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.