Dick Cheney was the 46th Vice President of the United States, and was Vice President to George W. Bush. To be sure, Cheney's character is suspect. Many consider him to be responsible for the United States war against Iraq.
Regardless of how you feel about Cheney, it is fascinating to consider how quickly he rose to the top of the U.S. politics.
After graduating from high school, Cheney began college at Yale University but shortly thereafter dropped-out due to poor grades. After a second attempt at college, he dropped out again.
Eventually, he went back to school, but at the University of Wyoming where he received a B.A. in political science in 1965 and an M.A. in political science in 1966.
By all accounts, Cheney was a fairly average person who found himself in extremely rare situations. It was his ability to 1) put himself in these situations and then 2) rise to the demands of these situations that transformed him into one of the most powerful people in the world.
Here are a few of the lucky incidents that got Cheney into the unique situations that led to his fast-tracked career:
- While a student, Cheney entered and won a national writing contest for student political scientists. In response, he was offered a position as an aide to Wisconsin governor Warren Knowles.
- While pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Cheney took a fellowship to work in Washington, D.C. for Congressman Bill Steiger, a Wisconsin Republican.
- While serving as Steiger's aide, Cheney wrote a memo about how Congressman Donald Rumsfeld should handle the legalities in becoming the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Steiger showed the memo to Rumsfeld who promptly hired Cheney. The relationship between Cheney and Rumsfeld would go on to dramatically influence every subsequent Republican administration into the 2000's. This relationship radically changed and accelerated the trajectory of Cheney's career.
As a result of being Rumsfeld's right hand, Cheney became the youngest White House chief of staff in history, at age 34, during Gerald Ford's presidency.
The power of situation
Two written documents put Cheney in a rare and unique position. Of course, lots of other effort was involved too. But these two documents, 1) his college writing contest victory, and 2) the written memo, opened doors Cheney didn't even know existed.
Once Cheney walked through those doors, he found himself in a unique and demanding situation. In his new situation, he was required to learn and do things way beyond his current capability. Luckily for him, he also had a powerful mentor who helped him along the way, Rumsfeld.
If you want to become amazing at putting yourself in rare and challenging situations, as well as quickly adapting to those situations, you will need two attributes:
Self-efficacy (i.e., confidence)
Self-efficacy is a well-researched concept reflecting your personal belief in your own capability. Your self-efficacy -- more than any natural ability -- determines how well you can learn new things.
If you don't believe you can succeed, you won't. If you believe in yourself, you'll be able to learn what each situation requires.
Tolerance for ambiguity
Tolerance for ambiguity reflects your comfort level in new and novel situations. Most people are extremely uncomfortable with change and the unknown. However, if you have a high tolerance for ambiguity, you thrive in new situations.
You quickly and mindfully acquaint yourself with your context, and deconstruct the foundational elements. As a result of your high self-efficacy, you challenge yourself to quickly master and learn the unknowns in your new situation.
With enough exposure, you can develop tolerances to just about anything.You can absolutely develop a tolerance for being in new situations. It can become second nature to you, even automatic.
Your age and inherent abilities are far less significant than the situations you find yourself in. You will rise or fall to the expectations and demands of your circumstances.
With high self-efficacy and a tolerance for ambiguity, you can put yourself in situations that force you to succeed. You are never pre-qualified for these situations. Rather, become qualified as you adapt to your situation, and become more than you ever thought you could.