You hear it all the time: There are no coincidences; Everything happens for a reason. It’s what Humphrey Bogart, playing Rick Blaine in a famous scene from Casablanca, had in mind when Ingrid Bergman, co-starring as his ex, walked into his bar and he muttered, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Maybe Einstein put it the most elegantly when he said, “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

All I know is, whenever I’m ready to stop suspending my disbelief in notions like synchronicity, signs from the universe and life-guiding encounters conspired by guardian angels to set us on our true paths, one seems to slap me upside the head, yelling, “Wake up! Your destiny’s calling!

Let me elaborate, and you be the judge. When I began my retirement life last year I set out to devote more of myself to writing, as I had originally intended to do when I graduated from college, 45 years ago this past June. As it turned out, though, I became what I sometimes call an “accidental company man,” spending more than three decades in corporate communications at a multinational healthcare company. I continued to write and get published periodically, but my post-corporate life was going to be different.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

I’ve always been drawn to inspirational stories about people overcoming tragic circumstances to come out stronger on the other side. As one of my idols, the great Philip Roth, put it, “The tragedy of man not set up for tragedy – that is every man’s tragedy.”

When I got a chance to hit my personal sweet spot – writing something for both love and money – I jumped at it, doing a patient profile on a courageous breast cancer survivor for my former company’s website. But before publishing the piece, they sent it to a woman in California for some final editing. At first, I was annoyed and disappointed. Why would they pay someone else to polish a story they were already paying me for, and that I’d nailed, or so I thought, in the draft, I’d turned in?

Taking a Step Back

Then I decided to take a step back and re-set. I found out who the woman was and called her. Turns out she was a New York Times best-selling author, and a very nice person, too. I told her I had joined an organization in Manhattan called Gotham Ghostwriters that matched writers with people who had stories they were willing to pay authors to turn into books. But, as if I’d been beamed back to the past, just like when I got out of college, you needed to have experience in a field before you could get hired for a job in it. Did she have any advice for an aspiring author and ghostwriter? Indeed, she did. She was taking Spanish lessons from a Colombian man whose brother back home was looking for help writing his life story. She wasn’t able to take on the assignment but said she’d be happy to refer the man to me.

And that’s how I came to find myself face-to-face on bi-continental Skype screens with Gustavo Velez, whose story, now captured in notes from multiple interviews, along with draft chapters he’s written himself and a thick pile of photos, fills a bulging three-ring binder on my desk.

Here’s the Story

He happens to see an international yo-yo champion on TV and is captivated by the prospect of making money, touring the world and becoming a celebrity through the mastery of a little round toy.

Here it is in a nutshell: As an 8-year-old boy growing up in Medellin, Gustavo finds himself in the midst of family hardship, financial insecurity and weighty expectations he puts on his own young shoulders. His alcoholic father is fired from his job and divorced by his beautiful, iron-willed mother. Gustavo feels it’s up to him to help support and protect his beloved mother and siblings – a younger brother, and an older sister, who is sent to live in a convent when his mother can no longer meet all the expenses. Gustavo can’t bear to let the situation stand and prays for a way out. By the grace of the “10,000 angels” who he says have followed him throughout life, he ultimately finds the most unlikely escape route. He happens to see an international yo-yo champion on TV and is captivated by the prospect of making money, touring the world and becoming a celebrity through the mastery of a little round toy. That becomes the dream that drives him, shapes his work ethic and lifts him, AND his family, beyond their circumstances to a new and better life.

No Pain, No Gain

Literally practicing through the pain of bloody fingers and bleary eyes, Gustavo realizes his dream, earns enough money to support his family and put his younger brother through law school. Along the way, he visits 53 countries, some multiple times, learns five languages and enjoys some fringe benefits as well. Who knew that the yo-yo could be a babe magnet? One chapter of his book is called “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” In it, Gustavo recalls his “countless girlfriends throughout the world,” who became perks of his status as a yo-yo professional. In describing one particular evening of romance during that period, Gustavo says, “I saw God’s face.” Impressed with his tales of girls in every port, his father tells him, “Son, I never imagined you’d grow up to be an international Don Juan!”

But the romance Gustavo reveres the most is the one with his wife, Adriana, the love of his life. I met her and their son, Santiago, 24, and daughter, Laura, 19, when they visited New York earlier this summer. The briefest of interactions with the two Velez children reveal their love and admiration for their father and reflect the strength they’ve inherited from him and their mother. They’ve actually developed their own variation on the famous line that Forrest Gump always attributed to his mom in the popular 1994 movie, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Santiago, the spitting image of his father at his age, but a half a head taller, will tell you that “Life is like a yo-yo. Whenever it’s down, you know it’s eventually gonna come back up.” In the Velez family, you make it come back up. Anything else is simply not an option.

Life Lessons

The life of Gustavo Velez is a compendium of lessons that he has imparted to others in his later career as a motivational speaker and coach, primarily for two premier international companies: Coca-Cola and Kimberly Clark. The purpose of his memoir, he says, is to leave a legacy to everyone who has a dream but needs a little push to make it come true.

So, are there truly no coincidences? Are our lives really guided by cosmic forces – Gustavo’s, mine, yours? Well, to paraphrase Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II, “I’m gonna leave the manuscript on the publisher’s desk and take a nap. If it’s a best seller when I wake up, I’ll know I have a partner among the forces of the universe. If it’s not, I’ll know I don’t.”

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Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.
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