David Kowalski

There’s a lot said about luck when it comes to business, but most of the pithy aphorisms boil down to the same general message that luck favors the prepared. For David Kowalski, a data management advisor and longtime consultant in the field, it’s not so much about luck or preparedness, it’s about paying attention to things you’re probably missing and being open to new things.

“You have to be willing to be surprised,” Kowalski says. Surprised by what? By the opportunities and possibilities that are happening around you all the time, but that you’re missing because you’re so keyed into a job search that you’re not hearing them. It’s like the quote from Allen Saunders (made most popular by John Lennon): Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

Kowalski will present “Staying Calm During Transition (Because You’re Worth It!)” at the Professional Services Group of Mercer County on Friday, June 22, at 9:45 a.m. at the Princeton Public Library. The event is free. Visit www.PSGofMercerCounty.org.

Growing up in a suburb of New Haven, Kowalski took to the drums around the same time he started kindergarten. He didn’t want to follow his father into the restaurant business; he wanted to play and compose music like other members of his parents’ families. He got his bachelors in music and psychoacoustics from Penn in 1978 and followed up with a masters in music composition from the New England Academy of Music in 1981.

He got his doctorate in music composition and theory from Princeton in 1985. That was “the height of Reaganomics, when everything was money, money, money, money,” he says. “Nobody was looking at you without an MBA.”

In other words, his music degrees were not so sought by employers of the time, and he couldn’t find any jobs in academic music. But this was also the same time period in which the federal government broke up the Bell System for having a telephone monopoly. AT&T suddenly needed workers of all kinds, including consultants, and the electrical engineering background Kowalski got through his undergraduate work came in handy.

He got into database management with Zyga Corp., working primarily for AT&T, for almost nine years. He was then a senior and project manager at several other firms, including Church & Dwight, before landing at Morgan Stanley in 2000. He worked there as a consultant for almost a decade and found himself at Bank of America in 2011. There he was an information architect, until he founded MIDAS Advisory Services in Belle Meade in 2014.

Along the way, in the 1990s, Kowalski’s first wife developed cancer. Her illness and death took the expected toll on him. He wasn’t happy at work either, so he tried everything he could to find some inner peace — yoga, meditation, massage, tai chi,self-actualization training, you name it.

Most of that is in his “distant past,” he says, though he still does meditate. But after all the attempts to find some kind of direction and center, Kowalski stumbled across something much simpler: Coffee.

The contextual splurge. Kowalski refers to “the contextual splurge” as the simple act of doing something small, but nice for yourself. In the age when coffee shops were popping up everywhere, Kowalski was lost, not working, and driving himself crazy by scouring want-ads obsessively in the papers.

One day he went to the cafe up the street and plunked down $2.50 for a coffee (a lot at the time) and thought, “That two-fifty isn’t going to affect my mortgage payment.” He took his time, casually read through want ads, and went about his day. The net effect was that he calmed the heck down. His blood pressure cooled, his stress ebbed, and he started talking to people. Suddenly opportunities opened up for him, because he was calmer and had started to listen.

If that all sounds a little simplistic, that’s the point. Kowalski says that a major ally in getting through the job search and its endless online classifieds, networking meetings, and interviews is to just feel good about yourself for a while. People, after all, spend lots of money on therapists and pills to kill the anxieties they carry around. But once in a while, Kowalski says, you just have to realize you’re actually worth a little time in the day to get a coffee, read a magazine, or go see a movie. It’s all about re-energizing for the potential long haul.

The analogy of the parking space. Job searching, of course, is dreadful. It’s one of the most stressful things you will ever do, particularly if you’re unhappy where you are, unemployed, and staring down the barrel of unpaid bills.

It’s easy, in other words, to zero in on what you’re familiar with and what you think you should be doing, based on the jobs you’ve already had, Kowalski says. But considering Kowalski was a music guy who understood computer programming and found work in the latter field, it might be wise to pay attention to him when he says that sometimes opportunities come along for things you can do outside the bounds of your intended goals.

It’s like missing a parking space. Kowalski tells the story of a friend who bragged about always getting parking spaces. That friend was in the car at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a frantically searching Kowalski zipped past all kinds of spaces he didn’t see. He was so focused on finding a spot in one area that he never saw the open spaces just “over there” a little.

He also tells the story of buying his second home. His first one was nice, but he wanted one that felt more … him. After 11 years, he had no idea what the market was like, so he figured he’d just go look at some places and see what’s out there. On the 10th house he saw, he saw himself in it. He hadn’t really planned on buying a new house, he just wanted to see where things might go should he ever decide to.

Long story short, he and his second wife closed on the house within a weekend. Meanwhile, two relatives of his have been saying for years that they want a new house. Every time they could get one, though, some excuse or another came back — it’s the wrong color, the paperwork is a lot. “It’s always one thing,” he says.

So why? Why are some people so resistant to trying new things? Well, the simple answer is that either people are not seeing opportunities or they’re afraid of change, Kowalski says. But, he adds, “maybe deep down inside they don’t feel like they deserve it. People seem to get excited but then they start to get scared.”

The roots of the fear? Who knows? It could be the remnant of an unpredictable childhood. Kowalski remembers his own as a little chaotic, financially.

“My father was the kind of guy who if he had five dollars in his pocket he’d borrow 15 so he could give you 20,” he says. Meanwhile, his mother was the type to look at a $200 a month mortgage and put $50 a week into an envelope for it. His father’s liberal approach to money and his mother’s exacting expenditures gave him quite conflicting views of how to have, spend, and enjoy money. And it took him a long time and a lot of searching to come to understand that it’s okay to spend a little money on yourself from time to time, in sensible doses, to help perk up your mood amid a stressful endeavor.

“It’s a funny thing,” he says. “I found out, life works out. Everything will work out in the end. And if it hasn’t, that means it’s just not the end yet.”

Until then, take a break once in a while. Do something nice for yourself. “Just remember, you’re worth it,” he says.

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