Forecasting is hard. And not because people aren’t smart, but because trivial accidents can be influential in ways that are impossible to foresee.
I did a talk with a high school class last week and someone asked how I decided to become a writer. I said I didn’t, it was never planned. The path that led me here is an absurd story, and one that most of us have a version of – the pure fluke.
One night in college – I remember it was late, maybe midnight – I was reading a blog post about hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert. It was written by a guy named Sham Gad, who I had never heard of. I can’t remember where I found his blog; maybe I was searching for information on Lampert, who I admired.
Sham wrote that Lampert went to Harvard. I knew that was wrong – he actually went to Yale. Obviously it doesn’t matter, who cares? But using my student email address (which I rarely used but turned out to be important) I emailed Sham to let him know he was wrong. I never do stuff like that, then or now. The common denominator of the internet is misinformation. I have no idea why I thought it was necessary.
Sham’s a nice guy. He responded and said thanks, he’ll fix it.
A few minutes later he sent another email: “Hey I see from your email address that you go to USC. I’ll be in Los Angeles tomorrow. I’ve never been before, what’s the best way to get from LAX to downtown?”
It was a weird thing to ask a stranger who just trolled your blog. But it’s a reasonable question. If you’re familiar with LA you know there is no good answer. It’s the least transportation-friendly city in the world.
I don’t know why, but without thinking I responded: “It’s hard. I can pick you up. Let me know when you get in.”
He said great. I’ll see you tomorrow.
I’m a private guy. I’ve never done anything like this. At this point my relationship with Sham consisted of 10 cumulative sentences. I didn’t know if he was 17 or 87 years old. But the next day I was driving to LAX to get him.
We stopped at Chipotle on the way back. While eating he said, “I haven’t booked a hotel yet. Is there one nearby you can drop me off at?”
Adding to the list of things you shouldn’t say to a stranger, I said, “You can crash on my couch.”
“Wow, thanks,” he said.
I texted my girlfriend and said, “I met a guy named Sham online. I just picked him up at the airport and he’s sleeping on our couch tonight.”
“Excuse me?” she said.
I know, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I agreed to this.
She slept at her sorority house that night – the only one among the three of us to use good judgement that day. The next morning she came by to get her bag before class. Sham was still asleep. She tiptoed past him. On her way out he woke up, lifted his head, and introduced himself. I think he met a friend in LA and flew home later that day.
My girlfriend – who is now my wife – joked about it being the sketchiest thing I’ve ever done.
I liked Sham. But a year went by and I don’t think we said a word to each other.
The next summer I was interning at a private equity firm. One day – and I remember this occurring within the same hour – two life-changing things happened.
Global credit markets started exploding in 2007, the preamble to the financial crisis. The firm I was at wasn’t in great shape. They told me there wouldn’t be a full-time spot for me after I graduated. I’d have to leave the next month.
That hurt. I needed to find a job as the economy was melting down.
I also needed to finish a project I was working on, researching logistics companies for the private equity firm. That included gathering information on a tiny public company called FreightCar America.
I went to Yahoo Finance. I didn’t find much, but just before clicking away I saw one lonely article in the FreightCar America news feed.
It was a Motley Fool article written by … Sham Gad. (It’s here).
Hey, I know that guy!
I emailed Sham for the first time in a year and told him how cool it was that he was writing for a publication.
We chatted for a bit. I told him I was looking for a new job. Anything. I was desperate.
“The Motley Fool is hiring writers,” he said. “I can put in a good word.” He owed me a favor, after all.
And that was that. I became a Motley Fool writer and stayed for ten years.
I’ve been a writer my whole career. It was never planned, never dreamed, never foreseen. It only happened because Sham got Eddie Lampert’s alma mater wrong and I needed a job at the very moment he wrote a blog post about a company I was researching at a job I was about to be laid off at.
I told the high schoolers this story because I know they’re planning out what their careers will look like. They have an idea of where they’ll go to college, what they’ll study, what they’ll do and even where they’ll work after they graduate.
I wanted to tell them: The world rarely works like that.
So much of history is driven by chance, accident, and flukes. That’s true for the big stuff and the personal journeys.
Everyone has a story like this, whether it’s about your career or spouse or something else. Some version of emailing Sham Gad happened a million times today – and nobody knows, yet. Sometimes the stories end great. Often they don’t.
Finance professor Elroy Dimson says, “risk means more things can happen than will happen.” Dig into enough stories like this in your own life, or around the world, and you’ll come to appreciate how fragile history is, and how differently things could have turned out if not for a few little errors and accidents.