Joel Zuckerman Turning Your Job Into a Passionate Career

A Little Tap Can Reveal Your Big Break

April 27, 2007

By Joel Zuckerman

A writing colleague once disparaged another member of our profession as something of a hack.  I was confused, as the barb target had recently left his editor’s post at a high profile national magazine.  How could a guy in that lofty position be such a hack?  “You know, Joel,” explained my flame-throwing colleague condescendingly, “half of life is being on the right street corner at the right time.”

According to this seemingly embittered fellow, career success is predicated to a large extent on luck. But I don’t buy it, and have an illustrating anecdote to make my point.

The book I’m currently writing about famous golf architect Pete Dye could be one of the biggest golf books of 2008. Don’t think that the “golf” qualification minimizes the project; there are more than a hundred major golf tomes published annually. I got the job because I called Pete’s eldest son, Perry Dye, an acclaimed architect in his own right, to ask him for his opinion and assistance in another, totally unrelated writing matter. We got to chatting, and he asked me about my recent projects. I told him that his dad had been kind enough to contribute the foreword to my last book, which was about Charleston, South Carolina. Perry asked me to send him a copy, and called me a few weeks later to say he enjoyed the book. He then asked if I wanted to tackle the definitive book on his dad—a project that has become a New York-published, full-color, 300-page, expensive coffee-table book on Pete Dye’s greatest courses around the world. It was the offer of a lifetime (so far). And I accepted instantly.

When my aforementioned cynical colleague meanders into the local Barnes & Noble sometime in the autumn of 2008, sees this major book on display with my name on the cover, I suppose he’ll be thinking something to the effect of: “That Joel.  He must’ve been on the right street corner at the right time.” 

Well, I would say to him that I put myself on that street corner. I called Perry Dye looking for assistance in a separate matter. He noticed a spark, liked my attitude or whatever, and, based on a gut instinct, quite quickly offered me a project that any one of a thousand golf or sports writers in this country would love to have, many of them who have been writing for far longer than I.

It was the Roman philosopher Seneca who said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”  When my luck appeared, I was prepared for the opportunity; I wasn’t afraid to reach for the proverbial brass ring, just by striking up conversation beyond the immediate need I had.

Life is full of negative types like my writing colleague. These naysayers are at best complacent, often dissatisfied in their own life, and are happiest if everyone in their orbit fits neatly into their view of the world. Meeting planners, because of the dynamic nature of their profession, often deal with difficult people. It might be a planning colleague who, lacking his own ambition, cautions against pitching that major new account, or that Fortune 500 corporation. It’s often the impossible-to-please client, the unreachable hotel manager, the hard-to-pin-down restaurateur.

The important thing to remember is that you can do it. It’s part luck, but luck comes from pluck. The only person who can derail your ambition is you.

What is your definition of success?

April 25, 2007

By Joel Zuckerman

Monday’s post outlined the cornerstone of my personal philosophy as a corporate speaker. I’d now like to briefly discuss the concept of success, and my personal definition of what it means. 

When people ask me who I’ve written for, or when my next book will be out, they’ll invariably say something to the effect of, “Well, you must be a very good writer.” I respond with what’s become a stock line: “How good I am is a matter of debate, but at least I’m good enough to get published, anyway.”

So, what constitutes professional success? Is it how much money you make, the size of your office or perk package, how quickly your phone calls get returned, how many assistants and underlings are at your beck and call? None of these criteria apply to me personally. My office is in my home, with no regular associates whatsoever. Phone-call returns are a joke--it takes me half-dozen tries, on average, to get a meaningful call back. You can “Google” my name and find a ton of stuff, but by conventional standards, I’m not a famous or “successful” writer. My books have never sniffed any sort of best-seller list, my writing advances aren’t much, and my television appearances are on the local level. 

But here’s a crucial definition of success, and I latch onto it because it’s the only one that I feel applies to me. Here it is: Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life. If you can see the logic in using that concept as a barometer of success, then yes, as a frequently-published author and speaker, I would definitely consider myself successful.

Meeting planners are, by nature, jugglers. They have to be. And many, if not most, thrive in the high-stress environment that defines their work. Most of the ones I’ve worked with love the job, and the whirlwind of activity that only intensifies as the big event grows near. They love the relationship-building that takes place between the client, the venue, and the vendors. They can get ultra-tense when the inevitable glitches occur, but putting out the fires efficiently is a central part of the job description. They also love the aftermath, the cleansing sigh of relief when all is said and done, when the attendees go home happy and satisfied. It’s not a job for everybody, but those who do it seem to love it.

And as stated above, if they don’t love what they do, it might make sense to look in another direction, employment-wise.  But only if you want to that type of “success.” I hope you do.

Never too late to be who you might have been

April 23, 2007

By Joel Zuckerman

That simple but provocative statement, credited to 18th-century novelist George Eliot, serves as the cornerstone of my personal metamorphosis from vending machine operator to freelance journalist, author, and speaker.

A decade ago I was filling vending machines for a living. I morphed from a regular Joe(l) hauling soda cases and candy bars from the back of a truck to someone whose books can be found in stores across the nation. I travel the world, writing about and reviewing golf courses and resorts, and profiling some of the biggest names in the game.

Golf is the thread, but not the fabric, of my remarks. My speaking presentations are anchored by a defining concept: Profound life change is possible. Anyone with sufficient conviction and desire can dramatically change the direction of their life and improve their circumstances. To make that first baby step from who you are now to who you want to be in the future, first one must overcome the fear of failure. After all, the status quo is easy: You have a job, it pays decently, and things are pretty good, so why rock the boat?

Well, you can’t grab the brass ring if you’re unwilling to stand up on the carousel, can you?

This doesn’t mean you need to turn your life upside down. If you’re a corporate lawyer who relaxes with yoga, it probably wouldn’t make much sense to give up your partnership and move to an ashram. If you’re a successful meeting planner whose true love is country music, you could quit your job and go beat the streets in Nashville, but there are intermediate steps that can help you discover if your passion can become your profession.

Think you love to teach kids? Volunteer for a few hours at a local day-care center, or enroll as an instructor in a literacy program. Want to care for the elderly? Help out at a nursing home. Love carpentry, sculpture, clothing design, nursing? One can dip a toe in the water in any and all activities, without diving headlong into the surf.

In short, see if it’s really for you. Make contacts with like-minded people, who might be able to steer you further down your path of choice. It can really happen, and I’m proof positive. 

And speaking of golf, let’s take world-renowned golf course architect Pete Dye. Pete was an insurance salesman until his late 30s, decided to change careers midstream, and is now credited with over a hundred different course designs, including a dozen of the world’s most celebrated courses. Pete Dye might never have heard of George Eliot, but he lives by the same creed.

Even a first or second failure need not deter you. Take Abraham Lincoln. He failed in business and farming. He had a nervous breakdown. When he entered politics, he lost every election he entered before 1860--for the House, twice for the Senate, and also the Vice-Presidency. But he believed in himself, realized it’s never too late to be who you might have been, and ended up as perhaps the greatest president in the nation’s history. 

Few of us will have the opportunity to change the world for the better like Lincoln.  But by applying these few tenets, at least we can change our own world for the better, and that’s something to be proud of.

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