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Lucky WOOFs

Jim Wasserman

MY FATHER-IN-LAW was an avid tennis player and an astute coach. The first time he observed me play, he commented on how I—a soccer player growing up—had good speed and quick reactions. I had a terrible swing, however. As he put it, “You can get to any ball. You have no idea what to do when you get there.”

He was correct. To this day, what looks like a great shot is often actually a mishit off my racquet frame. It still counts, so I coined a phrase for such shots: WOOFs, short for winners off of frame.

Truth be told, many of my successes have been WOOFs. I’ll be in the right place and just lucky enough to connect with an opportunity. I happened to watch a Kansas City Chiefs game one Sunday, and then successfully interviewed the next day with a law firm that represented the team—something I didn’t know beforehand.

Years later, I was asked by a prestigious school to teach a class—on the spot—about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I happened to see that the students were reading Frankenstein in English class. I used my own ancient remembrance of the novel to discuss the theme of disastrously losing control of technology. That lesson led to 20 years of teaching at the school.

I’ve had investment tips fall into my lap. Serendipitous encounters have often led to writing topics. Most valuable of all, I stumbled upon a certain woman’s profile in the early days of online dating. She was so cheap—and remains so—that she only kept the profile up a short time during the dating site’s free, introductory period. Some awkward courting later, I WOOFed my way into a great life partner.

A common adage is that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. I wonder how much of that preparation is unintentional. I was never a great soccer player. But it helped me to pick up tennis later in life, and tennis was essential to getting a certain cheap woman to marry me, not to mention connecting with some business and social partners.

We need to appreciate the WOOFs of life, and be humble in the face of our good fortune. Often, the difference between successful and unsuccessful is the flying fickle finger of fate, rather than pure talent or whether a person is somehow worthy.

Andrew Carnegie’s first break came when he worked as a messenger boy in a telegraph office. Reputedly, he could understand Morse code by ear without having to write it down. This not only impressed his boss, but also it meant he could get the inside financial scoop if he was in the right place. On the other hand, a talented friend of our son missed admission to a prestigious music school because a cello string broke during his audition.

We should never discount an experience—good or bad—as useless. Rather, we should hoard our experiences. What can we take away from them? Since we can’t know which parts may help later in life, how do we learn as much as possible from our experiences? Our son’s friend found a successful career as an investment advisor—because he made a good impression during the job interview by discussing music.

Often, “being in the right place” is a facet of privilege. Wealth buys broad exposure to both preparation and opportunity, especially when we’re young. It also gives people free time to have more experiences that might later be helpful.

Yes, we shouldn’t waste money because it can help us in the future. The same holds for experiences. We shouldn’t waste them—because we never know when they might come in handy.

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