Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Career Based on Talent and Good Fortune

I turned the car radio to ESPN Wednesday afternoon just as Michael Kay and his sidekicks were discussing the impact of talent and luck on their respective successful careers.

One day I turned left instead of right, was the way Kay, the play-by-play television announcer of the New York Yankees, rationalized his good fortune. I readily identified with that explanation of how luck, just plain dumb luck, can differentiate equally skilled job applicants. 

As I wrote five years ago, it also doesn’t hurt to have fortuitous timing and shared background with the person who hires you. Take my first job, for example. Murray Farber, managing editor administration of The New Haven Register, hired me. Murray grew up in Brooklyn, as I did. Though he attended BTA High School, rival of my alma mater, Flatbush, Murray didn’t hold that against me. Much as blood is thicker than water, “Murraydom” trumps any reservations.

Yet, if it weren’t for Donna Doherty I would never have met Murray Farber.

Donna Doherty was the quintessential shiksa (Gentile woman) of every Jewish man’s dreams. Tall, lithe, beautiful and blonde—really blonde—, Donna Doherty entered my life as a fellow graduate student at Syracuse University. My friend Steve Kreinberg and I drooled over her, from afar mind you, considering that Steve was married and I was engaged. Donna Doherty hardly knew we existed. She left Syracuse before graduation in 1972 and headed back home to Branford, Conn., just east of New Haven.

A few months later, armed with a master’s degree in newspaper journalism, I started visiting newspapers in search of that first job. I’d cold call managing editors of papers from northern Virginia through northern Massachusetts. They lauded my moxie. They all told me they had no job openings.

July 14, 1972, I arranged a day trip from Brooklyn to five papers in southwest Connecticut. At each stop the same result—the managing editor was away attending a publishing conference in Arizona. Around noon I found myself in Ansonia, at the proverbial fork in the road. Right headed toward Bridgeport, left toward New Haven. Ah, New Haven. Wasn’t that close to Donna Doherty’s home town?, I thought. It would mean a longer ride home, but there was no question in my mind which direction I’d head.

Thirty minutes later I was inside The Register building at 367 Orange Street. Depressed with my earlier failures to meet any managing editors, I sheepishly allowed the receptionist to steer me to the head of personnel without even trying to see if the ME was present. Robert E. Lee (yes, that really was his name) gave me the standard response. No, there weren’t any openings. Yes, I’ll take your résumé just in case something happens. After all, you never know.

And then his phone rang. Yes, I have someone sitting across my desk this very moment, he said into the handset. I perked up. He sent me up to the third floor newsroom. Just my luck, The Register had two managing editors, one for news, one for administration. The ME-News was in Arizona, but the ME-Administration, Murray Farber, was in New Haven looking after the business and having to deal with a sudden resignation. I started the job two months later, September 14, 1972, thanks in no small measure to persistence, luck, timing, Donna Doherty and Murray Farber.

I left The Register four years later to be a press secretary in an unsuccessful congressional campaign. From November to early March 1977 I was jobless, unable to secure a newspaper position. Gilda said she’d move anywhere but back to New York. 

As luck would have it, a copy of the Sunday New York Times I bought in a Cumberland Farms store included Classified ads, a section not usually distributed in New Haven back then. I knew the job ads were for Manhattan-based companies, and were for trade publications, not traditional newspapers, but our bank account dictated some compromise. I answered two ads, both, it turned out, for the same spot, that of field editor on Nation’s Restaurant News. I got the job and we moved back to New York.

Luck played a part even when I didn’t get a job. A year later I was one of two candidates under consideration to be the top editor of the magazine of the Automotive After Parts Association in Washington, DC. A local candidate was chosen, but six months later the association called to say it made a mistake. I thanked them for their belated offer but in those same six months I told them I had received two promotions and was now the editorial head of Chain Store Age, a title I would not relinquish for the next 30 years. 

Lest you get the impression my success came solely from the proper alignment of the stars, let me assure you talent played a significant role, as well. Within two years I became one of six bureau chiefs on The Register’s staff of 100 reporters. 

I earned numerous accolades on Nation’s Restaurant News and Chain Store Age, including a Jesse H. Neal Award, considered the Pulitzer Prize of business to business journalism. 

Talent, however, can get you only so far. It’s far better to combine talent with a measure of luck.