Your Career at the Crossroads

Prepare for life's curve balls and persuade luck to go your way

Frida Kahlo

The young medical student lay in a full body cast after the bus she rode in collided with a trolley in Mexico City. Her back was broken in three places. She would never return to medical school but with her free hand, she started painting. In a few years her work was hanging in the Louvre and she is now recognized as one of the great artists of modern history.

Frida Kahlo appeared never to spend time ruing her ample bad luck, which included childhood polio, a difficult marriage and numerous miscarriages. Kahlo was so resilient that setbacks inspired her.

By the time we reach midlife, we can count up our share of misfortunes, and if, like Kahlo, we are gaining wisdom, we come to understand that luck arrives on its own. It's how we manage it that defines us. In fact, the need to turn unexpected challenges into opportunities is what revives us and keeps us going.

Living in the World of the "Big Plan"

Ours is an ever-more-managed culture where we perceive things as either being "on plan" or the result of a failed plan. The truth, though, is that everyone's career includes a few random events that defy any efforts to control them.

The crossroads we arrive at may not be as dramatic as Kahlo's, and sometimes an intersection is just an intersection. But when luck bears misfortune, do you try to move on and forget about it? Do you spend energy finding blame for your bad luck? Or do you pick up a paintbrush?

"People fall off a balance beam that they think they are on," says Sarah Woodruff, director of recruiting at Affinity Resource Group. "As a recruiter, I see it all the time. You get to the age of 45 or 50 and the industry you work in tanks. There are people who just want to get back on that beam in the same spot, with a lateral move, and keep going. Most often they can't."

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If You Know It's the Wrong Track, Why Are You Still on It?

Bad stuff happens. What's important is to watch for the signs, and that means looking both outward and inward. "The idea that you are in a bad job and 'I am just going to hang on for another three years' is a red flag," Woodruff says.

The key is to manage our fates as much as we can. Our default position should be to focus on what we can do — keep networking, building skills and knowledge and maintaining personal spending at a "rainy day" level.

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Mental preparedness is most critical of all. "Anytime you take a risk, it can feel like you are in free fall," says Woodruff. "It is okay to get comfortable with that feeling. By staying positive and recognizing where stressful changes might be coming from, you'll manage better when random things happen."

Laura Schenone's first book, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, won lofty reviews and a James Beard award. After that success, casting about for ideas to carry her ambitions forward, she visited her mother's Croatian homeland — and came up empty.

Then, back home, she stumbled upon a strange, wooden, grid-shaped kitchen device she had inherited from her grandmother. The mystery led her to write The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family. "Finding that ravioli tool was my Eureka! moment," she says. "I'm ever grateful to that little twist of fate."

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For all of us, the greatest twist of fate is the circumstances you are born with. Still, luck's effects rely largely on perception and attitude; in the end, that's what counts the most. Research shows that those who believe they have a measure of luck tend to do better, regardless of their circumstances. A famous study observed that those who thought they were lucky found more "lucky" pennies. Dwelling on bad fortune, conversely, can be damaging in many ways.

My own most memorable crossroad was a dimly lit intersection in New Haven three decades ago. After a dinner date with the woman who would become my wife, I stopped for no reason at a green light. As she turned to me with a questioning look, a car sped through the red light right in front of us. We watched as the taillights faded into the dark, feeling horrified and lucky.

We opened champagne that night. We talked about our future together — the kids we might have and places we'd go. We toasted our good luck.

Luck, Choices and Career

Luck is an active player in all of our careers. Consider the hiring managers – the ones who keep you tossing at night while they decide your fate. They regularly hire "perfect resume" candidates who flame out, or flawed candidates who outperform.

"Luck or randomness is everywhere, so you have to factor it in somehow," says Conwyn Flavell, a services manager at AGCO Corporation, in the British manufacturing city of Conventry. "You cast a big net and try to get the best people. You want things to work out. But you cannot control the free spirit of the human being."

Life isn't a chess game that computers play better than humans, thank goodness, but a tableau that unfolds before you without symmetrical squares or predictable moves. But honestly, would you have it any other way?


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