by Noam Argov ’15
During my time as a Morehead-Cain Scholar, I learned about something called “intentional serendipity”—the idea of setting yourself up to experience the lucky moments that build your career. This is the story of how I found success early in my career by taking that idea even further and demanding a lucky opportunity.
During one of my summer internships, I found myself at a Q&A session in Washington, DC, with a woman who had worked in the White House during President Bill Clinton’s administration. When I asked her how she had gotten to where she was, she told a story about once being in an elevator when in stepped a man who worked in the same building. That man was then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Weeks later she was part of his campaign for the presidency of the United States.
I always hated that story because it left out the location of this magical golden elevator where future presidents stood around waiting to give people opportunities. I had been in plenty of elevators in my life, and none of them contained Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama for that matter. Not one elevator even contained Jeb Bush, which I found surprising given that I grew up in Florida and surely the odds of a Jeb Bush elevator were more in my favor there.
In fact, I think I spent much of the rest of college hanging around elevators waiting to meet someone to launch my career. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had totally misunderstood the moral of that woman’s story. That story wasn’t about being at the right place at the right time. And it wasn’t even about setting yourself up for success.
The woman who had answered my question had been in Bill Clinton’s elevator because she had demanded to be there and she had done everything in her power to make sure she was there when he stepped in.
I’m coining my strategy for launching your career the “Can I sit with you at lunch?” trick. I’m talking about that awkward question on the first day of school that you ask at lunch when you don’t know anyone, and suddenly see some people who look cool, or even just alive, in the anxiety-inducing dance of lunchtime social inclusion.
So you walk up to these strangers and ask, “Can I sit with you at lunch?”
The brilliance of this question is that it’s not really a question at all. Full lunch tray in hand, hovering over a sea of potential friends anchored to a flat plastic surface with no escape sans a response to . . . YOU. “Can I sit with you at lunch?” An assertion rather than a question. A demand for inclusion, with a little bit of guilt implied.
Sure, you might be met with rejection, but your assertion requires response. It requires action. It requires the other side to think of you, notice you, and weigh the pros and cons. And that not only decreases the likelihood of rejection from the other side (mostly because of the desire to avoid all of that mental gymnastics and get back to eating french fries), but it also makes you bold and memorable.
I applied this trick to what I now realize was a moment that helped launch my own career. In December of 2015 I found myself eight months out of college, disillusioned with my job, and out there in the real world just long enough for the shiny intrigue of adulthood to wear off. So I did what any driven and confused recent grad would do in my position. I decided to try to join a nonprofit founded by famous North Face climber Conrad Anker that taught Sherpa guiding and climbing techniques on Everest expeditions.
I mean, “duh,” am I right?
My path to finding this nonprofit was simple. I learned about Conrad Anker in a documentary film. And after some late-night Instagram stalking, I got obsessed with his NGO and the work that they did. I was still mourning a friend who perished on Everest during the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and the mission of the nonprofit really resonated with me. So I emailed the NGO website’s “contact us” form asking for a job.
And sure enough, I got a response from Conrad Anker’s wife! She said no, but it started a conversation between us. I said I would work for free. She passed me along to the director of the program. He said I couldn’t teach ice climbing and rescues because I wasn’t a certified mountain guide or mountain ranger. I agreed that this was true and asked if there was something else I could do. He said no. I said I’d carry equipment. He said the yaks did that. I said I would herd the yaks. He said the Sherpa did that. I was at a loss.
I finally came back with a question: “I’m sure your nonprofit is doing well, but is there anything that can be done to make this NGO as you always dreamed it would be?” After a few days, the director sent me a long email outlining all of the things he felt needed work to ensure the nonprofit would be sustainable both in terms of operations and funding. An hour later, he sent me a follow-up email with some tasks he needed done this year. Minutes later he sent another email asking if I could come to Nepal for the training season to work on these projects.
Seconds later I booked my flights to Kathmandu. Two weeks later I landed in Lukla, one of the world’s most dangerous airports, and set out to trek to the village of Phortse on the route to Everest Base Camp in the Himalaya.
If we return to the elevator story, this was my equivalent of breaking and entering into the capital in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1992 and riding the elevator up and down for hours until Bill Clinton stepped in. If we return to the “Can I sit with you at lunch?” metaphor, it is the equivalent of me asking to sit with you at lunch while already sliding my butt at full speed into the open seat and handing out milkshakes I got for everyone at the table.
I’m young, but I think I’m learning that there are a few life decisions you make that shape your life’s path. The Morehead-Cain was one of them for me. Joining this nonprofit in Nepal was another. This decision led me to everything that excites me about my life right now.
It led me to working for a Silicon Valley fitness startup and becoming the executive producer of a new wave of workout podcasts. It led me to getting serious about ice climbing, to joining an amazing community of outdoor adventurers, to working with really incredible athletes from Pete Athans to Alex Honold, and to creating a documentary film and pitching it to the National Geographic Society. Most importantly, however, this decision led me to being in love with my professional and personal life, just about every day.
So I think Bill Clinton, the cool kids at lunch, and Conrad Anker can all agree that I’ve channeled intentional serendipity much farther into something more like “assertive serendipity,” or the idea of not stopping until you find any way at all for luck to find you.
“Can I sit with you at lunch?” If you want it, ask for it. Send that cold email to no one on the other side. Keep finding ways to add value to the causes and movements you care about. You have nothing to lose.
Before I close, my one caveat is that of course this ability to demand a seat at the lunchroom table comes from a place of incredible privilege. I’m an immigrant and a woman, so I know what it feels like to lack some privilege. And in a way I feel even more compelled to write this because I’ll be the first to acknowledge privilege when I have it, the first to build an opportunity for myself when I can swing it, and the first to create an opportunity for someone less privileged that is hungry for their lucky break.
So now that I’m all riled up and feeling a need to close this before I ramble on, I guess I’m just reminding myself (and anyone else who is interested) that I got to this really exciting place early in my career by not only intending, but also asserting, my serendipity.
And by asking, “Can I sit with you at lunch?”
Noam Argov is a product manager at MoveWith, Inc., an app-based exercise startup located in San Francisco.