There is a lot of schlock out there in book stores on the personal motivation and business shelves. "If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It" is a typical title, with many books assuring you that if you just take the first step, the world will rise up to meet you. These books do serve a function: they motivate people to be more entrepreneurial and give them permission to follow their dreams. And, of course, I would not have spent the last nine years of my life working on GlobalGiving if I were not optimistic about the ability of a small group of people to change the world.
But many of these books are recipes for major disappointment and backlash down the road, because they fail to set expectations. In that context, here is a very nice talk by Alain de Botton at TED. His key messages are: 1) Success and failure have a huge random component. 2) Idealizing meritocracy results in an attitude that the poor are losers and deserve it, and 3) Promoting the idea that "You can do anything if you put your mind to it inadvertently leads to a lot of low self-esteem among the many people who try hard but fail.
Here are my takeaways from this: a) Work hard in life and try to follow your dreams, but realize that randomness in life often trumps all, so don't be too hard on yourself if you don't succeed; b) If you are fabulously successful, be modest, and realize that luck probably played a big role (in addition to your hard work, vision, and intelligence); and c) given the importance of randomness, avoid putting all your eggs in one basket - maximize your chances for success by doing lots of experiments and ventures over time.