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.

Sacredness and motivated ignorance

I recently had the chance to hear Jonathan Haidt, author of the new best-selling book (#6 on the NYTimes Bestseller list) The Righteous Mind, speak about his work.  Jonathan is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, he gave a great TED talk in 2008 on moral psychology and a few weeks ago he gave another great TED talk on transcendence.

It’s hard to imagine better timing for the publication of The Righteous Mind.  As chronicled in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, a significant part of the book focuses on why the political left and the political right in the United States don’t understand each other.  Given the unprecedented divides in U.S. politics today and the run-up to the presidential elections, The Righteous Mind is a sort of Rosetta Stone for deciphering everything from the Tea Party to the environmental movement to Occupy Wall Street.

Two of the underpinnings of Jonathan’s work – also explored by other authors – have already changed the way I understand the world.  The first is that reason follows intuition.   This means that we make decisions and form opinions with our intuitive minds, and then use our power to reason to support our intuitive decisions.  In Jonathan’s words, the intuitive (or emotional) dog wags the rational tail.   This is why we find it so incomprehensible that people with different moral outlooks don’t “just respond to the facts.”  We think that people look at facts to make decisions, when in fact they make decisions and then look for facts that support those decisions.

(and “people” isn’t everyone else, it’s you too.  That’s the really important part.)

The second big insight for me is around the notion of sacredness.  Jonathan argues that to begin to really understand people, you have to understand what is sacred to them.  The left and the right in the U.S. (on social issues) hold very different things sacred, and if you, in Jonathan’s words, “follow the sacredness” you’ll have a whole new window into how people process information and form their opinions.  So, as Jonathan described it, the right in the U.S. holds moral order, marriage and faith sacred; the left currently consider the environment and issues around race and social justice sacred.   In both cases, Jonathan argued that sacredness creates “motivated ignorance.”  In Jonathan’s words, “when sacredness conflicts with truth, truth gets thrown under the bus.”

This helps explain to an exasperated liberal why conservatives “just don’t get it” about global warming just as it explains to an exasperated conservative why liberals “just don’t get” having religiously-affiliated hospitals institutions pay for contraceptives for their members is morally abhorrent.

Needless to say, I’m better at seeing one side of this exasperation than the other.  And that’s exactly the point.  A lot of my blogging and my work begins with a deep belief in and respect for others and the power of empathy.  I’d also like to think of myself as an open-minded person.  But Jonathan’s work forces me to ask myself whether I create the space to really understand and appreciate what is sacred to other people whose morality differs fundamentally from my own.

It helps me understand why people won’t look at the same convincing, powerful facts that I will and just change their opinions.

It helps us all understand why we all have so much trouble understanding one another, why this country is so divided and why it seems to be getting worse, not better.

Jonathan’s request of us all in this 2008 TED talk is that we embrace moral humility, that we step out of the “moral matrix” that limits us to seeing and respecting people who share our morality and our values.  It is a challenging notion, and an important one, one that turns my world upside-down…in a good way.

5 tough questions

Today is the second annual NextGen:Charity conference.  To commemorate the conference, Ari Teman, co-founder of the conference along with Jonah Halper, asked me to respond to five questions about innovation in the developing world, leadership, faith, blogging, and failure.  Here’s the interview (the link to yesterday’s Huffington Post article is here).

1. There’s a lot of talk about sharing our innovations with the 3rd world — let’s flip that around. What are some of the lessons the “developed world” can learn from the innovators you support (who have to operate on pennies a day)?

Extreme frugality, a relentless focus on customers, the ability to navigate complexity and take nothing for granted. In 2003, Acumen Fund connected with the visionary entrepreneur Amitabha Sadangi who realized that he could reverse-engineer drip irrigation systems originally developed in Israel and make them infinitely scalable and radically affordable to poor customers in India. Amitabha knew that poor farmers would need to see an extreme value proposition – the ability to test the system on 1/8th acre plots and to see payback in less than a year – and that even so the road would be long and hard to change farming practices. Eight years later, Global Easy Water Products has served more than 300,000 farmers, and Amitabha has a lot to teach entrepreneurs globally about creating the minimal viable product to meet the needs of customers for whom value per dollar is paramount and the willingness to take risk is limited. He’s also about the most persistent man you’ll ever meet.

2. The Acumen Fund has a prestigious Fellowship Program where you develop young talent and you also work with some amazing visionaries — what do you see as the key traits of a successful leader?

