Success Is Never an Accident. It's a Choice.
Like everyone, I’ve made some pretty dumb decisions in my life. Early in my career I passed on a great job offer to go with a startup that ended up going nowhere. I later went head-to-head with a boss who just happened to be my CEO. Who do you think won that battle? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t me.
Then there were all the money mistakes. I invested $20,000 in Boston Chicken right before it went bankrupt. And I doubled down on tech stocks thinking the dot-com bubble was done bursting. Turns out the market had a long, long way to go before bottoming out.
But then, I’ve been around a long time. Mostly I’ve made good decisions. That, I believe, is the reason why things turned out so well. Granted, there is a certain amount of randomness to life. But more than anything, success and happiness are all about making smart choices.
While every accomplished executive or business leader can rattle off a string of improbable events that somehow led to their success, if they didn’t connect those random dots, none of it would have counted for beans. In other words, they also had to make lots of good decisions to make luck work for them over the long haul.
After graduating college with a worthless diploma I went back to school, got an engineering degree, and followed my gut into the then nascent high-tech industry. Then I learned the management ropes with the world’s top semiconductor company. And I joined two startups that ended up going public.
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Come to think of it, every significant career and business opportunity that ever came my way was based entirely on a reputation and professional relationships I painstakingly built over the years. It was all about creating and capitalizing on opportunities, not to mention a ridiculous amount of hard work. There was nothing serendipitous about it.
Society likes to use all sorts of labels to describe the good fortune of successful people. Some of them are positive, like making your own luck and being gifted, while others are derisive, as in being in the right place at the right time or growing up with privilege. But the truth is, with rare exception, it always comes down to making good choices.
What does that mean for you? Sadly, I think it means doing things that far too many of you are not doing.
It means spending your time on things that matter – focusing on the big picture and the long run instead of giving in to instant gratification. It means facing up to your responsibilities and holding yourself accountable. It means doing the right thing instead of following the path of least resistance. And it means living within your means.
It means being willing to step outside your comfort zone and face your darkest fears. It means putting your butt on the line and taking big risks when it would be so much easier to fall into a safety net. Mostly, it means not giving in to the status quo or popular groupthink and having the courage to carve your own path.
The truth is, it takes courage to do all those things. Discipline, perseverance, and a lot of hard work, too. That’s what bugs me about the euphemistic and cynical phraseology of good fortune. Granted, there is luck involved. But if you don’t also make smart choices, no good fortune will ever come of it.
Every day you make decisions that impact the outcome of your life. You choose what you say and don’t say. What you do and don’t do. How you behave and misbehave. Did it ever occur to you that every day of your life you make choices that dramatically and irrevocably alter how things turn out for you?
The question you should ask yourself is this: Are the choices I’m making today – right now – changing the outcome for better or worse? Don’t take that question lightly. Look in the mirror when you ask it. And when you answer, be completely honest with yourself.
The truth is, the right decisions are never the easy ones. They’re always the hard ones. But the hardest part is making those first right choices. After a while, that sort of decision-making becomes part of you. And that’s when you know you’re on the right path. When it gets easier to make hard choices.
Success is never an accident. It's a choice.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.