The hardest workers are supposed to earn the biggest rewards. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that professional success usually has more to do with random luck than skill, effort or virtue.
I prefer LinkedIn to most other social networks these days because I’m more likely to find useful business content on LI. This morning, for example, Fortune magazine posted an article about China’s financial influence on the film industry. An entrepreneur I’m connected to shared a Geekwire article about new Trans-Pacific fibre optic connections. An executive I know posted an original opinion piece on exemplary female leaders. Good reading. That’s what I want from my networks: stories that teach me things about the working world. If I wanted top read wisecracks, I’d go to Twitter. If I wanted to see bad selfies, cartoons and racist political screeds, I’d go to Facebook. If I wanted to be completely alone with my thoughts, there’s always Google+.
Unfortunately LI has been filling with users who don’t understand what its purpose is: LI was built to be an exchange where businesspeople could talk about business. Some newer users treat it like it was a purely recreational site (a la Facebook) and post utter crap on it like vapid inspirational GIFs, religious slogans and hoax ‘did you know?’ photos. The signal-to-noise ratio is getting worse every day. I swear, I’m about ready to completely lose my composure with some of these users who repost the stupid ‘wolf pack behaviour’ photo months after it was soundly discredited.
Still, this is to be expected. Some people will always lose the plot (so to speak) and completely misread the clues and conventions of the places and organisations that they operate in. They mistake work for home and mistake public spaces for private. They act shockingly inappropriate for their environment and then wonder why other people get vexed with them. They’re doing what they think is right despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Since each obliviot is convinced that he or she is the undisputed centre of the universe, it must be everyone else that’s wrong. Every time.
What kills me is that these people can easily succeed in life and business despite their own counterproductive and self-defeating behaviour. They shouldn’t succeed, but they often do, thanks in large part to blind luck. Case in point: my old pal Johnny Zapgun.  Johnny was a flamboyant fellow who made a big splash in the U.S. military back in the 1990s, and owed pretty much all of his professional success to random factors that were entirely beyond his control.
I met Johnny during the Medical Officers’ Basic Course at Fort Sam Houston, Texas back in 1992. Johnny and I were assigned to the same squad thanks to alphabetical happenstance. We got along – at first – because we’d both ‘gone mustang’. That is, we’d both been enlisted men who had pursued commissions after joining the Army. I’d been a corpsman with the infantry, whereas Johnny had been assigned to a garrison clinic on a training base. During our very first conversation, Johnny bragged to me about how he gleefully bullied the poor basic trainees that cycled through his clinic. He wasn’t the nicest of people, but he wasn’t exactly a raging ogre either. Just a bit of a git.
During our field trials, Johnny announced that he’d decided (on everyone’s behalf) that his new nickname in the platoon was ‘Zapgun’. With that simple act, he demonstrated that he was both pretentious and presumptuous. Nicknames – when they were awarded – came from the group; the named individual had no say in the matter. To attempt to christen oneself was considered the height of arrogance. Johnny earned himself a public reputation for being grating and egotistical.
As blind luck would have it, Johnny and I were both stationed to the same battalion on graduation. We each received a platoon leader’s billet in our respective medical companies. Johnny wasted no time making a spectacle of himself: rather than focus on leading his soldiers, Johnny spent most of his time buying up property off-base so that he could rent his houses out to vulnerable young soldiers’ families at exorbitant rates. He once asked me who the most receptive young enlisted girls were in my platoon so that he could (quite illegally) fraternize with them. I told him to *#&$ off.
One of our requirements as field soldiers was to spend a minimum of three days each month practicing with our casualty stations out in the woods. These were readiness drills: putting up and taking down tents, practicing navigating to the wounded and so on. Our battalion’s rule was that every soldier had to participate in all field exercises or risk censure. I went with my soldiers; Johnny would send his soldiers to the woods with no planning, supplies or instructions. On the last day of each exercise, he’d visit his platoon’s training site in his personal car, look around for a few minutes so that he could describe the location to his boss, and then *#&$ off back to the Officers’ Club.
It should be fairly evident that no one held Johnny in particularly high regard. Therefore, when a crap deployment tasking came down for a sleepy humanitarian support mission in some far-away place called ‘Somalia’, the battalion operations staff volunteered Johnny Zapgun without hesitation. Get him off of the installation for a while (the thinking went) and give his soldiers a break from him. Johnny deployed to East Africa for two months and spent his entire trip playing basketball in the garrison’s makeshift athletics area. He never did any humanitarian work. He was never in danger. He added nothing useful to the mission. All in all, it was a wasted trip… except for one auspicious thing:
Not long after Johnny came home to America, things got violent in Somalia. Combat broke out in October 1993 between U.S. Special Forces troops and warlords’ irregulars in Mogadishu.  A few months later, the Pentagon announced that all of the soldiers who had served in Somalia before and after that disaster would be awarded a ‘combat patch’. Unlike the current unit insignia that soldiers wore on their left shoulder, a unit patch on the right shoulder was a mark of distinction that set a soldier apart from his or her peacetime counterparts. Our Johnny rubbed all of the other young officers’ noses in the fact that he was the only subaltern in our cohort sporting a combat patch… even though he’d never seen a moment of combat. He knew that it was undeserved, and strutted about with it like he’d won the lottery (because he had, in a sense).
When our new assignments came down at the end of the year, I was sent to serve on the Battalion HQ staff. Johnny should have been given a staff assignment as well, but no one in the headquarters wanted him mucking up their work – his reputation for half-arsing every task was well known. While the personnelists were trying to figure out who to inflict him on, a tasking came down all the way from the Corps HQ: the Corps Commander needed a junior staff officer to serve on his entourage… and he wanted a ‘combat veteran’ if at all possible. We only had the one Paper Hero, so our battalion gave Johnny up with a smile.