We expect the Acumen Fund Fellows to possess a unique combination of traits – operational excellence, financial acumen, and what we call moral imagination, the ability to see yourself in another, to walk a mile in her shoes. Each year we select 10 Fellows from a global pool of 700 applicants from 60 countries, and the Fellows are an amazing group from all walks of life. We’ve had people like Jocelyn Wyatt, who has created IDEO.org to bring design thinking and user-centered design to address problems of poverty; Jawad Aslam, who is now pioneering low-income housing for the poor in Pakistan through his company, AMC; or Suraj Sudhakar who, in addition to his day job, has thrown 40 TEDx’s across the slums of Nairobi. In addition to the incredible combination of skills these Fellows bring to the table, what differentiates them is a deep and abiding commitment to seeing the poor not as passive recipients of charity but individuals with hopes, aspiration, and dignity.


3. On your blog you frequently muse on various faiths’ approaches to giving. How does faith inform your leadership and charity work?

When I started blogging I thought I was going to write about philanthropy and social enterprise, but as I continued my exploration I kept on getting to more fundamental questions of service and giving. While I’m a huge believer in the need for innovation to solve some of the world’s toughest problems, there’s also a deep wisdom that all of the faiths have to offer – we just need to be willing to open up our ears and hearts to what they have to teach. Sometimes I worry that we might get too smart in how we approach solving problems and lose our rooting in this centuries-old wisdom. The notion that giving is part of the circle of life is central to all religions and cultures – it connects us to one another, strengthens community, and is an acknowledgment that if we are in a position to give, then we have ourselves been given a great gift.


4. You mentioned you blogged publicly about your Generosity Experiment to encourage yourself to follow-through. How else do you keep yourself motivated?

It’s incredibly easy to stay motivated when you feel like you’re making a difference – it’s when you’re trying to make a difference and failing that your energy drains away. I think we all crave a better world and the moment you get a taste of helping create that, you can never let it go. I sometimes joke that I never knew what I was getting in to when I started blogging, and it’s just as well – it helps to be a little naïve because if you’re not you’ll never jump in. Whether through the crazy, unexpected success of Generosity Day 2011 or when I watch one of the Acumen Fund investees reach its millionth customer served with a product that really improves people’s lives, I know I’m doing the right thing and that I need to keep working harder and smarter.

5. And the question we ask everyone: What’s your most spectacular failure?

Some of the big failures come from fear – like times when I didn’t have the courage to look someone in the eye and ask them to make a big funding commitment for fear they would say no. Really, though, I’m not sure how I feel about putting “spectacular” and “failure” together. The big, real big failures often aren’t the go-down-in-a-blaze-of-glory variety, they are when you wrong someone, disrespect someone, make someone feel small rather than raise them up – and just as often these are sins of omission rather than commission. Those are the ones that sting.

I promise if you blog daily you are going to fail often.  You have to decide in advance that you’re ready to fail – if anything it’s the commitment to being open to failure that frees you to ship, to push your ideas to the edge, to dream big. And that all sounds great but that doesn’t mean you won’t write posts that don’t hit the mark, because you will.

This idea that failure is rare is what really holds us back. We are perfect so rarely, and if we stick to our guns the rest of the time, we will learn so much less and share so much less than we have to offer.

Over a bowl yogurt and granola

Here’s a conversation I had this morning with my five-year old son over breakfast.

Him:     Daddy, we’re eating the same breakfast today.

Me:      Yes we are.  It’s delicious, isn’t it?  The yogurt is creamy and the granola is crunchy and a little sweet.

Him:     Yes.  It’s delicious…..Daddy, do you like everything for breakfast?

Me:      Well, I like a lot of things for breakfast, but I’m not sure if I like everything

Him:     Does anybody like everything for breakfast?

Me:      I don’t know.  I’m sure somebody does.

(Thoughtful pause)

Him:     Does God like everything for breakfast?  Because God loves everything?  He loves trees and flowers and he wants people to be happy?

(Side note for context: ours is neither an exceptionally religious nor exceptionally un-religious household.)

I couldn’t help but wonder – when in life do we lose our sense of the profound, our sense that every moment is just a turn of phrase away from beauty?  Is it a natural progression, or something we’re taught in school or in life – the victory of logic and cleverness and cynicism over wonder and imagination?

And how do we get it back?

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