Lucky break

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Transition

My friend is an architect who works for herself out of her home office. She chooses projects she’s interested in and is home when the kids get off school.

“I get to use my skills on my terms,” she told me one day over iced tea.

That’s a pretty good definition of success, I said.

“It’s just luck,” she said.

I think about luck a lot as a career coach. I tell my coaching clients, “Get yourself to the right place at the right time — and be fully prepared when you get there.”

Yes, that entails a ton of hard work, perseverance, failures and accomplishments – and a big dash of luck. “We optimize for that luck,” I tell clients.

Fictional Swedish detective Ulf Varg would probably agree with that approach. “The role of luck in human affairs had always intrigued him,” Alexander McCall Smith writes in his sweet 2019 novel, “The Department of Sensitive Crimes.”

“So much of what we did was influenced by factors that were beyond our control — the vagaries of others, sequences of events that we initiated in ignorance of where they would lead, chance meetings that led to the making of a decision that would change our life,” Varg muses, as he investigates who stabbed a man in the back of the knee.

A successful career, however you might define it, is all about those “chance meetings.” People I talk to who are pleased with their careers didn’t have a well-defined plan; they’re not following some roadmap to success. They were in the right place at that right time — they initiated a sequence of events “in ignorance of where they would lead.”

As Steve Jobs famously said in a commencement speech at Stanford: “Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

I like to think that Jobs meant that it only seems like we had a plan retroactively: it all looks so obvious when we look back on our career (or someone else’s!). It’s not so clear as we look forward in our careers, however.

I tell my clients: “I know you know this, but there is no magic wand; there is no worksheet to figure out your ideal career — no aptitude test that will answer this question for you.”

Younger clients look at me like I’ve let them down; more experienced professionals tend to nod their heads in agreement.

“What you can do is prepare for those ‘chance encounters,’” I say. You “open the window for luck,” I wrote back in 2012. So, for example, when you are prepared and find yourself sitting next to an executive at a dinner party, you can turn a chance meeting into a rewarding, fulfilling, challenging role at a company you’ve always admired (true client story).

How do you prepare for those chance encounters? I’ve written in this column about the Six Dreadfuls — the dreadful questions you know you need to answer fluently, confidently and with convincing passion, whether it’s over a networking coffee or in a meeting with your CEO.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.