Is it really better to be lucky than good?


I must admit, I’ve lived a charmed life.

I think most people would likely call it lucky.  I can’t say I disagree.  The debate might center on whether luck “just happens” or if I “made” my luck through personal effort.  You decide after you read on…

I’m going to capsulize my “lucky” life within the time I worked for a living or roughly 25 years (should my writing ever produce enough to constitute a living, perhaps I’ll expand that time frame).

When I first exited college and unsuccessfully visited New York’s Madison Ave with delusions of an Advertising career, it became immediately clear to me that finding a job would be tough enough, let alone anything in my chosen field.  The economy was experiencing much what we are now (though less sensationalized…you would think we’ve never had recessions before).

I ultimately ended up taking a manager trainee job with the up-and-coming Toys “R” Us chain in South Florida.  I put in long hours, came in on days off and generally immersed myself in the job because, well, I didn’t have much of a social life and had way too much energy for a rational person.  Oh, and I actually enjoyed the job.

Within a year or so, I noticed some troubling trends in our merchandise flow.  I scouted other stores and found they often had more of items we had already sold out of.  Continuous calls to the main office in Miami led me to becoming too much of a nuisance, so the solution was to promote me into the office as Assistant Inventory Control Manager.  A fancy title for a little salary.  Basically, they were saying, “Oh yeah?  See if you can do better!”

There was some initial conflict with my boss; no one ever believes a person who works as hard as I (used to) do has so little ambition.  It’s my one true skill:  having no ambition and apparently, I stink at it, since I’ve been promoted so many times in my working life.

Once we got past that, we worked well as a team and I spent many hours poring over large green printouts and visiting backrooms in local stores to help improve merchandise flow.  My timing was convenient, since the manager wanted to move back to the West Coast within a year of me joining the office.  Without any better option, they promoted me, making me the youngest Inventory Control Manager in the country.

After a few less fun years at that job, I went back to school to pick up another degree, this time Accounting.  By chance, just before I graduated, the company my Dad had worked with for nearly 30 years moved their main office to South Florida.  He got me an interview and shortly I was an Accounting Trainee.  No job search required.

I was a “Trainee” only because the person I was “filling in” for was out getting advanced training for the next 90 days.  When she returned, I would likely be gone, but at least it would be a resume dot.  Except, she never returned (at least, not to that company).  So, paraphrasing those old commercials, it was “My trainee, I think I’ll keep him”.

I worked all the crappy jobs at the company.  Corporate tracking, small company accounting, charitable programs and the like.  I learned fast on the Microsoft Office suite and was soon redesigning many of our reporting spreadsheets with automation (links at the time, since macros were not yet in vogue).

Within a year of my “official” change from trainee to accountant, my supervisor left.  The accounting manager and I had worked together on a number of projects, so he tried to promote me to supervisor.  This caused a bit of a stir in the longer-tenured employees and his boss refused to promote me, but they raised my pay and gave me the work (which the other employees didn’t mind).

Another year passed and the company was starting to develop some problems.  Many employees were nervous.  Not me, though.  I just kept working.  It’s not like I could control the big stuff anyway.

One day, I get a phone call from some company I never heard of.  Apparently, my former supervisor worked there now and had submitted my name for two job openings.  I didn’t know whether to feel flattered or annoyed.

I talked it over with my boss (I’ve had that type of relationship with all my bosses but one; I’m terribly loyal) and he advised me to go on the interview but discuss it with him after.  I really didn’t want to leave him (I work jobs for people, not companies), so I wasn’t enthusiastic during the interview process (at one point, I told the head of Finance at the new company “I don’t like working”, which led to a prolonged silence and a memorable exchange, but we’ll leave that to your imagination).

I felt confident I had interviewed myself out of both jobs and settled back into work (my boss got a good chuckle when I gave him the blow-by-blow).  Imagine my surprise, then, when I received a call the very next day offering my the job (with the guy I told I didn’t like working, no less) at a pay increase that was almost 40% higher!  For the same position!

