Just say yes: Networking your way to lucky breaks

By Deanna Cioppa
The Brief

  • Good fortune is a function of attitude.
  • Openness to experiences without obvious benefit often leads to the most rewarding pathways to success.
  • How will you create your own luck this St. Patty’s Day? 

In 1991, Jacqueline Haberfeld was asked to convene a panel of students to help choose the new dean at her law school. Although an honor, the request was also a burden. Like most law students, Haberfeld had more than enough on her plate. But she took the assignment because, well, that’s what Haberfeld does. She says yes. And because she said yes, Haberfeld unknowingly set off a chain of events that repeatedly improved her career (and personal) prospects over the years. 
Maybe it’s all the shamrocks and green ties everywhere, but we’re thinking a lot about luck today. Not the end-of-the-rainbow kind, but the sort of serendipity that changes lives in ways big and small. And one way that cultivating the right network can be valuable is that it allows you to make your own luck. Networks, after all, are just systems of opportunity.

Networks, after all, are just systems of opportunity.

Haberfeld’s particular good fortune was fed by bagels. Stuck at a small Manhattan law firm where morale was low, she took it upon herself to boost office spirits by bringing in breakfast every Friday. But getting to the bagel shop meant taking a different bus to work, and it was on that alternate route that she bumped into Vicki Kummer, a law school acquaintance whom she had recruited for that past panel. It wasn’t long before Haberfeld was confessing her professional unhappiness, and even less time before Kummer was saying her firm—“one of the best in the world” according to Haberfeld—was hiring. Haberfeld lacked the academic credentials for the position, but Kummer sold colleagues on Haberfeld’s other strengths.

She got the job.
“It catapulted me into a whole new world,” says Haberfeld (who also met her husband through her new situation). “I did better work than I ever thought possible and cemented my commitment to pro bono practice, which laid the groundwork for everything professional that came afterwards.”
What came afterwards was 9/11. Haberfeld one again said yes, volunteering to organize legal services for victims’ families—and once again this openness resulted in a life-changing connection. When New York’s then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye made an impromptu visit to the Victim Services Unit, she was barred from entry by recently imposed security restrictions. Haberfeld, once again in the right place at the right time, helped Kaye gain entrance. The two spent hours touring the center, reading letters of support and looking at missing-persons posters. They also wept together. “Thus began one of the most important relationships I’ve ever had,” Haberfeld recalls, “as both a lawyer and a person.”

“I have a philosophy that much of what we call ‘luck’ is just preparedness combined with openness,”  says Haberfeld.

Years later, in 2009, Haberfeld was laid off from a different firm. “More or less out of the blue,” she recalls. Kaye invited her to dinner. There she met Honorable Fern A. Fisher, the deputy chief administrative judge for New York City and Long Island. The pair of judges proceeded to convince Haberfeld to accept a job as Special Counsel to Fisher, in charge of coordinating court-sponsored pro bono work. 

“I have a philosophy that much of what we call ‘luck’ is just preparedness combined with openness,”  says Haberfeld. “When you look at the lives of lucky people, you can see a pattern. They’re open to unexpected things, and they’re ready to receive whatever consequences may arise from them.

What to do: You can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket. The same is true when it comes to relationship capital. While many professionals are open to obvious networking opportunities, far fewer recognize the benefits of serendipitous participation. In other words, whenever possible just say “yes.”

Deanna Cioppa is a freelance writer who has written for AARP, ESPN The Magazine and Fodor’s, and is a frequent contributor to this blog.

?RelSci helps create competitive advantage for leading non-profit, corporate and financial organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. ?

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