LIFE IS LIVED IN EPISODES AND STAGES
In just over two months’ time, I was going to start my dream job: translator at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. Then chance or fate intervened.
Six months earlier, my first serious position after college as a translator-interpreter and small-projects manager in the Paris office of a Swedish company had ended abruptly when the office was closed during one of those periodic tough economic times that leads to downsizing. I had worked there more than a year and was given a bit of severance pay. Quite a bonanza for a girl in her twenties. And it got better.
I needed a job, of course, and that led me to set my sights on the Council of Europe, which for young and innocent moi was the ultimate employer on my radar screen. I aced the qualifying exam and was offered a position as a translator starting the next session, in the fall. So, in the meantime, I used my severance pay to travel to America and Greece and on the spur of the moment took a last-minute discounted American Express weekend to Istanbul.
On a bus from the airport to the hotel there, a handsome fellow with longish curly hair, blue eyes, and a deep tan said to me in French, “Vous Êtes trÈs intelligente de voyager avec un p’tit sac.…” (You are very smart to travel so light).
I always travel light, but in this case it was because I had left my suitcase back in Athens.
I figured he was Turkish. He wasn’t.
He was an American from New York who had seen the same discounted trip from Athens to Istanbul.
He became my companion for the next few days, and then for another few days back in Athens, and then for another few days, and then I was hopelessly in love.
We wanted to continue our relationship, but he had to return to America, where he was completing his Ph.D. I went back to France. For the next weeks I faced what turned out to be the most important decision of my life. A classic: the job, the man, the city, the country?
Familiar with it? The country, the city, the man, the job. The man or the job…the job or the man?
Forget all my previous planning and dreaming, I chose the man and New York, my husband and home now for more than thirty years. I never took up my early dream of working at the Council of Europe.
So much for planning, in business or in life. Lesson learned. Things happen. Opportunities are often unpredictable.
Life is lived in episodes and stages. Episodes because they are roughly self-contained and somewhat arbitrary, at least as they relate to time and place. Stages because they evolve out of one another and are linear and in many cases inevitable, like adolescence or one’s first professional position. Business, too, is lived in episodes and stages, and it has a sometimes cruel way of disarming our passions and shrugging off some of our most prized abilities as commonplace or irrelevant.
PURSUING ONE’S GIFTS
One stage in my life began when I was a teenager in Eastern France and discovered a passion for languages—my native French, increasingly important English, and old-world German, then the preeminent first language in Europe (though no one outside Germany wanted to admit it). When we are good at something—and I was very good at the study of languages—aren’t we proud and motivated to pursue it and encouraged to do so by others? Sure. People who are good at music, dance, or athletics, for instance, fill their early years pursuing their gifts and pleasures, perhaps even becoming world-class performers or nearly so, and some even turn professional. But generally not for long.
My interest in language and culture led me to become a high school exchange student outside Boston, then a college student in Paris, and eventually helped bring me to America to be with my soon-to-be husband, Edward, where I worked in the proverbial fields. Early on I was a translator, including for the UN, then, following my passion, I toiled in the lowest of the low positions at the New York office of Food and Wine from France. Then I moved on to a New York PR-advertising firm where I leveraged my French heritage and a bit of knowledge to become a director of the Champagne Bureau, a trade organization and U.S. division of the CIVC (ComitÉ Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne), promoting the entire Champagne industry. That’s when—college internships and entry-level jobs included—I truly learned business and benefited from the fatherly teachings of the American owner of the agency.
It seemed like a risk to me to take that first professional job in PR. As I’ve noted, I had no training. I feared I would be unemployed in no time. Even sitting in my own office on Fifth Avenue with a secretary outside my door—Fifth Avenue in New York City!—gave me the willies at first. But then I discovered something about myself and about overcoming fears and anxieties.
Maybe you, like me, can remember walking into your first real job or a new position after a promotion and wondering whether you could live up to your employer’s expectations, whatever those were. For me, it turned out that some of my first tasks would involve public speaking and giving radio interviews, activities that rank right up there among people’s most common dreads and anxieties. I’d not connected being on the radio with the job before and had never imagined doing it. But my boss explained that I had an opportunity at hand and that handling the media was a responsibility that went with my new position.
Champagne is the traditional drink of New Year’s Eve, and a large percentage of annual consumption takes place from late November through January 1. Therefore, those are also the prime weeks for articles and interviews about Champagne. Over the years I have delivered the “how to open a bottle” talk countless times, usually during the last few days of December. Well, the first opportunity I ever had to give that little speech came my way just after I started this new job. I was told that I should pitch to radio stations the opportunity to conduct interviews about Champagne—and then I was to be the one interviewed, mostly live!
Let’s say (entre nous) I was “anxious” over the charge. I can still remember my hand feeling weak as a I picked up the phone to call the first radio station and pitch them a story about Champagne. I needn’t have worried, they wouldn’t take my call anyway!
I found dusty old pitch letters in the file. Now, I could have just blown off the cobwebs and sent those out to the same people who had been ignoring them since Prohibition was lifted. But I realized I had an advantage: I had an authentic French accent that people in New York frequently told me they found charming. I needed to have the chance to speak directly with someone who could actually make a decision. Just as a job application letter is designed to get you an interview, the pitch letter needs to be designed to get read and remembered—and by the right person—in order to secure you a spot. (And there are oral versions of pitch letters, too, that need to be polished for use on the phone or in person.) Also, I had to recognize that lots of pitches get tossed out unread (Don’t we now do that constantly with emails?). So, first I called to get the name of the current booking manager. That proved to be extremely important. (Never misspell a name or send a letter to someone no longer in a position.) Then I recast the pitch letters to that person, always adding a little distinctive French phrasing at the beginning of the letter. Then the real work began. Knowing in advance that the success rate would not be high, I called and called stations across the country. Then I called some more.
Sometimes people were busy or simply did not want to speak with me (part of the skill set for selling is the ability to accept rejection). Sometimes I got lucky, and people remembered me from the pitch letter. Sometimes I got very lucky and they called me after they got the pitch letter (obviously, in those cases my pitch aligned perfectly with helping them do their job and fill their slots). But mostly I called and called. When I did get through and spoke with a decision maker, including a preliminary one, I enjoyed remarkable success. “Oh, is that a French accent?” That’s when I knew I had them and that I had a good voice for radio. We’d talk over the phone about whatever they wanted—from information about their trip to Paris or my recommendations for a French restaurant in New York. As we laughed and built a connection—a key element in successful business—interview after interview got scheduled. And with each interview that took place—from sixty-second spots to sixty-minute programs with call-ins—I not only overcame my fears but discovered that I enjoyed being interviewed and had a talent for it. I learned the importance of doing more than is expected and that there are lots of good ideas in business, but execution is what matters. And you can be most effective when you align your special talents to the task at hand. (What is it that you have your predecessors didn’t or your colleagues don’t? Perhaps just a better work ethic or simply a distinctive and attractive accent.) Plus there are new approaches to good, old ideas, like the ones I managed to find with the pitch letters. To the astonishment of my boss, I did fifty-three interviews that first season, compared with three the previous one. It was a year’s worth of results in a few weeks, and it built my business confidence enormously. And it helped build a stage in my life and career. C’Était le bon temps.
I could still be doing that today—promoting Champagne across America—what a great job. I progressed quickly to the head of the line to take over the PR firm with its various accounts when the owner retired, but instead I ...
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