Mariano Rivera on Luck vs Skill

At the end of every How I Built This podcast, host Guy Raz asks his guests whether they’d attribute their success in building their business to luck or to skill.

Hearing that question, it’s hard not to think: how would I answer?

Listening to episode after episode, I looked forward to this question. Both answers seemed valid to me. Then, last week, I attended a benefit for Family Services of Westchester, a not-for-profit that supports the community in Westchester County, where I live.

FSW is a wonderful organization that does important work. However, like most non-profits, their benefit followed a familiar script: drinks, a seated dinner at 10-tops, a silent auction, and a litany of speakers all saying how humbled they were to be honored… It’s not fully FSW’s fault. This is what is expected, and meeting people’s expectations is an accepted way to grab attention to raise money and awareness for good causes.

Mariano Rivera Hall of Fame
Mariano Rivera in 2011. Photo credit: Richard Perry / NYTimes

Near the end of the event, it’s time for the guest of honor: Yankee relief pitcher and Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. I’m not a baseball fan, so I don’t know that Rivera was the first baseball player to be inducted unanimously into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I don’t have any expectations.

But when Rivera starts speaking, the mood shifts. He has a natural charisma that holds the room, an easy smile and a quick wit. Sports marketer Brandon Steiner, who is set to interview Rivera, walks up to the dais and spontaneously asked him if he’d auction off his watch and his tie for the cause. Without missing a beat, Rivera flashes a big smile, says yes, and runs the impromptu auction himself. The room is jovial, relaxed and engaged.

For all his confidence, charm, and sense of humor, Rivera shifts gears when he’s asked about what got him here. In response to how he stayed calm in big situations, where his famous 90+ mile-per-hour cut fastball came from, how he became one of the all-time greats, Rivera’s answer is the same. He is a religious man, and time and again he says, clearly and simply: he had been blessed by G-d, he is just the vehicle for this blessing.

There is something about the clarity and genuineness with which he says this. He isn’t boasting, grandstanding, or prostrating himself. He is speaking his simple truth. As noticeable, he does so in ways that don’t diminish his own struggles, hard work and perseverance. Yet the ultimate message is that he isn’t the hero of his story, he is a vessel for a bigger story.

Whether or not you’re a person of faith, I’d offer that there’s an old lesson to be re-learned here.

The successes that really matter are ones of good health, a loving family, the talents we’ve been given and the opportunities we’re lucky enough to come across. Whatever other successes we might pursue, and achieve, are built upon this foundation of good fortune.

Yet increasingly I worry that we’re living, in the United States at least, through the logical endgame of our national narrative of an individualistic, “meritocratic” society. As religious practice fades, as our communal ties weaken, and as technology feeds us stories that reinforce our worldview, more and more of “successful” people believe, deep down, that we’ve earned our good fortune.

What I saw in Mariano Rivera was the power of faith of any kind, and the truth that if we’re successful by any conventional measure, we probably have been outstandingly, undeservedly lucky. I also saw in the way Rivera told his story that there is no necessary trade-off between gratitude and agency, no need to diminish ourselves as we acknowledge that we are small players in our own story.

The best part is this: the moment we let go of our story of deserving what we have, we find greater ease in connecting with others, in giving thanks, and in doing what we can to rebalance the scales.

Time’s passage – Tom Hussey

Tom Hussey old youngI found these Tom Hussey photographs arresting.   They are images of Alzheimer’s patients taken 50 years apart.

Perhaps it is because time’s clock is ticking, because the days are long and the years fly by, because the oldest of my three kids just went off for a month of sleepaway camp and, even though it’s still a long way off, his being out of the house for a few weeks reminds me and my wife that one day he will actually BE out of the house, moving on and living a whole life elsewhere, hopefully visiting us from time to time.  And, eventually, so will my other two kids, even our baby girl.

Inexorably, I will, if I’m lucky, continue to live life, experience joy and sorrow, and, I hope, continue to gain wisdom and perspective as I grow older.

All the while I will continue to look in the mirror each morning, and one day (no doubt sooner than I expect it) I will be surprised at the person I see in the reflection.  When that day comes I will talk to younger people and they will make the same mistake that I surely have made countless times: not understanding that I old was once young, vibrant, reckless, inexperienced, and brash.

American culture scores low marks in terms of respect for our elders, and I suspect it is because, in the absence of a strong set of norms around how to treat one another, as individuals we routinely forget the arc of the lives that others have lived.  Perhaps most of us lack the capacity to see a wizened, cracked face, or a body that moves more slowly than it once did, and see the full life that person has lived.

Yet if we’re lucky, time will pass for all of us and we will grow old.  Of course.  I sometimes wonder, though, if our inability to truly understand this simple fact is one of life’s biggest practical jokes.   I know that if we all felt how precious and fleeting our lives are we’d often act differently.

