I’m married to a "prepared" man, one of the all-time greats, in fact. Not in a canned food-hoarding, camo-wearing, survivalist kind of way, but in a far-thinking, pragmatic, you never know, kind of way. Whether it’s an extra jar of mustard in the pantry (just in case), a list of the best restaurants in Seattle (just in case), or a new three-minute demo reel that no one’s asked for yet, he’s got you covered. And it has very often paid off professionally in ways we could never have anticipated. Most successful artists, scientists, and scholars seem to share a common thread; they often credit a “chance” encounter or event with changing the trajectory of their lives. But I wonder…. was it really chance? Or was it simply preparation paving the way for opportunity?
Louis Pasteur famously noted, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” And he ought to know; After years of exhaustive research on chicken cholera, an assistant’s mistake led to the first intentionally created vaccine. Sure, any number of variables may or may not have led to the error, which then led to the vaccine in the first place. But without the countless hours of scientific research and development behind the mistake? Less sure. Luck requires preparation. Luck requires choice and action and planning. Pasteur understood that. But luck also requires that its benefactor say yes when presented with the proverbial open door. Luck is not for the faint-hearted.
A young man from a near-west suburb of Chicago said yes when it was suggested to him that he should move to Paris… because the exchange rate was advantageous. Once there, he met a young writer by the name of Gertrude Stein, who subsequently introduced him to James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Their merry band was already changing the world when a chance encounter at a bar made F. Scott Fitzgerald a lifelong friend and rival. One small yes in a series of yeses, gave birth to the creative outpourings of Ernest Hemingway, one of the most treasured stewards of the English language.
Summers in Pennsylvania found Stephen Sondheim living next door to musical master Oscar Hammerstein II. When Oscar invited young Stevie over for coffee and chit chat, he could have said, “No thank you, Mr. Hammerstein. I don’t feel like learning about the innate satisfaction of perfect lyrical prosody today. I’d rather go fishing.” Instead, he said yes. And the rest is the stuff of musical theatre legend.
As creative types, our days are frequently filled with demurs, self-doubt, and procrastination that stifle our better instincts. The excuses are endless:
I don’t really know how to do that.
Someone else will probably beat me to it.
It doesn’t pay enough money.
I won’t know anyone there.
What if I make a fool of myself?
I don’t look like my headshot anymore.
It’s not completely finished yet.
I’m not ready.
I’m demoralized just typing that list. As the excuses pile up, Lady Luck is already knocking on the next door and you can bet someone else will answer. And the reality is, the one who answers isn’t any more talented or skilled than you are, they’re just more likely to say yes. And just maybe, a little more prepared. The resumé is neatly typed, the dress is dry-cleaned, the 30-second clip is ready, the demos have been recorded, the 16 bars are set….you get the idea. Preparation has laid the foundation for success when they finally get their chance to say yes. And one opportunity often leads to more opportunity and suddenly we’re headed in a direction we couldn't have imagined.
So is it merely chance or dumb luck? Or is it preparation meeting opportunity? I think Pasteur had it right; I suspect it’s a little bit of both.