crapshoot

Have you ever wondered how your life turned out the way it did? Or if you’re young and just starting out, what will determine your future? Most people think the course of their lives are wholly born from the fruits of their own hands, but the truth is that life is mostly determined by just a few moments that are often decided by someone else.

I’m not suggesting we have no input, and it’s a complete lottery. Clearly our personal choices have an impact, and our efforts play a role in guiding us toward success or failure. But regardless of our endeavors, the ultimate outcome is never actually within our control.

Some childhood friends of mine recently celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary and “Jenny,” the wife, posted their old prom pictures to show how far they’ve come. As I browsed through the memories, I thought about how they got to where they are. “Danny” and Jenny were high school sweethearts, broke up in college, dated other people, got back together, argued regularly, worked it out, got married, and 24 years later, including 16 as husband and wife, they have two daughters and have built a life together.

But what if they had never gotten back together? What if either of them had met someone they really liked while they were on a break. Everything about both of their lives would be radically different. They might still be single, or divorced from other people, and their daughters would never have been born. The entirety of their lives as they know it would not exist if Jenny had turned down Danny for the prom, or one of them had been too proud to pick up the phone after a fight, or take the other one back some 20+ years ago. Each one’s fate was determined by the choices of the other.

But business is different, right? People are successful purely because of their own smarts and skills. You alone determine whether you win or lose. Tell that to Noah Glass, the forced out co-founder of Twitter. According to Nick Bilton’s book “Hatching Twitter,” Glass was instrumental in the creation of the service and even came up with the name. Yet he was ousted with little to show for it. Adding insult to injury, Glass’ contributions have been all but erased from the company history. When Twitter goes public later this week, Glass will see only a tiny token amount of the windfall that will come to Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey.

If you think stories such as Noah Glass’ in which a person’s success is determined by a single decision made by someone else are rare, then you are truly naive. Just in my close circle of friends, one person had a multi-million dollar term sheet rescinded last year after his co-founders decided the startup life wasn’t for them and quit. Today, he’s selling his car to pay off debts from his startup. When his co-founders decided to give up, the course of his life was dramatically altered by a decision made by someone else and there was nothing he could do.

Success and failure, even our personal happiness, are largely determined by the following turning points, neither of which are ours to decide.

1. Who, or if, you marry. Think about this. The difference between marrying the girl or guy of your dreams and them cheating on you and breaking up can come down to a few shots of tequila. A single night of drunken indiscretion can determine whether you build a life and family together like Danny and Jenny, or you end up alone or married to someone else.

2. One lucky career break. Will you be Noah Glass or Jack Dorsey? Both were key to the founding of Twitter, but today, one is a superstar who will make hundreds of millions of dollars with the IPO, while the other is largely forgotten. And all of it came down to a single decision of who to let go made by Evan Williams.

The idea that everything we have become, or might become, is largely reliant on two decisions over which we have little control is a frightening thought that most people don’t want to accept. It’s easier to think that we alone determine the course of our lives. We can take action to increase our chances of success of course. I’m a firm believer in putting yourself in the game and creating your own opportunities. But more often than not, your life will turn on just a few moments that are ultimately decided by someone else.

[Scientific chart by Hallie Bateman]