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


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