I spent last week at one of my favorite conferences, Greenville Grok. One of the unique aspects of this conference is the focus on attendee participation. Everyone has an opportunity to share, discuss and get feedback on ideas. One of the ideas that came up in discussion is the idea of luck. Specifically, how much of our success as individuals is based on pure luck.
I think the word “luck” carries some unintended baggage. We generally agreed that by “luck” we often meant “opportunity.” Those we all look up to as “successful” often were able to capitalize on very specific opportunities that came their way.
But, “How do I get opportunities?” was a question that inevitably followed. I firmly believe that we are responsible for creating or own opportunities. People who have achieved great success are very skilled at doing this.
How to create your own opportunities
I don’t consider myself to be someone who has a lot of skills. But if there’s one thing I have been able to do over and over again in life, it’s create my own opportunities. Here’s an example:
When I was in college, I dreamed of being a writer. Not a starving artist, but someone who earned an income from writing. This seemed unachievable. I had no experience. I had no portfolio. I had only taken one English course at that point. My background was in IT and I didn’t even know any writers. How would I ever be able to convince someone to pay me to write for them?
1. Surround yourself with people who do what you want to do
The first thing I did was go to where the writers were. At the time I lived in a suburb of Los Angeles and we had a local newspaper called The Signal. I drove to the main office and asked for a tour. (This was long before Twitter, Facebook or any sort of online networking). I met the Managing Editor and the staff writers. I asked a lot of questions and learned about what they did. Most importantly, I made friends.
2. Strive to make others successful
The next thing I did may sound crazy. I asked the Managing Editor if I could work for free. I told her I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to work for this newspaper, but I had no experience, so I was willing to come in for a couple afternoons a week and do whatever they wanted me to do (even if it wasn’t writing). Here’s a secret: Companies don’t turn down free labor.
You’ve heard the cliche “Out of sight, out of mind.” It’s a cliché because it’s true. I knew that my chances of being hired were astronomically higher if I was already in the door.
3. Take any opportunity to do what you want to do, even if it’s not sexy
Within a week they gave me the opportunity to write something. And by write something, I mean, attend a ribbon-cutting for a local business and write a one-paragraph summary that would be buried in the back of the B section of the paper.
But I didn’t complain. I tackled this job as if I had just been asked by The New York Times to be a war correspondent. I poured a lot of enthusiasm into that one-paragraph assignment. The next day, to my surprise, they sent me to another event that was a little more significant.
I’m sure you can see where this story is going. Within two weeks, I had covered two significant stories and the newspaper offered me a full-time job.
4. Be enthusiastic and passionate about the smallest details
The first few months at the paper were anything but glamourous. I covered a lot of grand-opening and ribbon-cuttings. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted to do when I thought of being a writer. But I treated each of those stories as if they were the most important thing I’d ever done.
Within a few months of my employment at the newspaper, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I was asked to cover that story and wrote a number of in-depth, front-page stories. I remember thinking that it felt like a dream. I was a paid writer, covering major news stories, when only months before I didn’t even know where to start. Those stories eventually led to me being promoted to an editor and opportunities to write for magazines.
5. Don’t give up.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve employed this exact process many times in my life in completely unrelated fields. Much of it comes down to taking initiative. If I had sat around, waiting for someone to “notice” me and hire me, I firmly believe I would never have been hired. I would have missed out on what eventually became five great years of writing for multiple newspapers and magazines.
If luck comes from capitalizing on opportunities, then opportunities come from taking action.
The day you decide to do, it is your lucky day. ~ Japanese Proverb