Monday, November 15, 2004

 

In Which We Peer Behind Luck's Mask...




"Luck is just God dressed up for Halloween."

--Really Drunk Guy I Met in a Bar Once


So...Blind Luck as a career tool.

I know there are those out there who believe in luck, and those who believe that believing in luck is some kind of half-baked pagan gesture. So it was, um, lucky that I should meet that drunk guy all those years ago, because his pithy comment had a way of reconciling the two notions in a manner that I, being a recovering Irish Catholic, found tremendously appealing.

Even with the impediment of sobriety, those words take on a certain depth, if you consider them. The idea that luck is just a facet of whatever you happen to call God, but one with a certain sense of caprice to it, a vague notion that someone has decided not to play by the usual rules of the universe, but only for a short time, and never at a time you can predict. Like costumed kids at your door in late October, you can never pinpoint the second the doorbell will ring, but if you're willing to leave your light on, if you're willing to play along, you know that bell WILL ring. The only question is: When you answer the door, is your exchange with whoever's on the other side going to be Trick or Treat? Bad luck or good luck?

In a career context, luck for me has generally been a strong influence, but not what I would call an undeniable one. With one or two notable exceptions, it's never been like a tornado, something that could whisk me away and either set me down somewhere else untouched--or drive me like a blade of grass into a telephone pole. It's usually been more like a good stiff breeze. You feel it all right, but you still have the choice of planting your feet and staying put, or going in the direction the wind is blowing.

Case in point: about 10 years ago, I really wanted to work for this really popular, high-profile magazine. I worked like a dog to get some freelance stuff from them, but I always had my eye on a staff job there. I kept waiting for a staff position to open, kept waiting for a lucky break, but nothing happened. No wind was blowing.

Eventually, I switched tactics and got a job with the parent company of this magazine. I got to do more freelance work but got no closer to a coveted staff job. While I was waiting, I became involved with an effort to publish some books covering the same topic as the magazine (and even occasionally carrying the magazine's imprint. You see these sorts of things at the checkout desk of bookstores all the time). The effort became popular enough and lucrative enough that I had to make a decision about committing to the effort...or staying in a holding pattern, being "available" in case a job opp came up at the magazine where I so desperately wanted to work.

Left to my own devices, and my own understanding of what a willful and doggedly determined person I could be, I think I would have kept pushing for the staff job. But I realized that stiff breeze was pushing me in another direction, one I really hadn't planned on taking. I went with it, and it's lucky (there's that word) for me that I did. It led to 5 surprisingly rewarding years in which I became, in short order, an author--name on the cover and everything--of three books before I was 30 (all of them under the imprint and carrying the logo of that magazine I wanted to work at).

So, much as I believe in luck, it really is an interactive experience most of the time, requiring you to make some decisions, and hope (ever the kissing cousin of luck) for the best.

But be prepared for those rare times when luck does come as a tornado, whirling you round in a dizzying vortex that makes you question which way is up (hmm, first it was a Halloween analogy, now it's weather. How'd we get there?).

Coda to the above anecdote: after having written a few books and about 100 stories for them, guess who calls me in for a job interview? So I go, make my manners to all the right people, and are left with the impression that pretty much everyone wants me on staff...except one guy, the guy who can't stand me. No reason, no explanation, but he puts his foot down, and he has the editor's ear enough that I'm blackballed from the staff. It was unfathomable. I was crushed. I mean, I did everything right. Looking back, my approach, my strategy, my work history, it was tailor-made for these folks. I nailed my interview, absolutely stuck the landing. In the end, I felt I had to just chalk it up to bad luck and move on.

And six months later, one of the OTHER big magazine owned by this company calls me up, and they DO offer me a job, one I was now free to take. And somewhere during my three or four years there, I keep hearing horror stories from the staff of the magazine I wanted to work at. Including the fact that position I interviewed for turned into a kind of staff mutt position, where people were slotted and worked like dogs til they burned out and left, or were made scapegoats and fired. It took a while, but eventually it dawned on me that I had narrowly missed being driven through a telephone pole. Or (what the hell, let's switch analogies) what I thought had been a terrible trick on me turned out to be one big treat. Especially since the job I took led me directly to the job I now have.

And here's the craziest part of the whole story: today, that magazine I so wanted to work for now controls all aspects of their "brand," including all the books I worked on. Today, whether you work on the books or the magazine, you're part of the same staff. And apparently so am I. I checked their Web site the other day and found their booklist. Two of my books are still in print, and in the "about the author" info, I'm listed--in official, approved copy--as having been a member of their staff. So I guess I was, retroactively.

It's funny, when you think about it. I mean, what are the odds?

Just lucky, I guess.

Yours,
From Somewhere On The Masthead


Monday, November 01, 2004

 

In Which I Get Back On Track...

So I'm back from my little trip to a little-known university to talk to a little group of students about...me.