Seeing such vivid, beautiful images of time’s passage doesn’t make me fearful, but it does help me remember to live now, to experience the richness of life and love and family now, to be courageous in what I do now, because time really is flying, and my chance to make a difference is people’s lives is today, not tomorrow.

The London Meditation Project

After meeting at the DO Lectures, I was trading notes with Catherine Powell about her wonderful talk on the London Meditation Project, and she shared some wisdom that she kindly has agreed to let me share on this blog:

It is such a precious thing to be able to give, and we can all give something.

In the Buddhist tradition giving is one of the ‘Six Perfections,’ (we practice them a lot on the way towards perfection!) along with ethical conduct, patience/tolerance, energy and vigour, one-pointed concentration, and wisdom.

Giving is the first of the six.

If there is nothing else we can do (maybe we are distracted, angry, confused, struck down in any number of ways – whatever state we might be in) we can still always give something, and giving is the doorway to feeling better again as part of the world, whatever we can give – a cup of tea, some time, a material gift, the gift of the truth – even just throwing a stick for a playful dog… giving is such a massively healthy and healing thing.

We so need to feel and experience our connection with each other.

The London Meditation Project was created to help returning war veterans cope with their experiences.  They could be coping with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), they might have disabilities, or they could just looking for a safe space to share with other veterans.   It’s a powerful project and the kind of thing we should see more of to support returning soldiers.  Don’t take it from me, see this great post from a military wife who dragged her husband to one of Catherine’s sessions.

If you feel so moved, you can support soldiers here.  Better yet, since “meditation” and “military” usually aren’t in the same sentence, if you know folks in the military who might like this idea, let them know.

And thank you, Catherine, for your words of wisdom.

Scarcity and Abundance

It is so easy to experience what we feel we lack.

There’s never enough time or enough money.

We could do it if we just had a little more access, a little more support.

I’ll start my new business soon, I’m just not quite ready.

I’ll start blogging as soon as I come up with a few more ideas.

I’ll take that big leap once it becomes just a little clearer what the other side looks like.


Abundance comes when you start practicing abundance. It’s a decision, an attitude, a state of mind, and a practice.

I know I have to work on it each and every day. And it is work. But I keep at it.


A student at a nonprofit school of management told me that they are learning a lot about how to operate under conditions of scarcity – because that’s what the nonprofit sector is like.

The catch is that if you start with the notion of scarcity and how to cope with it, that’s your mindset.  Money is scarce, it’s a zero sum game, you see constraints all around you.   You’re being taught to operate within a broken system.

Let’s break this system (that includes the schools with this mindset).  Let’s reinforce in our students a mindset of abundance, of possibility, of agency.  And then let’s rip out all the classes and lectures about scarcity and replace them with lectures from the best fundraisers and executive directors and philanthropists we can find – so we can give students the tools to create these conditions of abundance.

The illusion

Three years since I first started blogging, I’m beginning to get a glimpse of the phantoms that real writers battle:

The illusion that, regardless of what happened yesterday, today you’ll have nothing to say.

The twinge of loss when you write something worth writing.

The pain of putting an idea out into the world.

The fear that something has left you that you can’t get back

It is like giving away anything real and true – love or friendship or money or some other long-treasured thing.  Our mind tricks us into feeling that these things we give away are ours, that they are finite, that the safest thing to do is to cling to them fiercely.

Over and over we practice creating and letting go.  We practice being open.  We dare to strive to be our best selves, reaching so far that we are exposed and vulnerable.  And yes, sometimes we fail. Our leap comes up short.  We crash into the chasm and end up sore, bruised and limping.

But mostly we discover that what we give away is a reflection of the abundance within us, is proof of our grace and all that we have to give.

So we sit back down again, ready to wrestle the illusion of scarcity to the ground, never giving up or giving in.

Critics’ critiques and cheerleaders’ cheers

There was a guy I went to school with who earned the (affectionate) nickname “Yes, but…”

In any discussion, whether of microeconomic models or where to go for lunch, he started most sentneces with a nod to the contradiction, the course correction, the “on the other hand” point of view he was about to espouse.

In fact most humanities academia is built on the “Yes, but” philosophy – a peer writes a paper, the academic finds a small flaw or oversight and writes a follow-up article exposing that small miss…and in so doing gets her next piece of work published (which is the main milestone in academia).

No surprise, then, that the “yes, but” mindset passes for “critical thinking” which, in turn, is raised to the highest pedistal in our instituitons of higher learning.  “Yes, but…” comments score points with teachers (“great analysis, kid!”) and are the safest form of one-upmanship.

