The Role of “Chance” in Life and Business

May 6, 2007 6:41 pm Published by

This weekend I am reflecting more on the issue of “chance” in life. (I put the term in quotes because,depending on one’s worldview, “chance” may not be the correct term — for some, the occurrence of seemingly random events are the result of Providence, for others it is related to karma or possibly one’s mental attitude, while others view the events as truly random.)

The issue is not just a theoretical topic of discussion. Two weeks ago, a friend of mine died from cancer. Last week, a son of a friend was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb. Two days ago, a community (Greensburg, Kansas)within two hours drive of my home was totally destroyed by a tornado. And today, we have more storm systems moving through the area that might just be thunderstorms, or they may become tornadoes, and might possibly destroy my home or others whom I know. I am not trying to be negative or fatalistic, these are just the realities that have touched my life recently.

How does this relate to business? Well, first, I am thinking about the residents where not only their homes, but their schools, hospital, gas stations, retail stores, essentially all of the buildings in the town (save the County Courthouse and one grain elevator) were destroyed. The people of this community have no home and they have no place to go to work. This is similar to, but on a far smaller scale, the devastation which occurred in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast communities. I guess one conclusion I am reaching is — business success is not solely a result of intellect, hard work, or prudent financial decisions. You could have all of these characteristics, but if your company is physically destroyed, . . .

The issue also reminds me of conversations I have had with many successful businessmen and women, when I have conducted personal interviews with them (in the context of helping them develop a wealth transfer plan or business succession plan). When asking them to what do they attribute their financial success – they often respond (along with other characteristics) with “luck” or “being in the right place at the right time”. Let me cite some examples. One business owner decided to purchase a food packing facility which had as a small piece of business the production of military MREs (meals ready to eat). This was in the late 1980s. In 1991, Desert Storm occurred and their firm was asked to produce millions of MREs for the U.S. government. He simply stated, “We just happened to be there when they needed them.”

Similarly, I have a friend who works for a company that coordinates the booking and billing of hotel rooms between hotels and large organizations that use hotel rooms frequently (airline companies, bus lines, etc.). They had done a little work for the Red Cross previously, in helping their emergency workers find hotels in places near natural disasters. Then Katrina hit. And not only did they become the primary vendor for the Red Cross, but they also became the central nervous system for FEMA in coordinating hotel rooms (and eventually, apartments) for displaced residents. Did they know Katrina would hit and create this need? No, but they were there, had developed some previous relationships and then were able to create the systems to meet the need when it occurred.

Now, as has been said before, “chance is the intersection of preparation and opportunity”, and just having a positive opportunity does not guarantee success. There is much that needs to happen to turn that opportunity into reality.

But I guess I am contemplating about the flip side. I am realizing that for many people over the centuries, one reason they were not hugely successful in business, in their profession, or financially was not due to any factor or flaw in themselves, but it was partly (if not fully) due to negative circumstances in their lives — ill health, negative economic conditions, drought, fire, accidents — it really could be any number of events out of their control.

I have no significant conclusion or action step. For me, I have been humbled by the goodness of circumstances in my life — health, safety, living in the United States, a caring family, the opportunity for education. I am also burdened by the challenges others are facing in their lives today and this week — due to no fault of their own.


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May 6, 2007 6:41 pm

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