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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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Newsboy
Newsboy
9 months ago

“Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity” – I’ve been up since 4 am crafting a theme for a monthly “financial readiness” class I teach to local HS students. Thanks for dropping this eternal pearl of wisdom into my lap!

Bob G
Bob G
9 months ago

I always liked Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” However, just like your article, the opposite once worked for me; just being in the right place at the right time.

In high school, I flunked first year Spanish, so I had to repeat it which put me in with the class of students one year younger. On the first day of class, in walked the most beautiful girl I’d never seen before. We’ve been together since then and 60 years later, she’s still beautiful and I’m still lucky.

steveark
steveark
9 months ago

As a painfully shy teen with low self esteem I reluctantly agreed to take a lead role in a play, and it changed my life. I went from seeing myself as socially awkward to realizing the cool kids were the same as me and that if I took big risks I could get big rewards. I have often wondered if that single decision was responsible for the substantial financial, career and relationship success I’ve had in life. I think it was.

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
9 months ago
Reply to  steveark

Great point. I think we can’t help but be a composite of all our experiences or know where a significant pivot will be. The more experiences we have, the more the variety of our make-up and options in life. I used to tell my high school students that, looking back, far more people regret NOT trying something than having tried something.

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