hobbies turn into careers. This is further fuelled by the “motivational” industry, which promotes following your heart. A life purpose and vision can be unchanging, but a life strategy must be reviewed once a year at least.

My new book, Upcycle your career, has been created to guide you on this journey in a new world fundamentally changed by a once-in-a-century pandemic, but also by accelerating rates of change in technology, business models, work and geo-politics, not to mention climate change. Many rules have changed, but many remain the same. This book will help you to replot your path to success.