Tooling Up: Enrich Your Life With Coincidence

One of the first things you learn when you write and speak to scientists or engineers is that you'd better carry a lot of information around with you. I've learned that technical people, who generally have an analytical nature, prefer to hear about facts and figures. They prefer their career ideas presented like the result of an experiment at the bench. And whenever I've strayed into the ether and discussed career concepts that aren't rooted in terra firma, my audience brings me back to earth.

Perhaps this column is a bit risky because it doesn't deal with facts and figures, but I think we need to stray on occasion. Once a year we'll break with the normal topics of personal development and job-seeking skills and move to new ground. That's because I believe that career success comes from sound technical exposure combined with a wisdom that comes from listening to the occasional dream. In my personal life, I find that small coincidences and unplanned events have been at the core of my success more than I'd like to admit. (I don't like to admit it because I'm an analytical sort, just like most readers!)

How Do Coincidences Enrich Your Life and Your Career?

Like all of us, I've had wonderful advantages in my life because I picked up on a coincidence and followed the trail. I met my spouse and partner through that kind of situation--by being in a place that logic said I shouldn't have been, doing something I wouldn't normally have done, and being open for anything to happen. More than 20 years later, we'd both admit that it worked. On the other hand, I can also recall being incredibly blind to coincidence, even when it seemed that someone or something was trying to hit me over the head with a baseball bat.

On a plane several years ago, returning from a major drug industry convention, I happened to see an issue of Pharmaceutical Executive being read by the passenger next to me. I will usually go to any length to avoid getting into conversations with chatty fellow passengers on cross-country flights. As it turned out, it wasn't a fellow conventioneer but a senior vice president of a major pharmaceutical company who was returning from Washington, D.C., where he had attended a Pharmaceutical Manufacturer's Association powwow. He proceeded to tell me a little about himself (an outstanding contact for me professionally) and a lot about his current love and area of interest, the study of pharmacoeconomics. It was a lecture on the subject that you couldn't buy at any university, delivered by a successful executive who had a passion for the subject. And I didn't pay attention.

I didn't realize it at the time, but there were two directions to take after meeting this fellow accidentally on the plane. One way to use this coincidence would have been to study the booming field of pharmacoeconomics, to understand its role in my industry, and to posture my practice as a leader in professional recruitment for this niche. Unfortunately, this wasn't the direction I chose. Instead, I asked him for his card and took the usual headhunter approach of adding another contact to my database. The message this coincidence delivered went right over my head, and it didn't even cross my mind until losing a major income opportunity a year later. I lost the chance to work with a leading biotechnology firm when it was obvious to them in my presentation that I didn't know the first thing about pharmacoeconomics.

James Redfield, author of the best seller The Celestine Prophesy (1), describes a number of insights that he predicts may have an impact on us in the future as we become more aware of how human beings are connected to each other through coincidence. He asks his readers,

"Have you ever had a hunch or intuition concerning something that you've wanted to do? Some course you wanted to take in your life? And wondered how it might happen? And then, after you had half forgotten about it and focused on other things, you suddenly met someone or read something or went somewhere that led to the very opportunity you envisioned?"

Redfield's advice: Pay attention. Become conscious of the coincidences in your life.

Can Paying Attention Make a Difference in the World of Science?

In 10 years of recruiting work, I've interviewed more than 5000 people in-depth about their ambitions, past experiences, and philosophy of what has made them successful. For me, it is not only essential that I know the candidates who I am working with on an assignment for a client company, but it is also a fascinating study. I truly enjoy studying and writing about success.

It's odd, however, how two people with similar training and experience can end up in dramatically different career positions. Obviously, a lot of success depends on the choices that are made, and an equal share depends on the attitude and spirit of the individual. But when studying success, there is always something missing if you only adjust for talent, attitude, and choices. Lately I've started to believe that this missing ingredient might have something to do with how well we listen to those clues that show themselves all around us.

Here's how two people I know describe their experiences with career success. As I always do, I'll change a significant amount of their circumstances, including their names, so that my reasons for describing them will be evident but the actual persons won't be:

John is on a combination science/business track at his employer, as the applications lab supervisor for an instrument company. He was trained under one of the best known professors of bioanalytical chemistry in the country, a mentor with a world-class reputation. Typically, this professor's students enter industry or academia with a number of offers and are the "pick of the litter" by companies such as Merck, Pfizer, and Genentech. And the bioanalytical area is certainly a hot career choice.

Howard works for the same company, as director of marketing. He graduated at roughly the same time, from a far less stellar laboratory but with the same Ph.D. in biochemistry. His training centered on technical areas of interest to his employer, as he was originally hired in a scientific capacity. He worked together with John in Applications Support for the first 2 years of his industrial work life. Five years later, however, Howard is in the senior ranks of the company, and the salary difference between them is almost $50,000 per year.

Compare my notes on how they describe the reasons for their success, and you'll see that John's comments are rooted in his analytical/scientific approach. Howard, on the other hand, paints his success as a result of internal strengths (his training), the people around him (his team attitude), and circumstances (some of them sheer coincidence).

John's Top Three Reasons for Career Success:

  • Solid technical training in biochemistry from [the mentor mentioned above]

  • Publication record

  • Creative approach and broad understanding of [a separations science technique]

Howard's Top Three Reasons for Career Success:

  • Strong training in science and business

  • Choosing the right people to work with

  • Being in the right place at the right time

I like Howard's response about choosing the right people to work with. There's been a lot written about the benefits of the "interdependent" team approach, which Next Wave readers know is one of the major differences for industry. True as it might be, however, it could still be a canned interview response. His last reason, the "right place at the right time," is a bit unusual. Applicants are usually too busy trying to get the spotlight on themselves to think about throwing it elsewhere.

And it was this last answer that begged for more. As I spent additional time with Howard, I learned how in several situations throughout his career, he has been caught up in some unique circumstance and coincidence. But, instead of allowing those lessons to go over his head as I did, Howard listened well and grew significantly as a result.

It was pure coincidence when Howard was on the same team as the VP of Marketing and Sales at the company golf outing one year. He planted a few seeds regarding his career interests with the fellow and at the same time learned about an upcoming job opening in that department. Although it was posted throughout the company and he would have heard about it anyway, he had an inside track on the job because he knew what the VP wanted out of that position. As I listened to Howard's career progress, I agreed with him that he had been in more than one "right place" at the seemingly right time. I also agreed with other folks in his organization, who admire Howard a great deal for his talent and people skills but who believe that he is a very lucky person.

There is an old Babylonian proverb (2) about luck that applies here:

"If a man be lucky, there is no foretelling the possible extent of his good fortune. Pitch him into the Euphrates and like as not he will swim out with a pearl in his hand."

As I consider the people I've met over the years who have been lucky in their career endeavors, I believe that much of this has to do with their ability to harvest pearls from the coincidences in their lives. Do you think that you can start improving your luck by paying closer attention to these fleeting moments? Believe me, if you are in the job-search process, this is the time to start.


1) James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy (Satori Publishing, Hoover, Alabama, 1993).

2) George Clason, The Richest Man in Babylon (E. P. Dutton, New York City, New York, 1955).

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