I used to be a terrible offender.  From a good and honest place, and a heartfelt desire to come up with the best solutions, I was most comfortable and most in the habit of finding the logical flaws and asking the tough questions.

I have a colleague who does the opposite, and from whom I’ve learned a lot.  She has an uncanny ability to find what is best, what is most inspiring, what is unique about what someone has said or done, and she shines a light on it with a smile and with no apologies.

When you’re blazing a new path, you’re constantly dogged by critics’ critiques of all the reasons that this won’t work, why it’s been done before and it crashed and burned, why it would be better if you just did it the way everyone else does.  And, of course, sometimes they’ll be right, but usually not.  They’re doing the easy thing: playing the clever, detached critic.

Much harder, and less celebrated, is to be a cheerleader who applauds victories, however small; who props people up when fatigue sets in, when the road seems to long, or when they have, just for a second, lost the will to go even one step further.   In work as in life, when times are really tough, those voices of support are priceless, especially from cheerleaders who help you break through barriers, who lean in with you, who are fully invested in YOUR success – rather than taking pot shots from the sidelines.

A dollar fell out of my pocket today

A dollar fell out of my pocket today

while I was riding the subway.

A passenger tapped me and pointed to the folded bill

on the ground.

Meanwhile a homeless man was asking the car for money.

I looked at the dollar and realized it wasn’t my dollar.

So I handed it to the homeless man.

And I was left wondering.

Is it ever my dollar?

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Yesterday’s post got me thinking about the question of permeability and the virtual organization.  A few years ago Niko Canner shared with me and my Acumen buddies the idea of a “virtual organization.” In Niko’s words, loosely paraphrased (and potentially butchered in the process) there are many concentric circles of people surrounding any organization who do all sorts of valuable work (Board, advisors, donors, friends, mentors, etc. for nonprofits; but also suppliers and lawyers and bankers for just about everyone).  The virtual organization is this collection of people, and it is, especially for nonprofits, potentially more far-reaching, powerful, and impactful than the people who are actually on the payroll.

This brings up the question of permeability.  When we, who represent the organization, talk to people outside the organization about bringing their financial resources to bear to help us do our work, how permeable are we?  How bright are the lines we draw between “us” (the organization) and “them” (the donors, the advisors, the helpers, the friends)?  And how much, ideally, is the act of creating permeability something that we, external standard bearers of the organization, do in an ad hoc fashion, and how much should it be built in to the fabric of the organization?

Permeability only works where there is trust.  And while you can build trust with shared time, conversation, and exploration, what kicks things into high gear is shared action.  As we take action, we experiment – how do you and I act together, how do we treat each other, is this an us/them situation or can we leave that baggage behind?

So how are things, typically, different inside and outside the organization? When I problem-solve with someone on my team, I would never dream of leading with apologies or caveats; nor would I ever write an email asking for help that starts or end with “if you’re not too busy.”  By definition my teammates and I have signed up to the same goals so we dream together and riff together; we shoot ideas down and build them up and kick them around until they have enough fortitude to stand on their own.

We can’t act any differently when we move outside, to the virtual organization.  Yet because of the imagined, created (constructed?) impermeability between the organization and the virtual organization we convince ourselves that we have to ask for permission every time we “bother” someone who has said that they’re in and they’re signed up to help – which just serves to reinforce that we’re not all in this together.

And often I think that we – those of us inside the organization – are the main culprits here.  And if that’s right it’s good news because it means that we are in a position to make a change.

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Here’s something I hear all too often: “Oh, we can’t ask her to donate (buy) to this new project (product), she already gives (buys) so much.”

Which way does the value flow again?

Remember, remember, remember, people don’t give (buy) and get nothing in return. They didn’t give because they were temporarily hoodwinked, cajoled, tricked, or otherwise pushed unaware over some invisible line. They gave to accomplish something, to express something, to be more of the person they want to be.  And that’s true whether they give $50 or $50 million.

OK, so that’s easy to say and it sounds so sensible.

But if it’s sensible then the right thing to say when you’re creating something new, something exciting, something powerful, is, “Wow we’d better make sure we take this idea to the people who are our biggest supporters.  They’d be so bummed if they missed out on this opportunity.”

There’s a world of difference between “Please would you give to this?” and “This idea is so exciting, you don’t want to miss out on it.”  A bigger difference still when “you don’t want to miss out” is so real, is something you feel in your bones, because then it’s true and you and the person you’re talking to feel and know that truth.

And yes, this is just as true when you’re selling a project, selling a gig, selling a software solution as it is in philanthropy.

The conversation you want to have, the conversation you can have right now, starts with, “Imagine this amazing, exciting thing.  Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make this happen together?”

Not a zero sum game.  Abundance.

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