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What Does it Take to Succeed?

Q. I am a college student. I want to become an entrepreneur. However, it seems to me that starting a business is risky and great success will require a lot of luck. From your prospective, what are the key elements of great success in business?

A. In his landmark book Outliers, the story of success, Malcom Gladwell shares a series of in-depth studies of people who achieved tremendous success. Through these anecdotes, he makes the point that great success requires three elements: (1) God given ability, (2) luck, and (3) hard work.

God given ability – As a boy, Doug wanted to be a professional football player. He pursued this dream into his teenage years. He had the good luck to live in a football rich part of town. He had the privilege of playing on championship teams in youth league, Junior High School and High School. He was fortunate enough to have great coaches that taught him good technique.

He had a rigorous program of running and strength training to which he adhered with religious fervor all year long. He worked hard, much harder than most of his teammates. But, alas, he lacked the God given ability. He may have been big enough and strong enough, but he was simply too slow.

His football career peaked in college at Division III Randolph-Macon where he had a wonderful experience and won three conference championships, but, given his level of ability, no shot at the pros. No amount of good fortune or hard work could overcome his lack of God given ability. Great success, in any field, requires a measure of God given ability.

Good luck – A certain amount of good fortune is also a necessary component of great success. You dream of great success as an entrepreneur. You are fortunate to live in the United States. Depending on where and when you were born, becoming an entrepreneur may have been beyond your reach or worse, may have landed you in jail—capitalism has been outlawed in many countries.

In the same way, bad luck can derail your plans. An ill-timed recession, a new competitor, a change in regulations, the loss of your health could all deal a serious setback to any particular business venture. Being in the right place at the right time is important. Great success requires some good luck.

Hard work – Just because God given ability and a modicum of luck are necessary elements of success, don’t underestimate the requirement for hard work. In Outliers Gladwell writes about the ten thousand hour rule—claiming that the key to achieving world class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around ten thousand hours.

He uses the Beatles as an example. They seemed to have burst on the music scene out of nowhere. The Beatles were touted as an overnight success. Gladwell points out that prior to becoming an “overnight” success, the Beatles had been traveling to Germany for years playing long gigs in less than ideal conditions, receiving little compensation and essentially no recognition—all the time honing their craft. After many years of hard work, the Beatles became an overnight success.

There are three things necessary for extraordinary success: God given ability, good fortune and hard work. However, only one of them is in your control, how hard you work. You can’t change the tools with which you are born—although you can develop yourself with hard work. You can’t change your luck—although through hard work you can overcome some bad breaks. But, you and you alone control the effort you put into any endeavor.

You are gifted with a certain amount of ability and you will have your share of luck. Doing anything less than the best you possibly can, doing anything less than working very, very hard is squandering these gifts you have been given.

In the final analysis, two things are clear. (1) Every extremely successful person has worked very hard. (2) If you work hard, regardless of your ultimate level of success, you will achieve much more than if you don’t work hard. Whatever you choose to do, fully commit yourself to it.

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