“There are women who sing better than Barbra Streisand who will never sing anywhere but their church choir.” That statement was made by my late editor/friend/mentor when describing to me the element of luck in pursuing a career, be it in writing, singing, business or any other creative venture.
It took many years and an unassuming middle-aged Scotswoman named Susan Boyle to prove the truth of his statement. For those who have been living in a cave, Susan Boyle is an overnight international sensation whose beautifully soaring voice knocked the socks off the audience and judges — including acerbic Simon Cowell — of “Britain’s Got Talent,” as well as more than 100 million viewers of her performance video on the Internet.
While many people have been citing Susan as an example that we should not judge a book by its cover, I think she shows that luck is often nothing more than recognizing the opportunity to showcase talent you possess. Without talent, luck gets you nowhere.
The exception to that is selling an anecdote to Reader’s Digest, where luck clearly trumps talent. Who among us hasn’t sent an absolutely hysterical anecdote to that magazine without success? I have offered several over the years, and yet the anecdote they bought wasn’t nearly as funny as the ones that hit the round file.
I suspect that the editor who chose mine had a teenage boy and could relate to the story of son Butch taking his girlfriend out for a $9 steak dinner (yes, it was a long time ago). His expensive date reminded me of sitting in my future husband’s ’49 Merc at a drive-in restaurant where, as we ate our 25-cent hamburgers and drank our nickel root beers, Ray said, “I guess you realize if we get married, we won’t be able to afford to eat out like this.”
The coolest thing about that anecdote appearing in Reader’s Digest is that it followed a reprint of “The Verger,” Somerset Maugham’s short story about luck and opportunity as experienced by an English church caretaker named Albert Edward. When the new vicar learned his verger was illiterate, he gave him an ultimatum: Learn to read and write within three months or lose the job he loved and had performed exceedingly well for 16 years.
Albert Edward politely explained that he had tried to learn to read and write but could not master those skills. He promised to resign as soon as his replacement was named. It is hard to imagine worse luck.
Albert Edward rarely smoked, but when he was greatly upset, he craved the comfort of tobacco. As he stepped out the church door, he looked for a tobacco shop where he might buy a cigarette but found none on the long street he walked. It occurred to him that a shop selling tobacco, sweets and newspapers might be successful there.
The next day, Albert Edward went back to that street, found a small shop to rent and a month later opened his shop. After 10 years, he owned 10 shops and was a very prosperous businessman. Good luck, indeed. One day his banker suggested that the large sums of money he had on deposit might be invested at a greater return. The banker explained that the bank would take care of everything — all Albert Edward would have to do was sign his name.
“But how should I know what I was signin’?” questioned Albert Edward, confessing that he could not read.
The banker was astounded that a man who could not read and write had amassed such a fortune. “Good God, man. What would you be now if you had been able to?”
Albert Edward was quick with the answer, “I’d be verger of St. Peter’s, Neville Square.”
Like Albert Edward, Susan Boyle recognized an opportunity and took it. Her talent is so great, I don’t think she will require luck. But if she does, I hope she’ll have it in abundance. You go, girl!
— Marsha Henry Goff is a freelance writer in Lawrence whose latest book is “Human Nature Calls.”