A friend thought it was funny that I’m an executive and life coach who believe we have limited ability to affect our own outcomes. It would be more accurate to say I believe we have limited ability to predict the effects of our actions on our outcomes. What we do makes a difference, but we can rarely tell what it will be in advance.

Our gut is lousy at understanding a complex world. Otherwise, we would have had technology 90,000 years ago. Instead, we needed to develop science and data and measurement to know how small parts of the world really work. Most of what we believe about life (probably 99.9999999999%) has never been really tested.

Yes, our actions affect the world, sometimes in ways that benefit us. And nevertheless, the power of the surrounding system structure far dominates outcomes. I attended a conference about the analysis of social networks. The conclusions are striking: your position a social graph predicts your outcomes far more than your personal contribution. But you can’t know where you are in a social graph without close tracking and analysis, so we’ve only known this rigorously in the last few years. And even now, it’s probably better that we not know it.

Your Attitude Matters

Our beliefs do affect our internal experience of life and success. So find success principles that you want to believe. Just keep in mind that believing for the sake of feeling good is very different from believing to get results. “The Secret” has been shown in several studies to actually lower your chances of getting what you want. (Read books by Richard Wiseman for details.) But it’s an enormously comforting belief system, and many people keep it.

While I don’t necessarily believe hard work produces consistent results, I do believe that apathy and lack of action produces poor results. If someone believes their individual actions make little difference (which may be true), they might stop working under the logic that it doesn’t matter anyway. That lack of movement will guarantee failure. But if they believe they can have an effect, they’ll stay moving, and might encounter luck along the way.

(I know someone who has had a particular belief system about what leads to success. He is 80 years old now, with 50+ years of direct personal experience that his belief system has never produced the results he believes, but he’s still buying those lottery tickets because “this time, it’ll pay off.” If he’d ever recognized the reality of his situation, the lottery system would be bankrupt.)

So How do You Succeed?

My theory is that if you want success (financial, achievement, significance to others, legacy), the steps most likely to get you there are:

  1. Do something you enjoy. You’ll be engaged, creative, and optimistic—all traits shown to be correlated with spotting opportunity.
  2. Develop a habit of spotting opportunity. Even if you don’t jump on it, notice the possibilities each situation provides for you to further your success in whatever areas you desire.
  3. Capture the upside. Pursuing a good idea won’t get you success unless you’re the one who benefits from the idea. Make sure the opportunities you spot give you the chance to benefit if the opportunity comes to pass.
  4. Limit your downside. You want to follow Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s advice from his book Antifragility: limit your downside, expose yourself to unlimited upside, and be prepared to capture the upside.
  5. Build strong relationships. Build cross-disciplinary, strong relationships. Luck often arrives in the form of people, opportunity, and/or the ability to mobilize a group quickly. Having strong, trusted relationships in place increases your ability to move when opportunity presents itself.

Do we control our own outcomes?

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