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Blog // Thoughts
April 14, 2014

Hubris

I’m always surprised to hear people deny luck or good fortune played any role in their success. Sure, we all want to play up the role talent, hard work, or both played in our successes. But, being unable to accept a little luck might also have been involved might mean we need to take a […]

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I’m always surprised to hear people deny luck or good fortune played any role in their success. Sure, we all want to play up the role talent, hard work, or both played in our successes.

But, being unable to accept a little luck might also have been involved might mean we need to take a deeper look at the way we tell the story of our success, or what our success really means.

Often, an inability to admit to having benefitted from some good fortune can be a sign of hubris and worse, can make those less successful than us feel shamed.

The Luckiest Person In Nirvana

Last week the band Nirvana were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Their drummer, Dave Grohl (now frontman of Foo Fighters), gave a moving acceptance speech. Grohl has actually become quite adept at giving thoughtful speeches about musical creativity. He opened his acceptance speech by saying,

“I was the quiet one in Nirvana. I was the drummer. But most of you don’t know that I was the fifth drummer of Nirvana. For whatever reason, I got to be the luckiest person in the world and also be in Nirvana.”

Grohl went on to explain how the role he played in the band was made possible by the drummers who have played before him, how his parents and the musical environment he matured in shaped his approach to music and how fortunate he was to have so much support in helping him reach success in the music industry (you can see the speech here on YouTube, or read the transcript here on Rolling Stone).

The speech was the opposite of hubris; it was humility in action. Humility is often misunderstood as being willing to “put oneself down,” but it really means being able to put one’s station in life in context, avoiding the temptation to overestimate the importance of one’s success. For me, humility is largely about being able to see how any success we have is really just a small part of a larger process. Grohl put it this way at the end of his speech.

“…you look up to your heroes and you shouldn’t be intimidated by them; you should be inspired by them. Don’t look up at the poster on your wall and think, “Fuck, I can never do that.” Look at the poster on your wall and think, “Fuck, I’m going to do that!”

Hubris And Shame

We often hear the word hubris used as a fancy substitute for arrogance. But, hubris has some important meanings beyond just arrogance or extreme self-regard. Hubris is a kind of arrogance which shames, mocks, or puts down another.

Think of the way some self-important folks treat staff in restaurants or shops, talking down to them and really talking advantage of the dynamics created when one person has more, maybe a lot more money in their pocket than the other. That’s hubris.

Thinking we got our success just because of talent (or hard work) can easily breed hubris. If we believe we deserved success, if we say luck played no part, then what are we saying to those who have not experienced success?

We are shaming them, we are saying they deserved failure. If we say there was no wriggle room in our success, no good fortune, then we imply there was no wriggle room, no bad luck in their failure. That’s harsh.

Meeting Opportunity With Intention

Maybe, some people genuinely feel luck played no part in their success because they never really took any risks, or never really attempted anything without knowing what the outcome would look like. Or, perhaps they’ve never reflected deeply enough on their lives to see places where it could have gone really wrong for them.

Luck is found in the open-endedness in our stories, the opportunities that could have gone either way, the risks we took where we didn’t know how it would work out.

Most entrepreneurs and business people I know acknowledge the role of luck and good fortune because they know what it means to take risks, to stare failure in the face, to try to carve a successful path in a storm of circumstances and market forces beyond their control.

I’m not trying to suggest that success is just a matter of luck. Success is often about meeting opportunity with intention (as I wrote about recently). It’s not so much about making our own luck as it is about making our lucky moments count.

Admitting Your Luck Is Like Counting Your Blessings

My parents taught me to think for myself, to appreciate good craftsmanship and to work hard. I didn’t choose those lessons, they chose me. I believe we all have experiences like these, either from our childhood, or the edges of our work, where things came into our experience that we didn’t choose, but which powerfully shaped us.

Maybe we could all benefit a little from taking the time to identify these bits of luck, good fortune or whatever we might call them and celebrate them, count our blessings as it were. Maybe that will also help us be kinder to those who are less successful than us and also, kinder to ourselves when we fail as well.

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