Spetner: I'd rather be lucky than smart

Lefty Gomez, an all-star pitcher for the New York Yankees in the 1930's, is credited with saying "I'd rather be lucky than good." I think he had it right.

My brother had a roommate in college who became a millionaire, due in no small part to an amazing twist of fate. While the roommate was charming and hard working, he wasn't a particularly good student, and his career got off to a slow start. After graduation, he managed to land an entry level sales job with Johnson & Johnson, but it didn't go well. In the end, J&J decided they should part ways.

In his final week on the job, he decided to knock off early and take in a Red Sox game at a local bar. Midway through the game, a customer strolled by and asked what the score was. My brother's roommate proceeded to give a full rundown of the game, peppered with colorful insight and commentary. As luck would have it, the new customer was also a die-hard Red Sox fan. The two hit it off, and the conversation turned to work and career. The stranger explained that he was a senior executive at a new biotech company on the west coast, and they were looking for good people to join them.

The roommate got hired, and went on to a successful career in sales at Amgen. Along the way, his company stock appreciated more than 10,000 percent. Not bad for a guy who was watching a Sox game in a bar after getting laid off.

Lefty Gomez, an all-star pitcher for the New York Yankees in the 1930's, is credited with saying "I'd rather be lucky than good." He is also credited with earning the nicknames "Goofy Gomez," and "El Goofo."           

Still, I often think Lefty had it right. Sometimes luck can make or break a career. This occurred to me while I was driving past the former Nissan headquarters building in Torrance, California. In 1987, I moved to L.A. and got a job with a PR agency called GreyCom. When I joined the firm, we had only four accounts in L.A., which weren't particularly impressive. We represented a one-branch local bank, a small hamburger chain, and the "Hitachi Masters of Soaring event": a glider plane competition in the desert that nobody attended.

But then came good luck. Because we were part of a national agency, we were invited to pitch the Nissan account to launch the Infiniti luxury car division. Through hard work and strong creative insights, we won the account. After a year, I was named the account leader, and shortly thereafter was hired by Nissan to run its North American communications department.           

My good luck actually goes back to my first job in PR when I was assigned to work on the Matsushita account. I was disappointed then because I had never heard of the company, and it sounded like a punishment. 

Turns out that Matsushita was the largest consumer electronics company in the world, and sold products globally under the Panasonic, Technics, and Quasar brands. Even more fortuitous was my timing. Little did I know that Japanese companies and high technology firms were becoming among the most sought-after accounts in the PR world in the eighties. As a result, I was recruited aggressively by agencies seeking my experience, and I tripled my salary in less than five years.           

To be sure, I worked hard and was good at my job. But what if I hadn't been assigned to the Matsushita account? Or what if we hadn't won the Nissan business? And what if my brother's roommate hadn't been a Red Sox fan?           

It reminds me of another baseball quote, this one from Yogi Berra, who allegedly said: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

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