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Around 5:30 p.m. one April day, I was walking down a hall in the University of Virginia Law School with a classmate. The school was pretty much abandoned, but we noticed a large meeting taking place in one of the classrooms. I didn’t know it then, but this meeting would be something that would permanently change the course of my life:
-It would determine my first and second jobs after law school.
-It would determine where I would live.
-I would meet my wife because of it.
-I would become the person I am today because of it.
You see, opportunity is like that. It comes out of nowhere sometimes. You need to be ready for that opportunity, and to seize it when it comes. Taking one simple step can make all the difference.
Your life and career begin with action. Nothing happens until you take action.
“Let’s check out what this is,” I said. I was bored and did not really feel like studying at the time. We went in to see what was going on and took a seat. The people in the meeting seemed very excited about something.
It was an annual election for a student group called The Law and Graduate Republicans. I had never been politically active, but as we got settled I began enjoying some of the banter. The people seemed to be taking this event seriously, and I could tell some had been coming to these meetings for a long time. This was my first meeting, and I’d only stumbled upon it.
The current president of the group began requesting nominations. There were positions for secretary, vice president, and president. He requested nominations for secretary, and as a joke, the guy I came with nominated me.
“I second that!” stated one guy in the audience. I had never met him and I am sure he did not know who I was.
I was on the ballot. The whole thing was so funny I could not stand it. I literally knew nothing about the organization.
I was competing against a few other people and did not even have a very good idea of what Republicans stood for. The first speaker made a five-minute speech. I was close to leaving, but decided to push through and give it a go. When it was my turn, I stood up and gave my speech. I am not sure what it was about. It probably had something to do with serving our country in a small community to assist the whole. I remember it was an average speech, though.
The important thing is that I gave the speech. I did my best with the opportunity presented to me.
To my astonishment, I ended up winning the election. The strangest thing happened next. I nominated the guy I was with for vice president – and he won as well! I think he had to compete against even more people.
When we were walking out of the meeting he said, “Now we need to find a Democrat meeting.”
It was an interesting year being the secretary of the Law and Graduate Republican Club. I still remember the late night call from the president, during which he cried over the phone about the death of Richard Nixon. I remember the organization’s events and the following year’s election. It was a very good experience.
During my year as secretary of the Republican Club, I ended up getting a federal clerkship with a Republican judge in Michigan. This judge was extremely Republican, and I am almost 100 percent confident I would not have gotten this prestigious job had I not had the Republican Club on my résumé. During my service to this judge, I got a job with a California firm. At the time, this firm only hired people who clerked for judges. Because of this, I moved to California. Once there, I got my second job from a very active Republican woman, and this job led me directly to what I am doing now.
To this day, I am still not very political. The point I am trying to make, however, is sometimes the strangest things can lead to advancement, which often come through small opportunities. It’s almost as if the universe puts opportunities where you least expect them, and if you take advantage of them, great. If not, that is fine, too. I believe opportunity appears to each of us in almost equal ways; the only difference is what we do with it.
I want to write a little bit more about the treatment of opportunity, where it comes from, and what to do with it, because I have seen many people drop the ball when it comes to opportunity. There is much opportunity, but so few people take advantage of it. There is a pervasive attitude in society that prevents people from making the most of opportunities.
Some people presented with the opportunity to work with a group like the Law and Graduate Republicans might think to themselves, “Why would I want to work for this organization for free?” They might think they were somehow being tricked into doing something for free. Even though I was not active politically, I knew at the time working for this organization could likely open up future doors for me. I knew one opportunity could lead to another opportunity. You need to look at everything like this.
You can also create opportunity for yourself by creating opportunity for others. I was having dinner once with our general counsel (our in-house lawyer), and I started to realize the way opportunity works: your past actions create future opportunity. Our general counsel had gone out of his way to get a good friend a job 12 years previously. His friend ultimately got a job with our company. After this, she did everything within her power to get him a job here, too. Opportunities you create for others can bring opportunity back to you as well.
You never know when opportunity will present itself. You need to be prepared when it does. If you are looking for a job, your next opportunity could appear at Starbucks, where you might meet the CEO of a large corporation. Your next opportunity could appear in a yoga class or on a train. Opportunity appears to people who are ready to grab it. The wonderful thing about this world, and its rules, is that it provides equal opportunity to all of us. It is simply what we do with it that matters.
Because I take my role of advising you on the best ways to get a job seriously, I constantly study successful people and how they become that way. I believe the lessons I learn can translate into lessons to share with you and make you more successful as well. One of the men I have studied is Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world.
I think about successful people from the perspective that you too can be as successful if you follow certain rules. Success leaves clues.
Recently, I read two books about Warren Buffett and both books point to the fact that Buffett learned a certain method of investing from Benjamin Graham at Columbia University, while taking business classes in the 1930s. After Columbia, Buffett was so impressed with Graham he went to work for him on Wall Street, until Graham retired. Buffett returned to his Omaha home and continued investing and fine-tuning Graham’s investment methodology. The way Buffett invests today is largely influenced by the investment techniques he learned from Graham.
I wonder how many other students took Graham’s classes and how many were enterprising enough to grab his method of stock market evaluation. And out of the people who understood Graham, how many were enterprising enough to work for Graham and learn more? And out of those students who went to work for Graham, how many took this methodology and held on to it for their entire career?
My feeling is Buffett is probably the only one.
Imagine this scenario: Buffett is sitting in a class with Graham at Columbia. Graham spends the entire semester lecturing about this or that, and one day he lectures about his investment methodology. Perhaps the lecture is no more than 45 minutes. Buffett is there in the classroom with other students, who are probably bored or worrying about other things. Buffett pays attention and realizes those 45 minutes could change the course of his life. Perhaps this is how the opportunity presented itself to Buffett – I do not know. What I do know, however, is Buffett took advantage of the opportunity presented through Graham’s teachings, and I am confident that most, if not all, of Graham’s other students did not.
This is how opportunity works. You should look at the world as a source of continual opportunity. Opportunity comes when you are ready for it and it is up to you to take advantage of it. Be ready.
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