The Secret to Luck

secret to luckLast week we discussed the dynamic of jobs versus needs—and the reality that jobs are created out of the needs of other people and organizations. I was fortunate to learn this lesson quite early in my career—in fact the lesson itself was the stepping stone in launching it.

You see, when I graduated from college back in 1991 with a degree in journalism, I had already been working as a communications manager for a medium-sized company ($75 million) for two years. Mind you, this was during a heavy recession: while many of my fellow graduates were looking to become looking at temporary positions as waiters or bank tellers, I was fortunate to be earning an above-average salary and had already accumulated a considerable amount of experience. You might say that it was luck. But was it?Well, that depends upon how you define the word. Most dictionaries describe it as a positive turn out of mere chance. However, the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC – A.D. 65), is quoted as saying that luck occurs “when preparedness meets opportunity.”

And opportunity is there all the time.

This may be what happened in my case. When I was first hired (while still a student), it was not in response to an advertisement or job opening of any kind. I did not go through the conventional interview process competing with hundreds or even dozens of other applicants. I didn’t even have a resume.

Here’s how it happened:

I was a junior in the Ohio State Journalism School. I had transferred there after studying art and design for over two years at another college, and I wanted to finish my degree in journalism, and have that blended background of both written and visual communication.

At that time, desktop publishing (DTP) was just emerging as a new tool for printed communications (the internet expansion was still many years away). As you may or may not know, this is the process of using desktop computer technology for the typesetting, layout and production of printed materials. It was an industry which demanded the skills of both a writer and designer. I had these skills—sort of.

I was excited, but I only had one problem: I knew little about computers, let alone desktop publishing and the new, complex software it entailed.

The only exposure I had to computers at that time was in a 100-level computer course required at school. It was more about abstract programing—mostly creating rather useless programs at the time. Back in those days, students didn’t all have computers. For writing assignments, I used an electric typewriter that I had bought in high school with my own money. That was $180!

And up till that point, I really had no interest in using a computer. I had been trained as a graphic designer the old fashioned way—on the drawing board.

So there I was. Eager to learn DTP, I made a few trips to the university computer laboratory to experiment with the systems there. It was then that I realized something about myself: “experimenting” does not usually teach me much. I learn best by deciding upon a specific objective and working toward it (which often included a lot of swearing).

Then one day, I was speaking to a teaching assistant in the Journalism school about desktop publishing (she had just done a demonstration of it before some students), and she gave me the name and telephone number of Al, who had contacted the school looking for some outside help in just this area. This man was the division president of a local building products supplier. It turned out that his company had purchased a desktop publishing system to improve their huge, 500-page catalog and marketing communications. The system was up and running, but no one there could figure out how to use it.

Without a skilled person to operate it, Al was looking at a $10,000 dust collector sitting in his office.

At the time, I had very limited experience (much less than I probably let on). But I was prepared to go in and learn, even offering to work the first week or two for free (they still insisted on paying me). At that time, being a college student, needing a part-time job, and with really nothing to lose, I saw it as a win-win situation.

To my surprise, I knew enough to get started and eventually trained myself to near-expert level in just a few months. I was also producing tangible results with which Al was pleased from my first week on the job. (In hindsight, I probably knew more intuitively than I had thought.)

Within a few short months, the part-time job became full-time, and I found myself in the uncommon position of having created my own employment. I became their first marketing manager (and finished my degree attending school part time).

Was it luck? According to Seneca’s definition, it surely was. I was prepared to take a risk. And when the opportunity presented itself, I had the clairvoyance to see and exploit it.

I wasn’t the most qualified person to fill that position at the time; that is certain. There was only one reason that I was hired: Al had a need, and I was the only person within the sound of his voice who could fill it. He had more important things to do than place an ad in the paper, sift through resumes and interview other people. To his own admission, he had no idea what skills to look for (until I demonstrated them).

So many job seekers today need this change in perspective when it comes to career development. When someone says “I need a job” or even, “I need customers,” it just doesn’t have that entrepreneurial ring to it.

Change is difficult, and I know this from experience. However, by ardently focusing our attentions on the discovering the needs of others—to the point that it distracts from our obsession with meeting our own needs—we might just end up killing two birds with one stone.

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