John D. Rockefeller was famously once asked, Mr. Rockfeller, how much money is enough? Without missing a beat the titan replied, “Just a little bit more.” That led me to start thinking about how do we actually measure success and when should we allow ourselves to feel that we have actually achieved something. I expect my focus for my entire professional career will be on building companies and entrepreneurship. In the field of growing companies it’s often seen as simple to define success – he who dies with the most money wins. When I was twenty and I started working at SSB the seemed like the right definition, in line with glossy celebrity magazines and the great American dream. Ten years later, though, it seems like the situation seems is more complex than that.
The simple truth seems to be that no matter how much money you have there will always be someone with more. Say your goal is to be the world’s richest person. In this day and age the most you can hope to do is hold that title for a period of time riding the markets exuberant valuation of your company to the top spot. Inevitably, though, you lose the position and someone with more toys at the time takes it over.
It strikes me that that the creation of an enterprise that creates a Croesusian level of wealth is something that occurs principally as a matter of luck where the unique skill of an individual, which is important, meets the proper market environment which is orders of magnitude more important. Bill Gates would be lost to history if he was born five years earlier or later. You would have no idea who Marc Andreessen is if he hadn’t been in the right place at the right time. Mark Zuckerberg would be another random guy from Harvard if the idea of Facebook hadn’t come his way while Friendster – remember that – and MySpace were vulnerable. This is in no way to take away from the efficacy of these company builders – it’s simply to help divide between the factors they control and factors they do not. This is in line with the fundamental attribution error which states that people tend to over value personality-based explanations and under value situational explanations for something.
What’s more, the distribution of wealth is clearly not merit based. A monarch of an oil rich state – through very little personal skill – has more wealth than I can ever hope to amass. Children of wealthy parents tend to be wealthy be virtue of the fact that they start out with far more opportunity. In the same way, the golden tickets of being born (i) American, (ii) into an upper-middle class family and (iii) smart are in no way based on any work that I have done. Clearly, how hard I work in my substantive professional years has an impact on my success. That said, factors that I in no way control have at least an equal if not greater impact on my success.
Given all that, the question becomes what do I choose to measure my success? What is a measure that I can use that accounts for the things I control and discounts the things that I do not? The goal is to define success in a way that allows me to measure whether I am achieving my full potential in the context of my life. It should not wait factors that are principal matters of luck but should ensure that – if I get lucky – I am well positioned to take advantage of that luck.