Luck, Talent, and Hard Work

I am fortunate to have a steady income that allows me to write full-time. My government annuity, earned by more than 35 years of service, is generous enough that I have no money worries. That means I can fulfill my life mandate of writing without concerning myself about earning a living since, famously, writing doesn’t pay.

But that I find myself so well situated is in no way due to any intention on my part to work toward that goal. Rather than seeking well-paying jobs, I always did work that I enjoyed the most. The most important element in my financial success was luck.

Granted, I was exceptionally good at what I did. I had the talent required. And I worked as hard or harder than anyone I knew. And I was willing to put my life on the line for the good of my country. There again, I was lucky. I survived. But I didn’t do any of these things to get ahead. I did them because I wanted to.

It all started when I graduated from college in 1958—with a BA in Music of all things—and enlisted in the army to go to language school to study Chinese. Languages had always fascinated me. As a child I taught myself French and Italian. In college, I added German. I yearned to learn Chinese, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to teach myself—a language written in characters would require teachers. So I wanted to go to the best language school in the world, the Army Language School (now called the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey, California. When I arrived at the school, the army told me that I was to study not Chinese but Vietnamese, a language I’d never heard of. Back then we called that part of the world French Indochina.

Language school proved to be ideal for me. I spent all day every day five days a week for a full year submerged in Vietnamese. I loved the language, so different from anything I had encountered before, and graduated first in my class. I was then assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) where I worked full time in Vietnamese. When my army enlistment ended, NSA hired me not as a GS-5 or GS-7, the standard starting grade for a new employee, but as a GS-11. For the first time in my life, I felt like a rich man. NSA immediately sent me to Vietnam.

Between 1962 and 1975, I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S. After the fall of Vietnam to the communists in 1975, I began studying part-time as a graduate student at the George Washington University, not to get a degree but to learn—the same reason I’d gone to the University of California as an undergraduate. Meanwhile, I went on with my job at NSA. I had a wife and four children to support. My studies led, almost incidentally, to degrees—a masters and a doctorate. And those degrees led to more promotions on the job.

More tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Luck, Talent, and Hard Work”

  1. I never realized until well after being recruited at NSA by Messrs. Bill Mao and the famed Wash Wong how many varied opportunities existed in such a big and diverse agency. I think in many respects we were there during the good times. Maybe thats just an old mans memory/perspective.


    1. Dallas, I think it was not so much that we were there during the good times as we were at the heart of national concern—Vietnam. It was pure dumb luck that the army decided I should study Vietnamese at time when it was a little known language of a little known country. It changed my life.


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