MODERN MANTRAS

Modern Mantras in Aged Fiction: Crichton’s Formula for Success

Hidden away in a forty year old (mainstream) fiction novel—a potboiler, a seemingly shallow tale, prime facie—lies the secret formula for life’s success. I almost couldn’t believe it when I read it. It was so simple, so perfect. See, I’ve perused business books and self-help guides, written by CEOs, millionaires and pastors; all these people with too much time on their hands, penning “how to succeed in life.” And I’ve read them, too, because that’s what leaders do. We read books and make mantras and talk about them on our blogs. But the lessons learned in business books often dissipate faster than tweets, and we’re again left with just ourselves, curious and conspiring.

But these two sentences said everything—articulated in a cold, simple language, a language that only Michael Crichton, the master of logical and academic science fiction, could accomplish.

You went out and you hunted, armed with your maps and your instruments, but in the end your preparations did not matter, or even your intuition. You needed your luck, and whatever benefits accrued to the diligent, through sheer, grinding hard work.

Take a second, and read it again. For me? And take it slow, because these are two damn-good, well-constructed sentences. Drink them like you would an overpriced glass of wine, and when you’re done, close your eyes to impress your friends.

- – -

Right? The quote appears in Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (p. 197), a novel first published in 1969. The book follows a team of scientists looking to prevent an outer-space bacteria strain from wiping out the entire human race. You know, typical motivation source-material for aspiring young professionals.

According to the cover, Andromeda was on the NY Times Bestseller List for 30 weeks. For me, it was not Crichton’s best. Too heavy handed and dry on the exposition, his signature short sequences of action and tension were few to be found. I was desperately looking for a way out at page 197.

And that’s when Crichton subtly implanted his thought nugget. His inception egg. Two pages later, it hatched. I returned to the passage and reread the lines, underlining, pausing, thinking.

“That’s it,” I said. “I found it!”

What it all means

What I love most about Crichton’s life mantra is how utterly terrible it is. Terrible, meaning that all those business books I read might have been a waste of time. I’m no pessimist. I just appreciate his honesty. The secret to success? There is no secret, Crichton says. You just need to have damned good luck. And when that luck comes your way, you’re ready because you’ve earned it; you’ve worked hard for it; you’re ready because you’re ready.

That’s too simple. I need more!

No you don’t.

I don’t believe in luck. 

Yes you do. Luck exists. You probably just call it something else. Like the devil, it has many names: blessings, karma, inheritance, nepotism, details writers leave out of their business books.

So yes, I do believe in luck. And, I know, luck gets a bad reputation, often wrapped up with laziness and shallowness, a golden meal ticket passed down from silver spoon to silver spoon, sometimes they’re right. But mostly they’re wrong. Usually, our problem is not a dependence upon luck, or that we don’t have any, it’s just that when luck comes, the unprepared waste it.

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Here’s what you shouldn’t do: walk around claiming that luck will pull you through life and that all you need to do is wish upon a star. Please don’t be one of those people. The Law of Attraction is well-meaning, I suppose, but its notions are misapplied (and mis-titled). As a life plan, the “law” of attraction is absurd. Work for what you want out of life, always.

And work hard.

Because a viral video, a happenstance meeting with a CEO, a chance concert with an A&R rep, meeting a friend in a computer 101 class who talks you into moving to Rochester, NY… this is luck. Notice how many viral songs, videos, and blogs come and go. And notice how few of those artists stick around, because, as it turns out, career sustaining talent is much harder to find.

As Macklemore and Ryan Lewis remind us in 10,000 hours, “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great cause they paint a lot.” Thanks, Macklemore.

The point is not to solely depend upon luck, but to know how to take full advantage of it when it comes your way. That’s what Crichton was saying, way back when in The Andromeda Strain. For me, it was an odd, beautiful, and unexpected discovery. A mantra of luck born out of luck.

Do me a favor, and don’t waste yours.

2 comments

  1. On the one hand, the only luck I believe in has a first name — Andrew.

    Yet, as for hard work, I am reminded of the movie “Dad.” Jack Lemmon, on his death bed tells his son, Ted Danson, the story of the great Joe DiMaggio being robbed of a winning World Series hit by the lowly second-stringer Al Gionfranco.

    “What does that story mean, Dad?” asks Danson.

    Lemmon looks into his eyes and smiles. “Anything can happen if you show up for work every day.”

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