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Kennedy, Kidd and the Keys to Success

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Over the years, I developed the impression that most success in life is due to some combination of effort, innate talent, luck and connections. Connections can include financial, social and political connections where some people were born into a web of family connections while others developed them over their career.

I've used this simple framework as a means of self-reflection.

For example, my first real job was working at the corner supermarket. I had filled out a job application like so many other high school kids but, after a few weeks hadn't heard from the supermarket and was going to take a different job. When my mom found out about this, she told me "Tomorrow, after school, go back to the supermarket and ask Mike if the job is still open." The next day I met Mike, the store manager. He walked over to the stack of applications and said, "Glad you came down. Your application is at the top of the pile. When can you start?" A few years later I learned that my mom, a supermarket regular, had spoken with Mike about my application and told Mike I would be coming to the store that afternoon. In my simple framework, that job was 100 percent connections. I hadn't made much of an effort to get the job besides fill out the application. I had no obvious innate talent as a stockboy (... though one year into working as a stockboy I was told by the owner that I was "management material") and there was certainly no luck in my resume being at the top of the pile.

Earning my Ph.D. was a very different story. That was mostly effort and innate talent with a sprinkle of luck. I studied diligently for many years, was born with a knack for numbers and was lucky enough to have a few terrific teachers that had inspired me. When I started my advanced education, I didn't have any special connections to help me get into a top graduation school but I worked as hard as I could as an undergraduate, spent my summers doing scientific research and applied for every scholarship I could find.

My first book was very much about effort and luck. I had no connections in the publishing world and no experience writing non-fiction for a lay audience. I researched publishers and agents, sending out well over one hundred query letters while polishing my sample chapter and book proposal. Luckily, in 2010 a terrific agent, Gordon Warnock, pulled my query letter out of the pile and sent me an email. Gordon shared my writing vision and has been supporting my writing career ever since.

Obtaining my teaching position at Columbia University was driven by luck and a timely introduction from a colleague. In that case my connection happened to introduce me to the Dean at the very moment when they were filling a position that completely matched my background. In that case, I happened to meet the right person at the right place at the right time. Yes, I had experience teaching (and maybe some innate talent), but I certainly hadn't put any sweat equity into landing that job. Once I landed the position, I put in a great deal of effort into teaching and my evaluations and regular reviews with the Dean indicate that I am doing my job well.

So what does all this have to do with Caroline Kennedy and Jason Kidd?

Caroline Kennedy recently was nominated to be the Ambassador to Japan, rather than the nomination going to someone who has worked tirelessly for years in the diplomatic core and/or has demonstrated great diplomatic talent. We know she has neither years of diligent effort in the State Department nor the typical qualifications for one to become a diplomat to one of America's most important allies. She had the good fortune that the candidate she backed, Barack Obama, was elected twice (though she hedged her bet in 2008 by funding both Hillary and Barack). Mostly though, Caroline is the JFK's daughter and has the political, financial and social connections that go along with that last name.

What about Jason Kidd? He was a great basketball player, a fact that is readily related to his innate talent and effort with probably some luck (minimal injuries, perhaps some excellent coaches). But I am not referring to his playing career. Rather, I am referring to him being named the coach of the Nets just 10 days after retiring as a player. Many other talented NBA players have gone on to coach but most gained experience either as a player-coach (Bill Russell, Lenny Wilkens), an assistant NBA coach (Byron Scott, Mo Cheeks), an NBA executive (Kevin McHale, Larry Bird) or coaching at other levels (Phil Jackson). So what enabled Jason Kidd to make the immediate leap to NBA coaching? Since he has no coaching experience we can't assume it is innate coaching talent or the years of effort as a coach. Rather it lands squarely in the area of connections and, perhaps some luck in that the Nets (where Kidd was a popular player) were in need of a coach at the same time he retired.

I suspect most people allocate more respect to those whose accomplishments are driven by effort and talent. We tend to be dismissive of those whose accomplishments are linked mostly to connections as this feels inherently unfair, though we all know that the playing field is always unequal and nepotism is sometimes the rule, rather than the exception. It would be nice to live in a world that was more of a meritocracy but people are people and relationships often carry much more weight than merit.

Connections can get your foot into the door for an interview or, in the examples above, help you land the job, but, soon performance counts. If I did a poor job as a stockboy, then I would have been fired. If I did a poor job teaching, then my contract would not have been extended. If I got into a top Ph.D. school but couldn't handle the coursework or research, then I would not have finished my degree. If I had found an agent but couldn't write an entire book then I would never have been published.

So Caroline (assuming you get the appointment) and Jason -- you've gotten the job in the supermarket because someone "had a talk with the boss", now we get to see if you are "management material" or simply another textbook example of the failures of nepotism.

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