When it comes to telling the story behind their success, most people will either tout the value of hard work, or tell the story of how a single decisive moment changed their life forever. In reality, you have to do both.
If you focus solely on hard work, you overlook the importance of being ready to be decisive when the right opportunity presents itself.
If you focus solely on decisive moments, you feed the notion that success is based on luck rather than effort.
This past week, I went on a Paly High freshman trip to Yosemite with my son, Jason. Long-time readers and friends will probably know that camping is just about the only thing I'd be less likely to attend than Burning Man. The things we do for our children....
Along the way, I had the pleasure of sharing a car and a cabin with Will, one of the other parent chaperones. Will has led a fascinating life, with plenty of hard work and decisive moments.
In 1967, he was drafted into the Army. During infantry training, another trainee foolishly tried to pry open a misfire and triggered an explosion that sent shrapnel into Will's knee. After reconstructive surgery, he wasn't able to continue his training, so he was assigned to night guard duty at the base's computer center. One night, the warrant officer in charge of the computer center was having trouble getting an important report to print. Will saw what he was doing wrong, and broke protocol to offer his help. The officer, who really needed that report right away, forgave the breach and accepted the help, then told Will to report to him the next day. The officer promptly pulled Will out of the infantry, promoted him, and put him to work running the computer center. He spent his entire tour of duty working on computers, and never did ship out for Vietnam. When he was discharged, he got a job at IBM, and worked there for nearly 40 years.
On the one hand, Will clearly experienced a decisive moment. If hadn't spoken up that one night, he might never have caught an officer's eye, and he could have been sent to fight and possibly die in Vietnam. That moment changed the course of his entire life.
On the other hand, that moment was only possible because of hard work. Will's dad was one of IBM's top scientists, and Will had spent his entire childhood playing with electronics and IBM computers. The only reason he was in the Army was that, like many a hacker before him, he found school boring, and flunked out of college, losing his draft deferment.
(Will experienced another key decisive moment, which led to him becoming the world's leading expert on color calibrating high-end projectors and televisions, which in turn led to his working with Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and many of the world's greatest directors, but that is a story you'll have to get from him!)
In my own life, I've experienced decisive moments, like being asked to collaborate with Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha on the ideas that became The Alliance. Like Will, that was a single decisive moment that changed the course of my life. But it was only possible because I had spent the previous decade thinking about those ideas and writing over 2,000 blog posts.
Success is about hard work AND decisive moments. The hard work builds your skills and brings you the opportunities. But you still have to have the courage to seize them when they present themselves.