I actually told my boss I would stay if he could get our company to pony up only a measly $1,000 more than I was making and give me the official title.  He looked at me like I had a dead squirrel on my head but set out to ask.  When he came back, he didn’t go into many details, he simply told me to get out of there.  He told me he planned to leave as soon as he could, too.

So.  New company turns out to be pretty impressive private company, well-regarded and highly profitable.  Weirdly, it’s very laid back and informal, especially compared to the full suit dress of my previous employer.

I do my usual, working hard on anything I’m given.  I notice this seems to irritate some others in the department.  Hmmm.  Whatever I’m doing must please someone as I’m given some of the most sensitive departments to account for and interface with.

A couple of years go by and a new Accounting Manager comes in to replace the old one (who has been promoted).  He and I hit off right away (even to the point of collaborating on a screenplay outside work).  He is especially pleased with my “no-nonsense” work ethic.  He promotes me to Supervisor.

A couple of years pass and he moves onto another division within the company.  The department now is co-run by me and a fellow supervisor, with the duties and people split between us.  The original manager (now VP), decides to promote my partner, who has more years than me with the company.  She says that’s not equitable since I’m running the department with her.  So I get promoted to Manager, too.

A couple of years pass and the company shifts again.  A new department head is brought in, a new financial tool is brought in and I get promoted again in the confusion.  This time, to Director, a step below VP.

Now, mind you, I’m not doing anything different from the day before (possibly even less), but I get promoted again with a nice raise.  One day, the VP and I are talking (another boss I had a good relationship with, even if he followed my arch-rival college) and I tell him about some other director boasting about his pay.  I mention he must be way overpaid if he makes more than me since I already was overpaid.  My boss laughingly looks up my pay on “the grid” and exclaims in surprise that I need to be paid more.  At first I laugh because I think he’s kidding.  When I realize he’s serious I tell him I really am overpaid.  He just shrugged and said it’s all about “the grid”, although he did have a wry smile as he said it.

Sure enough, I got another plump raise.  Hard as it is to imagine, I felt uncomfortable being paid so much more than my direct reports while doing very little more than them (if at all).

A couple of years pass (you see the trend, right?) and the department reorganizes again.  The old VP comes back and I get shipped off to Operations from Finance.  Eh, it might have been my doing since I was now analyzing operational areas of strategic importance to the company and had identified a key area of potential profit.

The title remained at Director, though the description changed.  And the pay.  Now I was moved to a “pay plan”.  Pay plans are designed to motivate behavior based on a pay-for-performance theory.  Except, in this private, non-shareholder driven company, the pay plan goals always seemed to miraculously hit.  The resultant raise that yielded was sick.

Ultimately, I left to pursue this wonderfully austere life as an impoverished author.  My monthly “salary” from book sales does allow me an occasional vending machine selection, but otherwise I’m living on the excess of my years as a vastly overpaid single, non-parent.

So there you have it.  I have worked for three major companies in my life (let’s exclude the jobs that provided funding while going to school).  I never asked for a promotion once.  I never asked for a raise except to remain in the job I already had in lieu of one offering substantially more.  I’ve been both irreverent and controversial in my work interactions and have had more than my share of clashes with senior management.

How then do we judge my working life?  Lucky or good?

I could broaden the scope of the discussion, I suppose, but I think that definitely tilts the scale towards lucky..  My parents divorced early, but were always there for my sister and me.  My Mom died too early from cancer, but I had her with me for over four decades.  I’ve never been lucky at love, but I’ve got great and close friends.  No cavities, no major illnesses, no major surgery, no major accidents.  A hurricane damaged my roof, but it didn’t blow off.  My house was a foreclosure that was fixed up by the bank before I bought it (apparently, they did nice things back then).  I’m balding and wear glasses, but I can play four hours of tennis on a hard court in Florida heat.  Is it possible to be both lucky and good?

I should be so lucky!

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