Take a chance on someone

Lean closer, children. I’m going to tell you about one of the most understated secrets that keeps the world turning… ready?

Most success happens because someone took a chance on someone else.

The opportunities I’ve had in my career have had nothing to do with begging and chasing. Almost all of them can be traced back to people taking a punt on me. What do we tend to think it’s about? Evidence? Do you think any employer really reads and memorises your CV? Do you think anyone checks if you’ve got a criminal record before going on a date with you? We take chances all the time. It’s energy saving and exciting.

It doesn’t always pay off!

But it’s how we do things. On balance, we fly by the seat of our pants through life. And it works out.

Even though we do it all the time subconsciously, we are wary about consciously giving or being given chances, perhaps because it means getting involved with someone else’s life. We think of it (wrongly) like taking or giving a loan: what if we don’t get paid back? What if we can’t return the favour?

But chances don’t work like that. The beauty of giving someone a chance is that there is no failure state, no expectation anything will happen. The worst case scenario is that everything remains the same. And in my experience, when someone has given the gift of believing in someone, things rarely do remain the same – but you’ve both got to be prepared to wait.

My journalism career got going because of a chance. I was a student with no proper writing to my name, but occasionally (out of the hundreds of people I contacted) someone would call me in for a chat and decide: ‘Ah, what the hell? What’s the worst that can happen?’

My art career peaked because of a chance, too. I was invited to contribute to a major exhibition at a major UK gallery – a whole room of my own work, and lots of money. It happened because someone happened to see something in me and asked me to be involved. And actually everything I’ve done: curating, writing comedy, talks – I can trace all of it to a specific moment of someone saying, “Ah, what the hell?”

Chance and trust

The rule with chances is this: as soon as you realise you’re getting them, you’ve got to give them out. You, as the successfully-chanced-upon, have got to keep the chance economy alive and take a shot on someone else.

When I’ve made publications and events, I’ve often had the opportunity to try out new writers, designers and speakers. I’ve trusted my judgement and my judgement has almost always been right. Trust gets everyone further. People do better work when they feel trusted and held to high standards. We want to work with people who make us feel good, and when we feel good, we do better work. It’s not a great mystery. But trust is a complicated thing, it requires certain conditions to keep your reserves from spoiling, so it is still surprisingly rare.

I’ve worked in places where trust is not the default. No one took a chance on anyone, no one felt treasured as an individual, and paranoia festered. One job I had started at 9am. There were two trains from my house to the office at that time in the morning – one got me to work at 7:50am, one at 9:10am. Of course, I asked if I could the later one, and of course the boss said no, it would ‘set a precedent’ and wouldn’t be fair on the other staff. So, every day for a year, I arrived at work, went down the road to Tescos and sat in the cafe for an hour and a twenty minutes. Then watched the usual latecomers drift in for half an hour after work’s ‘strict’ starting time.

A petty example, but I’m sure not going to post the serious ones on this public forum. There are many, many more, and every one of them makes me sad. Trust is everything. It frees the heart and gets you places you’d never imagine.

Today’s challenge

Take a chance on someone, or something, today that you would normally dismiss. If there’s someone you’re finding tiresome, challenge yourself to give them a bit more of your time. Really listen to them. Think about someone who’s given you a chance in the past – isn’t it time to pay that forward?