Do we choose our future, or does it choose us?

chooseDo you choose your path? Or are you making choices with consequences you can’t imagine?

I was thinking about the choices that got me hired at Forrester, a 20-year job that determined my career and my future as an author. I’d like to tell you it was a deliberate and intelligent choice, but it’s way stranger than that.

It’s 1995. I am 36. Two years earlier I had left a secure VP position at the publisher Course Technology to help launch the company into CD-ROM products. (CD-ROM is leading edge stuff in 1995). Course Technology has just shut down the CD-ROM group and laid me off.

David Blohm invites me to join his new unfunded startup ThinkingWorks to work on building learning products as adventure games (or as it was know then, “edutainment”). There are just a few of us and nobody is getting paid yet.

When a headhunter for Forrester calls me, I recommend a friend. He interviews the friend, rejects him, and insists on interviewing me. After our interview, we agree it’s not a good fit, and I resume work on ThinkingWorks.

Despite the headhunter’s recommendation, Forrester insists on interviewing me. Forrester thought leader Bill Bluestein shows up at my interview without a copy of my resume, which seems unprofessional to me. When he asks me to describe my background, I respond in a way that is short, clear, and a little cocky. Strangely, he likes that.

To get hired at Forrester, you audition with a presentation. With little experience in presenting, I don’t even realize you are supposed to give it standing up. I gave it sitting down. People tell me later they were impressed I had the confidence to do that, that it seemed collaborative. I did it because my back was hurting.

Forrester offers me the job, but I still want to see if ThinkingWorks will get funded. I tell Mary Modahl, the hiring manager, to wait two weeks for my decision. She is furious, but agrees.

A few days later, I realize I would rather work for Forrester even if ThinkingWorks gets funded. I start working for Forrester in May of 1995.

Three days into working at Forrester, I learn that Fred Wilson‘s VC firm will fund ThinkingWorks. I do a gut-check. Have I made the right decision? The Forrester gig just seems like fun, and seems likely to introduce me to whomever will hire me in my next job. So I stick around. (As it turns out, it suits me so well that there will be no “next job” for 20 years.)

Now it gets weird. Two weeks later, David at ThinkingWorks calls me again. Fred’s general partners (that is, the people whose money Fred was investing) have reversed the decision to invest in ThinkingWorks. Without funding, ThinkingWorks folds. I have dodged a bullet.

I’d like to tell you my start at Forrester was smooth, but it wasn’t. Eight months in, Bill tells me that CD-ROM has no future and I have to switch to analyzing the internet, which is just coming into focus as a commercial space. I am furious, since I know lots about CD-ROM and nothing about internet. My first internet report is on Web TV. That leads to my interest in television, which leads to a decade as a TV analyst, which makes my reputation, which enables me to become an author.

Did I pick this career? Where would I be if I hadn’t chosen CD-ROM only to be laid off, if ThinkingWorks had been funded, if I’d been a little bit more of a rebellious smartass or a little bit less of one? No book on business success tells you what a big role chance has in determining your future. We tell each other stories about the smart choices we make, but the stories are like constellations in the sky, connecting dots that have no real connections.

Here’s what I can tell you: Acquire knowledge. Express confidence. Remain curious. Try things you haven’t done before. Opportunity, easy to see in retrospect, is impossible to recognize clearly when it’s happening. But if you follow these principles, you might be able to look back and brag about what great choices you made.

Photo by Bs0u10e0 via Flickr

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    1. Exactly. I like to think with my various talents, experience, confidence, and weaknesses I would have landed somewhere good in any case. But clearly finding this particular job was lucky.

  1. A great story, well told. I’m sure many of us could tell similar stories of both success and failure, of decisions made and of appointments missed, of regrets and serendipity, but few would tell it so well.

    And one moral to take away from this is a reminder not to judge too severely other people’s successes and failures, because we don’t know what choices and accidents brought them there, and how easily things could have been so different.

    The other thing I took away is that I had no idea you were older than me!

  2. “Acquire knowledge. Express confidence. Remain curious. Try things you haven’t done before.” Yes, yes, yes, and yes. And one more: always be yourself. You sat down for your presentation because that’s what came naturally for you. Great story – thanks for sharing it.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I’m always of two minds about the advice “be yourself” because people ask “Who else would I be?” But I understand the spirit behind it. I guess I would put it this way “Don’t try to fool people about who you actually are.”

  3. When I look back at my career, I think that I’ve have been applying the same set of skills in different contexts. I started out as a documentary film maker, which involved sifting through hundreds of hours of footage to make a story, then I moved on to teaching, writing and editing documents and presentations. Being able to analyse complex information and draw out the key elements has been quite useful. I certainly didn’t plan my career, but I did say ‘yes’ at the right time. I think that being open to new opportunities and having a clear idea of what actually you enjoy doing is pretty important.