Since my departure, I've been gratified by the number of folks who've commented (not here, but through other means) on the pleasure derived from my random anecdote last week, in which vomit is used as a weapon, and in which zeroes become heroes. Was it true? seems to be the most common question, to which I love responding in the cryptic words of my uncle, the best storyteller I know: "It was true when I thought of it." But the short answer is: Yes.

My trip was fun, mostly. My attendance at this conference was not exactly as a headliner, which was fine with me, and while I went in not really being sure what I should talk about, I came away wishing I had said more (although the professor who ferried me around would proably not say the same thing. I'm a bit of a talker, especially when I'm keyed up, which I was).

I realize I've been off-topic lately, so this is a perfect time to get back on track and briefly share some of the things that people at the conference seemed to appreciate (or at least laugh at when I said it):

To the question, "How did you get where you are today?"

I was on a panel about print journalism when this one came up. And my esteemed colleague (a well-regarded newspaper columnist) gave a long and thoughtful answer that I enjoyed...but it occurred to me that to anyone else listening (remember, we're talking a bunch of soon-to-be graduates who are starting to freak about getting a job), it might have sounded like an oral resume, with all footnotes included.

When it was my turn, I attributed my success (such as it is) to three things:

1. The ability to feed on failure

2. Blind luck

3. Shameless self-promotion


Let's take a closer look:

Feed on failure: This is not about collecting rejection letters and hanging them on your wall like trophies (they aren't). This is about being fearless in the face of constant rejection. This is about looking at your early days of not getting work--or work that truly employs your talents, whatever they might be--as an exercise in skin-thickening, something that will serve you in good stead forever, and not just in professional life.

But it's also about letting failure make you crafty. It's about learning to turn problems into solutions. Somewhere, the late Douglas Adams talks about this, and he likens it to a certain kind of martial art. Assume, he says (and I'm only quoting from memory), that you have a 180 pound guy coming at you, intent of crushing you to a pulp. The goal of the martial art is to learn to avoid or deflect or turn the attack back on the guy, so that the fact that he weighs 180 pounds quickly becomes his problem and not yours.

When you're starting out, you have no shortage of problems and challenges standing between you and the work you feel you were meant to be doing (which is not the same as gainful employment, as we'll see shortly). But if you can turn your problems to your advantage, you not only come out of the deal being clever and resourceful (and if you're lucky, gaining a rep as someone who is clever and resourceful), you might even carve a niche for yourself that turns into an amazing opportunity.

My personal example, and then we're done for today (but I'll come back to #2 and #3 later): When I graduated, there were virtually no jobs in magazines to be had, not in ones you'd want on your resume, anyway. I was coming out of deferment on my student loans, I had rent to pay, I had to eat...so I took at job at a trade magazine, one of these free niche publications they give to a specific type of person: the purchaser of cleaning materials for school systems, the people who maintain the access card readers at banks and businesses, the folks who install high-strength shelving at Home Depot. I slogged for two long years at this job, writing my odd little stories about this obscure piece of technology or that tiny piece of legislation and how it impacted the industry I covered. It was like a living death. I was meeting with my old college advisors, like I was still in school, trying to figure out how I could jump from this backwater of magazine writing into the big time. After a while, my advisors took to observing how lucky I was to have a paying magazine job and that perhaps, after two years, I had rounded a corner, that there might be no going back and jumping to consumer mags, unless I was willing to start over as an editorial assistant. It was one of the most depressing epochs of my life.

And then, in the middle of an interview, I had the most marvelous moment of clarity: I was talking to a scientist who was selling these cumbersome devices known as Global Positioning Systems, which could help inventory managers pinpoint the more or less exact location of large items, such as boxcars or a tractor-trailer full of Toyotas (assuming they were staying put for a while. Back then, it took 4 hours for the GPS to get a fix). He went on the predict that one day, everyone would use GPS: they would get small enough and fast enough that you could put them in cars, you could carry them on hiking expeditions. Why, they might one day be in mobile phones!

Suddenly, I had this quirky, ahead-of-the-curve trend piece that no consumer magazine was aware of. I pitched the idea to a popular outdoor-lifestyle magazine of the day. The editor called me a week later to tell me the idea was too far-fetched (!), but he liked my style, and would I like a different assignment?

Within 6 months, I had a rep at two national magazines for being the "weird gadget" writer, the go-to guy for future tech...which is just another term for specialized products that may ultimately have general appeal. On the strength of the clips I earned from those two venues, I eventually got regular contract work from other magazines, and a job offer that finally put me on the masthead of a real consumer magazine. I had fed off my own failure. I had turned my problem into a solution. More concretely, I made enough in freelance money to bring my student loans up to date, pay off my car, and buy an engagement ring.

Yeah, I may have neglected to mention that my future wife also worked at that trade magazine company. Talk about turning a problem into a solution.

More soon on my old drinking buddies, Blind Luck and Shameless Self-Promotion...

Yours,
From Somewhere On the Masthead

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