In a just universe, Johnny would have fumbled his assignment and been tossed back down in disgrace. Instead, Johnny stumbled into his perfect niche: his only function for an entire year was to serve as the official escort for the wives of important visitors. Our Johnny spent a year serving on the general’s private staff, and his assignments were all variations on taking older women to the mall near base to go shopping while their husbands took tours of the installation. That… was… it.
To really add insult to injury, the general dutifully signed off on Johnny’s annual evaluation before he returned to us. That one signature automatically made Johnny more administratively valuable in the personnel system than all of the other subalterns on the base. The unwritten rule was that the more rank your rater had, the more competitive you were for jobs and promotions. In the space of 18 months, Johnny Zapgun went from being an annoying junior manager with weak prospects to fast-tracker for command… all through playing basketball and carrying ladies’ shopping. Right before I transferred off the base, I learned that Johnny was ranked ten places ahead of me in the Order of Merit List for promotion to Captain and had also secured a coveted new posting.
I ran into Johnny a dozen years later in Washington D.C.… He bragged to me over coffee that he’d fast-tracked his way up the career ladder, and had stumbled into a highly-competitive specialty thanks to a bureaucratic loophole that let him to bypass all of the entry qualifications. I wasn’t the least bit surprised. As far as I was concerned, the man had the natural ability to fall into a fertilizer tank and come out clutching a fistful of diamonds. I haven’t stayed in touch, but I have no doubts at all that Johnny made Brigadier before he retired.
I’ve told this story to a bunch of young businesspeople in order to illustrate the sad truth that hard work and dedication have far less to do with professional success than sheer cussed chance. I don’t argue that people shouldn’t work hard; they absolutely should. They should be honest and loyal and dedicated and demonstrate all of the other virtues that we hold in common regard. Having those virtues sets a person apart from his or her peers, and that will help a person succeed. That being said, those virtues are not (I argue) instrumental to person’s professional success or failure. Success, I suggest, comes down to factors entirely beyond a person’s control: can they be in the right place at the right time when something useful happens?
Since that’s beyond a normal human’s ability to influence, the better path is to focus one’s efforts on involves investing in those things that are controllable (like the aforementioned virtues of honesty, loyalty, etc.) and to gracefully accept that the business universe isn’t deterministic. Working life isn’t a video game, where completing a set number of challenges leads inexorably to a promotion and a quest reward. Sometimes good things happen to crap people (and vice versa) for utterly no logical reason. Chaos rules it all. Therefore, take a deep breath… and let go of the anger that naturally arises from witnessing injustice.
That’s the other key point that I teach about the saga of Johnny Zapgun. For all his faults, Our Johnny never sought out any of those career-accelerating opportunities. He didn’t even know about them before they happened. He didn’t actively screw any of his peers out of anything. He recognized his good fortune and bragged that it was because of his superiority to the rest of us, but even he recognized that he was the beneficiary of a windfall.
For context, it’s important to know that for all of his terrible decisions as a junior manager, Johnny Zapgun wasn’t an Evil Bob. Johnny was a crap boss to be sure, but he was only following the lead of other subalterns who were engaging in the exact same shenanigans. Johnny conformed to his environment without questioning whether or not the activities he was emulating were right, or just, or moral. In all the years that I spent around Johnny, he never demonstrated any evil intent; only a general exasperating gormlessness.
To be fair, it’s also important to admit that Johnny gradually grew out of his exploitative and callous ways as he matured. His soldiers still greatly disliked him, but they were also able to largely ignore him. Johnny didn’t actually hold malice towards anyone. He was a jerk … but he wasn’t a bigot and was certainly never a sadist. That’s why I stayed on generally good terms with him throughout our service together.
Put all of those factors together, and you have a portrait of a man who was easy to be vexed with but was hard to hate. Johnny wasn’t evil and he wasn’t malicious. He just happened to be the guy at the front of the queue when the random career boosts were handed out. Johnny prospered where other men and women failed thanks to timing instead of merit. Even Johnny knew that it wasn’t fair.
I believe that Johnny Zapgun’s story is a great cautionary tale, because it illustrates the central infuriating truth of the business world: talent and effort will only take you so far. Luck is far more influential in your career success than ability, and you cannot control luck.
To be clear: this isn’t an admonition to give up and embrace Goth-y nihilism. Instead, it’s counsel to give up with the rage that naturally arises in everyone when we see an undeserving peer vault ahead of our own own career track through inexplicable random luck. Harbouring anger at the universe for having failed to award favours based on virtue is senseless; you may as well torture yourself with rage at a tree for falling into the road after a storm. There’s no meaning to it, and no ill intent. It’s frustrating, but it isn’t personal. Harbouring anger at the recipient of the random good fortune is also senseless; it alienates and makes an enemy out of a person who doesn’t deserve the hate, and eliminates him or her as a potential ally. Maybe they can’t help you, but there’s no profit in making them hate you.
I advise my students to work hard, be loyal, stand by their principles, strive for greatness and (most importantly) learn to recognize the difference between the things that they can and cannot change in the world. You can impress your boss and co-workers. You can produce quality products. You can cultivate a sterling professional reputation. You can exploit the opportunities that you stumble across. You can’t, however, control the random elements of luck that unfairly benefit other people.
It’s okay to be upset when the world doesn’t play out the way that you think it should. It’s pointless to dwell on it. It’s okay to be miffed when an undeserving peer gets catapulted to career success while your career fizzles out. It’s pointless to vent your anger at the other fellow. Odds are, they won’t have any idea why you’re mad at them, and probably can’t do anything to set things right. After all, they probably had no influence over their own success to begin with.
 Not his real name, obviously.
 The story that Mark Bowden wrote about in Black Hawk Down.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.