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Do You Feel Lucky?

Do You Feel Lucky?

By Erik Calonius

Modern diagram of ancient tool

Erik Calonius is a former reporter, editor, and London correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. From Ten Steps Ahead: What Separates Successful Business Visionaries From the Rest of Us (Portfolio). ©2011

Suppose Orville Wright had died of the scarlet fever he had contracted in 1896, when he was 25. Would Wilbur have built the flying machine by himself? Not likely. Suppose Andrew Carnegie had not read about the new blast furnaces that were revolutionizing the German steel industry and, furthermore, hadn’t found the financing to bring one back to the United States. Would he have transformed the steel business in America? Not likely. Carnegie Hall would not exist.

Suppose Walt Disney ’s cartoon business in Kansas City had been a modest success rather than a flop, and he had stayed there in the Midwest. Would he have forfeited the chance to meet the great animators who were shuffling around Southern California looking for someplace to go? Probably so.

I remember sitting with Michael Dell in his freshman dorm room at the University of Texas as he described how he started his computer company there in the 1970s. His parents were dead set against his obsession with computers—they wanted him to become a doctor.

The phone in his dorm room rang one day. It was his parents. They were in the lobby and on their way up. Dell hastily gathered the computer parts that were scattered all over his room (he had placed an ad in the Austin newspapers and had been happily building computers for his customers) and hid them in the bathtub. Well, Dell’s mom went into the bathroom and didn’t even pull aside the curtain, to the relief of the perspiring Michael!

But suppose she had. Suppose Mrs. Dell had pulled that shower curtain aside, found her son’s stash of computer parts, and raised hell. Dell might have given up and gone to medical school. Dell might have been your family doctor today.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.