So, how do we make our own luck? Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through personal experience: In mid-1997 I had been a self-employed journalist and PR consultant for five years but I needed a break. Thankfully, I’d made enough money to take a year out and I spent twelve months travelling, reading and thinking. Halfway through my sabbatical, I met a wonderful woman, we fell in love and at the beginning of 1999, we decided to buy a house and get married.
With my new responsibilities, I had to start earning again but in May 1999, two months after buying our home, I was broke and extremely worried. The wedding was just three months away but I couldn’t even afford to buy my fiancé an engagement ring. I had thrown every remaining penny of my savings into the house and was earning just enough to pay my share of the mortgage.
I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I had a degree in business, I had read loads of business self-help books, and my specialism – the IT industry - was booming. Since the beginning of 1997, I’d built a database of some 700 companies, found the marketing managers’ names and was methodically phoning each one with the goal of securing corporate writing commissions. After making contact with the 300th, and gaining nothing more than vague promises that they’d call me if they needed my services, I swallowed my freelancing pride and applied for a job as a PR director at a London agency.
Three people were interviewed and I was the only one to be invited back. It was clear that the boss had already made his decision and we were soon discussing strategy, salary and contract. After an hour, the boss detected an air of doubt: “What have you got to lose?” he asked with a smile. I answered with surprising honesty: “I would lose the view of the Marlborough Downs from my home office. I’d miss taking the dog for a walk at lunchtime. And I’d really miss the freedom to work how and when I like.”
I dreaded the idea of having a boss and commuting three hours a day but financial necessity and my impending married life seemed to be forcing my hand. However, after teetering on the edge, I found that I just couldn’t do it. To the amazement of the boss, I talked myself out of the job and drove home in a cold sweat.
Despite feeling intense panic, this was actually the first step in making my own luck. While I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to get out of this hole, I listened to my guts and choose not to do something out of desperation but to find another way. But how would I explain this to my fiancé? I slumped into my office chair, gazed blankly at the dark clouds creeping over the Downs and sighed. From the corner of my eye, I noticed the red light flashing on my answering machine. Maybe one of the 300 marketing managers had called me back? Maybe my luck had finally changed?
The message played and my heart jumped to the ceiling. It was the special supplements editor of the Daily Telegraph and he wanted me to write an article. What luck! Or was it?
Admittedly it was perfect timing but, as it turned out, it wasn’t pure luck but the result of something that actually started 15 years earlier, way back in 1984, when I was an undergraduate doing a six-month internship at IBM in Bristol.
My job was at the lower end of the sales food chain and mostly involved stuffing envelopes with brochures and invitations to seminars. Even so, the senior staff were friendly and supportive and invited the humble interns to social events. Although I only spoke to him once or twice, I was particularly intrigued by one of the sales managers, primarily because of his vibrant red braces and his booming ‘Good morning!’ whenever he entered the office.
Ten years later, in 1994, I was working at a client’s office on a freelance commission when in walked in Mr Red Braces (Michael). I stood up and re-introduced myself to him. I didn’t want or need anything from him but this seemingly small move initiated a close professional relationship that lead to a series of commissions and new introductions to others who would commission me. The phone call from the Telegraph editor in 1999 might appear to have been ‘lucky’, but it was a consequence of reconnecting with Michael five years earlier. He had recommended me to another person who subsequently, recommended me to the Telegraph.
I wrote the Telegraph article in double-quick time and then started hammering the phones. The effort of making 300 hundred calls previously and building a database now meant that all these contacts were to hand and I could introduce myself as PR and journalist who wrote for the best-selling broadsheet in the UK. This underlined my credibility and within a few months, other editors were commissioning me to write articles, marketing managers were offering me lucrative corporate work and a month before the wedding, I bought my fiancé an engagement ring.
It is clearly difficult to convert this tale into a formula for success, but looking back at this chain of events, a few truths stand out:
- You can’t control everything but taking initiative to do what you can will have a positive cumulative effect – possibly when you least expect it.
- Some decisions can be down right scary. However, before accepting solutions that seem to be the answer to a short-term problem, weigh up your options to consider what you really want now and where you want to be in the future – you may find that short-term discomfort is worth it if it keeps you on your chosen path.
- Being professional, amiable and willing to keep in touch with people is important. I suppose ‘networking’ would be the formal term but I think of it as taking an interest in people and what’s going on in the industry. Also, if you only contact people when you want something, it can be really off-putting for them.
- Don’t assess someone’s worth by their current seniority or by what you think they can do for you now. People change jobs, get promoted and shift careers. If you have made a positive impression on them in the past, you never know if and when they might recommend you to a third party or do you unexpected good turn.
In my next blog, I’ll talk more on accentuating your good luck by saying yes to the unknown.