My articles generally focus on offering advice on how to succeed in your career or find a new job. I offer insights, including taking proactive actions to make your own breaks in life. I’ve realized that there is something important that I haven’t shared. Often times, success or failure is primarily due to good or bad luck.
For example, a manager can conduct an interview and, due to outside influences, it could doom the chances of the interviewee. The manager may have blown a big deal. He received a call from school letting him know that his kid is sick and he has to pick him up. He was late to work because of an early morning argument with his partner and didn’t have time for breakfast. It’s now after 12:30 p.m. and he didn’t have lunch yet. The thermostat in his office is on the fritz and it’s been about 80 degrees in the room. The manager is hungry, hot, cranky, worried about his kid and preoccupied with how he can quickly get out of the office. Since he has a presentation to give for an important meeting and long commute home to the suburbs, he can’t seem to focus.
The candidate is giving her all, trying to sell herself for the job and the interviewer is secretly checking his phone for the next train out of New York City. He abruptly cuts her off, thanks her for coming and says his goodbyes. She awkwardly shows herself out, truly believing that she blew the interview.
If the interviewer’s child was healthy, he ate a nice hearty breakfast, left home on good terms with his partner, got some good news about a possible promotion and finalized plans for a dream family vacation, the same candidate could have had a completely different interview. Instead of leaving dejected and feeling bad about herself, she may have received a great job offer. The misfortune of meeting the manager at the wrong time sealed her fate.
When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook, his roommate, Dustin Moskovitz, joined him. Dustin hasn’t been with Facebook since 2008 and is worth $11 billion dollars, according to Forbes. By pure luck, Moskovitz, who didn’t know Zuckerberg before Harvard, became fabulously wealthy by this random act of serendipity.
Twenty-plus years ago, I met with an executive recruiter, Peter Gay, who suggested that I think about recruiting and consider joining his search firm. He thought that I had what it takes to be successful. I’ve never given it any thought before. However, it was always a dream of mine to start a business. I shared this offer with a colleague, who happened to have a childhood friend who ran a large executive search firm in New York City. I met with the owner or the recruiting firm. He was a really nice guy who was generous with his time and offered his insights into recruiting. I looked around the office and there was an exciting buzz in the air. The CEO seemed like an older version of myself. He wasn’t flashy or slick and seemed like a hard-working guy. I walked out of the meeting believing that if he could do it, I could do it too. I accepted the offer from Peter Gay, later became a partner and then started my own recruiting company. If it wasn’t for the serendipitous chance that my co-worker knew a person who ran a recruiting firm (and that CEO was a nice regular guy), I never would have had the courage to become a recruiter, start and run a business or even write this article for Forbes.
Fred Trump built a real estate empire in the outer boroughs of New York City in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. In the early 1970s, Donald Trump took over his dad’s business. Not satisfied with remaining in the boroughs, Trump turned his sights on Manhattan. He bet on a few risky real estate deals in Manhattan—the Grand Hyatt Hotel on East 42nd Street, the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and Trump Plaza on 61st and Third Avenue—that paid off very well. The early 1970s was a terrible time for Manhattan and certainly wasn’t the place it is now. The city was dirty, crime-ridden and in dire financial trouble. By the mid 1970s, New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy and then President Gerald Ford gave a speech denying federal aid to New York to help it avoid bankruptcy. The front page of The Daily News ran the headline: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”
Based on his father, Fred Trump’s wealth, and vast experience in real estate in the boroughs, Trump took a risk in Manhattan that others avoided. Some say he lucked out into the early move into NYC, which later sharply rebounded and earned him a reputation as a brilliant real estate investor. Based on this early success, he was given massive loans from banks and opportunities. He used this to leverage into licensing his name on hotels, building projects, golf clubs and other ventures. This led to the television show The Apprentice and eventually the presidency.
Sometimes it boils down to being in the right place at the right time. Other times, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and don’t luck out.
Of course, you’ve heard of Steve Jobs, the cofounder of Apple. But how about the name Ron Wayne? Wayne was a cofounder of Apple, along with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. He held 10% of Apple stock upon the formation of the company. Wayne wrote in a Facebook post, “I left because I didn’t feel that this new enterprise would be the working environment that I saw for myself, essentially for the rest of my days. I had every belief [that the company] would be successful, but I didn’t know when, what I’d have to give up or sacrifice to get there, or how long it would take to achieve that success.”
He sold his entire 10% stake in Apple for $800, which would now be worth about $35 billion. If Wayne just hung in there for a little while longer, he would have at least made millions. He was in the right place at the right time with the right people, but made an unlucky decision.
Here is an example of what often happens. I call people to share an amazing job. They’ll sometimes say, “Thank you for the offer, but the time is not right. I’m waiting for my bonus and there’s talk of a promotion and raise. Let’s touch base in a few months.” Time goes by and invariably I’ll get a call, “Hey Jack, is that job still open? It turned out that the bonus was lackluster and I didn’t get a raise or promotion. In fact, my boss told me that my job is being relocated and if I don’t want to go to Mumbai, I’ll receive a separation package.” The person who took the job is happy and doing financially well. If management had told the person the truth about the future of his company and the possibility of downsizing, he most likely would have interviewed for the job and be in a completely different situation.
Hard work is important, but being lucky and in the right place at the right time trumps all.