Power Players

Google billionaire Eric Schmidt: 'Almost anyone who's successful has to start by saying they were lucky'

Eric Schmidt, Alphabet Inc. Chairman
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Grit. Hard work. Intelligence. These are some of the ingredients of success.

But there's another that can't be left off the list, according to Google billionaire Eric Schmidt: luck.

"I would say I'm defined by luck, and I think almost anyone who's successful has to start by saying they were lucky," said Schmidt on the Conversations with Tyler podcast. "Lucky of birth, lucky of having intellectual and intelligent family home life, upbringing, global upbringing, etc."

Schmidt's own life is an example: To start with, his father was an economist who moved the family to Italy when Schmidt was young. "And this is at a time when people didn't travel the way they do today, and so it was quite exotic to grow up Italian, and I think that really changed me," he said.

It opened up his view of the world. "As an American, I've always thought Americans were very, very locally focused, and even today in the world you all live in, we're still too locally focused and not globally focused," Schmidt said.

Then, there was his schooling.

Schmidt, now 63, studied architecture at Princeton University, though that major didn't last.

"I was a terrible architect," Schmidt told Cowen. "But I turned out to be a pretty good engineer, and this was at a time when computer science didn't exist. At Princeton, I walked in and I said, 'Look, I think I'd rather do computers.'"

New Release! Former Executive Chairman of @Google @ericschmidt joined Tyler for a conversation @villageglobal on Google, lessons from failures, city building, and more #CowenConvos #WednesdayWisdom

Schmidt went on to graduate with an electrical engineering degree and then got his masters and Ph.D in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley.

It was perfect timing — the fact that computer industry was just getting started was absolutely key to his success.

"I had the benefit of being early in the computer industry, so that's like super luck," said Schmidt.

Indeed, his ability to pursue his interest in computers drove the rest of his career. Schmidt, who is worth about $12.7 billion according to Forbes, went on to be the CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011 and the executive chairman of Google's parent company Alphabet until he stepped down in January 2018 to be a technical adviser.

Schmidt also says he was lucky "because I had good taste in friends, and they helped me out."

Schmidt did not specify which friends, but earlier in the podcast, Schmidt said he learned about charismatic leadership working with Scott McNealy, a co-founder and former CEO of the computer technology company Sun Microsystems. Also, during his time at Google, Schmidt worked with the co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

"The best things in your life will come from the people that you hang out with," Schmidt said. "That has worked incredibly well for me."

With his good luck, Schmidt was savvy, he says, and that created his good fortune. "But my real opportunity is, I look at each of these stages, I was picked early, I worked with smart people, people took a risk on me, and I learned."

Schmidt is not the only ultra successful person to acknowledge how the luck of their upbringing has played a significant role in their success.

"My wealth has come from a combination of living in America, some lucky genes, and compound interest. [Both] my children and I won what I call 'the ovarian lottery,'" Warren Buffett, who is now worth more than $79.1 billion according to Forbes, told Christiane Amanpour in 2010.

"I was born in the right country at the right time," said Buffett, now 88.

"Bill Gates has always told me if I had been born many thousands of years ago, I'd have been some animal's lunch because I can't run very fast, I can't climb trees, and some animal would be chasing me and I say, 'Well, I allocate capital.' The animal would say, 'Those are the kind that taste the best,'" Buffett said.

Billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has also said he owes his success to the serendipity of his upbringing. Zuckerberg's father was a dentist who provided a comfortable life, so Zuckerberg was afforded the freedom to pursue his interests.

Currently worth more than $46.9 billion according to Forbes, Zuckerberg famously dropped out of Harvard to focus on Facebook.

"Let's face it. There is something wrong with our system when I can leave [Harvard] and make billions of dollars in 10 years while millions of students can't afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business," Zuckerberg said in his 2017 commencement address at the university.

"We all know we don't succeed just by having a good idea or working hard. We succeed by being lucky too," Zuckerberg said. "If I had to support my family growing up instead of having time to code, if I didn't know I'd be fine if Facebook didn't work out, I wouldn't be standing here today. If we're honest, we all know how much luck we've had."

See also:

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Mark Zuckerberg: Success comes from 'the freedom to fail,' so billionaires like me should pay you to do that

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