Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Be bold, and luck be with you

My address to the 2012 graduates of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University, Beijing. 

I am going to talk with you a bit about luck and about your careers. In China, as you know,  luck is important. There are lucky numbers, like 8, so the Olympic games started here in Beijing at 8 pm on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. The world is an unpredictable and sometimes scary place, so we need all the luck we can get.

About 10 years after I started my journalism career, I was working at a large daily newspaper. I had covered the mayor's office for about three years, and I was tired of endless conflicts with the mayor, who was always calling the editor and complaining about my work. The mayor's version of reality was different from the version of reality that I was putting in the newspaper. So I asked for a new assignment.

The Pandas

 A few weeks after making the change, the mayor announced he was going to China to secure the loan of two Pandas for the Columbus Zoo. This was 1985 and China was using Panda Diplomacy to change its image in the U.S. So the new reporter on the beat would be going to China, not me. Dang, I thought. What bad timing. How unlucky.

But the new guy covering the mayor – we'll call him Big Joe – was a great big guy. A guy like that could twist his ankle. Who would they send to China if Big Joe was on crutches? What if Big Joe got sick? What if he fell down a flight of stairs? Who would they send to China?
The logical choice would be me. But I did not have a passport. I was 34 years old and had never traveled outside the country despite a dream of living and working abroad.

The passport

So secretly I went and got a passport, just in case Big Joe could not make the trip. Well, Big Joe did not get sick, and I did not go to China at that time, but some time later, the city editor of the newspaper came out of his office and announced to everyone within earshot: “We need someone to go to Italy and Spain and leave within a few days. Does anyone here have a passport?”

So a few days later I was on my way to Italy and Spain with a delegation of people from Columbus Ohio who wanted to get involved with those two countries in celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World.

And this experience, this 10-day trip, was the turning point in my career. Luck.

The awakening

So I'm going to Spain and Italy and I don't speak either language, but my French was still good from my university days.  At the formal dinners, I made sure I sat next to people who spoke French so I could practice. It was such a thrill to be speaking this language in a foreign country for the first time. And I was dazzled by everything I saw -- the charming narrow streets, the architecture, the art, the historical monuments. 

This was the Europe that I had read about and seen in movies, and I was drinking it up. There were fresh flowers everywhere, the smell of amazing espresso coffee, the stylish clothing, the fantastic food, the wine, the sights. I thought, I want more of this. I want more of Europe and especially I want more of Italy.

The Italian phase

When I returned home, I started studying Italian. It's a fantastically beautiful language. The sound and rhythm are like music. This reawakened many things – a love of foreign languages, a desire to travel, an interest in art and architecture -- and I began to look around at my whole life and try to figure out ways to bring some of this energy back home.

Studying Italian made me think more boldly. I decided that I had been a cheapskate and gave in to my wife's desire for a bigger home for our three kids.

Meanwhile, I had been reading a new business newspaper that had started up in town. It was doing investigative stories about local businesses based on public documents – sales of buildings, leases of buildings, new business partnerships, delinquent tax reports, bankruptcies – fascinating stories. They were doing the kind of journalism I wanted to do.

The phone call

So one week I saw a column by the publisher of this business newspaper in which she said that the parent company was in financial trouble and that she was trying to put together a group to buy the paper. And I, with almost no money, called her up and said I was interested. Now this was the kind of bold and reckless thing I was doing ever since I had entered my Italian phase and was seeing the world in a new way, as a place of opportunity and possibilities where even a guy in Columbus, Ohio, could be a foreign correspondent someday, maybe in Italy.

And even though I wasn't investor material, this publisher told me she had admired my work and said, By the way, I'm looking for a new editor, are you interested.


So I got lucky. Just at the moment that I was ready to leave the daily newspaper and when I was admiring the work of the business newspaper, I happened to call the publisher of the paper, and she happened to be looking for a new editor. So she hired me, and by the way, one of the reasons she gave for hiring me was that I was taking the initiative to learn a new language. Italian. So who knew that it was a job requirement?

So it was luck.

You create your own luck when you take positive action. You create your own luck when you take a calculated risk. The more confident you are and the more you put yourself in front of people, the luckier you get.

So I left a very comfortable job for this new upstart paper with an uncertain financial future. But I trusted my gut and made the move, which turned out to be the most important decision of my career, switching to business journalism and to the business journal company.

This all started with a desire to to go China, and getting a passport, and getting sent to Europe for the first time, and then studying Italian.

The preparation

The French scientist Louis Pasteur, the man who invented the process of purifying milk, had a saying: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” In other words, luck comes to those who are prepared to take advantage of it, who are prepared for opportunities. The harder you work, the more you get out into the world and put yourself in front of people, the luckier you get.

Your biggest enemy will be you. You will find reasons not to act, you will let fear prevent you from making a telephone call, you will let fear prevent you from asking for a pay raise. Fear and believing that a rejection by some person or some organization means you are not good enough. You have to ignore some of that.

Chance favors the prepared mind. And you have done a lot of preparation, so luck should be with you. But don't forget to consult the horoscope, and don't forget the importance of auspicious numbers and feng shui because those things might give you the confidence to take positive action. And when luck gives you an opportunity – even one that might have a lot of risks – be ready to take advantage of it.

And that is what I wish for you all today. Good luck.

2012 graduates of the Global Business Journalism program.
 In all, there were 31,but some had already started jobs
 or returned to their home countries. 

1 comment:

  1. Jimmy,
    Love this commencement address! So personal and true. Wish I could have heard your delivery. I also learned many things about you.