Everyone has pivotal moments in their lives. In my sophomore year of college, my college advisor connected me with a professor in the business school who had a degree in industrial/organizational psychology, a new career direction that I was pretty sure was the one for me. I met with this professor and twenty minutes into the meeting he commented, “What you really need is an internship – just a minute.” He turned around, picked up the phone, talked for a few minutes, and then handed the phone to me. I said hello and before I knew it, I had an interview the following week with Lise Saari, a research scientist in industrial/organizational psychology. That conversation led to a one-year internship and a three-year job at a research institute. After I finished my doctoral training, Lise was offered me a job back in Seattle to work for her at The Boeing Company. All of this happened because of one conversation and one phone call. A colleague of mine tells a similar story. When she was in college, one of her term papers came back with a note from the professor in the margin stating, “Don’t write like this when you go to graduate school.” Her reaction? “He thinks I can go to graduate school!” And, that little comment scrawled in the margin opened up possibilities she had never considered and changed the direction of her life.
What do I believe? I believe that inflection points happen all of the time. A new story is always waiting to emerge. We just miss most of them. Every day, the road divides and we decide which one we want to take. Susan Scott writes in her book Fierce Conversations, “While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a business, a marriage, or a life, any single conversation can.” Change might be just around the corner.
Now, sometimes we know we’re at a point. We ask someone to marry us, a pregnancy test comes back positive, we accept a job that will move us across the country. Sometimes the choices are small, but add up over time – do we work late or get home for dinner on time? Sometimes we know that the stakes are high. We take the leap. We proceed on faith, hoping that the future will be kind to us, and we will survive. I begin writing a book hoping that the hundreds of hours it will take aren’t wasted of time.
Our own reflection points are important, but maybe the greatest moments are when we have the privilege of being pivotal points for others. I’m sure that you know some people in your life who are those people. I do. Remember that professor who connected me with my first internship? Remember the professor who wrote that comment about graduate school on my colleague’s paper? It was the same person. Before you dismiss this, let me add one more fact – my colleague went to school in Illinois and I went to school in Seattle. We didn’t know each other until we met fifteen years later. The only thing in common in these two stories was the person, Doug McKenna, who connected with both of us in a way that opened new horizons in our lives.
We all have reflection points in our lives. The question then becomes, how do we take advantage of them? Albert Bandura, a famous social psychologist, wrote a now classic article called, “The psychology of chance encounters and life paths” where he made the point that we can never control the chance encounters in our lives, but we can influence how much impact that they will have on us. Two-thousand years earlier, Seneca, the Roman philosopher wrote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Is this true? Mounting evidences suggests that it is. There aren’t many female orchestra conductors in the world, but there are a few. To find out what made the difference in their careers, researchers interviewed several of them to figure out what made the difference. They found that chance did play a role in their lives, but so did something the author called pseudoserendipity, accidentally finding something that you were seeking – where preparedness meets chance. The women who eventually became orchestra conductors were ready when opportunity presented itself. What made the difference? Strong skills, self-confidence, a willingness to take risks, hard work, a drive to succeed, optimism, social support and a bias to seek out opportunities.
Reflect on the pivot points in your life. What have been some of the pivotal moments in your life? Make a list of at least five of the moments in your life when everything changed. It might have been a conversation that you had, a decision you made, or a life-changing moment in your journey. Now, select two of the positive inflection points. Now, take some time to think about what made the difference – What about you allowed them to become such defining moments in your life? After all, they might not have been inflection points for someone else.
Set yourself up for success. Look back over what you just wrote. How can you use those same skills to prepare yourself for your next big leap? Just for fun, picture a significant goal that you would like to accomplish in the next five years (a dream you would like to pursue, a new career direction, a change in your life’s priorities). How can you apply the strategies you identified above to prepare for this future opportunity? What is a small step you can take today to start moving toward that goal?
Do a little detective work. Have lunch with a couple of friends. Ask them to tell you about some of the pivotal moments in their lives. Find out what made the difference for them; that is, what prepared them so they could take advantageous of the opportunities when they emerged?
Remember the people who made a difference in your life. Who have been the people in your life who became inflection points? What did they do for you? Have you ever said thank you?
Become an inflection point for others. Think about how you can be the kind of person who makes a difference in the lives of the people who bump into you. Set aside a day and practice being that kind of person. Practice being the kind of person who Look for the potential in others. Be the kind of person who energizes and brings life to others.
 Bandura, A. (1982). The psychology of chance encounters and life paths. American Psychologist, 37, 747-755.
 Diaz, C. L., Serendipity and pseudoserendiptity in career paths of successful women: Orchestra conductors. Creativity Research Journal, 16(2/3), 345-356. See also Williams, E. N., Soeprapto, E., Like, K., Touradji, P., Hess, S., & Hill, C. E. (1998). Perceptions of serendipity: Career paths of prominent academic women in counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 45. 379-389.