Today is Sunday, April 14, 2013. Well, it was started then, anyway, and published late.
I've been thinking a lot about opportunity lately. Over the years, I've managed to grab onto a number of wonderful opportunities that changed and enriched my life. There were other opportunities that I missed for one reason or another. Some I probably missed because I didn't see them, and I guess I'll never know what they were. That's life. But I've had enough opportunities in my life to know that the proverb above is both true and false. It's false in the sense that opportunity doesn't come only once in a lifetime, so I hope you haven't understood the message of the proverb in that way. It's true in the sense that an opportunity doesn't hang around for very long. You have to make a decision to go with it, or it is gone. Not lost: opportunities are never lost; they simply get passed on to someone else. There's a reason for the expression, window of opportunity. Windows are something that open and close. If you live in a cold climate as I do, you quickly learn that windows don't stay open very long.
An opportunity is a favorable combination of circumstances. What do we mean by that? It means being in the right place at the right time. The most frequently given piece of advice to those who are looking for opportunity can be summed up in the motto of both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts: Be Prepared. If we want to find an opportunity in a specific area, we must be willing to learn new things. We are counseled to read and study everything we can get our hands on. We are urged to take classes and attend workshops, both in person and online. We are advised to find an expert from whom to learn, and if possible, who can mentor us. We are encouraged to get as much hands-on experience as possible, even if we don't get paid for it.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that a lot of extremely successful people start out with advantages simply because of who they are, how much money they have, where they live, what culture they are raised in, or how much natural talent or beauty they possess. He calls this the "Matthew Effect," referring to the Bible verse in Matthew 25:29. "For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken way even that which he hath."
Still, it is possible to become an expert in a particular area, but it will take time. Gladwell estimates that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient in anything. If you think about the number of hours in a day and the number of hours you an realistically devote to practice of any sort, you will quickly realize that this will amount to several years of your life, at least five, and probably more like seven to ten, depending on how much time you devote to your practice each day and how many times a week you get to practice. Gladwell gives several examples of this. The one I remember best is Bill Gates, who happened to go to a private junior high school in Seattle that had its own computer terminal. Keep in mind this was 1968, and in general, there were no computers in most colleges, much less high schools and junior highs. All computers were mainframes, at this point, so all you had access to was a time-share terminal, and you had to pay through the nose for terminal time. There happened to be a Mothers Club at this school who would organize a rummage sale each year, with the money going to some worthy project within the school. The year Bill was a 7th grader, the mothers donated $3,000 to the school to pay for computer time. By the time Bill was in high school, he and his friends had become pretty good at programming computers. A parent of one of the kids had started a business that leased computer time to local companies. Who was asked to test the software programs on weekends? Bill Gates and his friends. The kids hung around the computer center at the University of Washington, too, where they were allowed free time on the computer if they would agree to help with the programming of software to automate company payrolls. Gates spent after-school hours long into the evening, as well as weekends, programming computers. In his senior year of high school, he was asked to help program a computer system to operate the Bonneville Power Station in southern Washington State. He managed to convince his teachers to allow him to do this as an "independent study project." By the time he graduated from high school, he had spent five years working with computers, and by the time he dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to start his own company, he had way over 10,000 hours of experience with computers. Is it any wonder that he achieved fame and fortune as the head of a software company? His experience was an investment, not so much in terms of money, as an investment in time. In that sense, the time he spent in preparation literally created the opportunity for his business success.
Many other pieces of advice abound for those who wish to take advantage of opportunities. Introspection is another key. You have to ask yourself the right questions: What is my dream or goal? What will make me happy? How can I make a difference in people's lives? There's nothing so wasteful as spending precious time chasing a goal that you later find you don't really want. That's why so many people decide, often in middle-age, to get out of the rat race.
Other important questions to ask yourself include how much work you are prepared to do in order to achieve your goal (remembering Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule). Thomas Edison famously observed, "Opportunity is missed by most people, because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
Another question to ask yourself is how prepared you are to make changes in your life and to go outside your comfort zone. One synonym for opportunity is a "break," as in a break in routine. Some people advise us to make changes in small increments. For example, find a different way to drive to work, try a new restaurant for lunch or make a new recipe for dinner. Go to a different grocery store, try a different hair salon – the list is endless. Imakando Musho, a blogger from Africa who is a student, businessman and writer, cautions that we may have to completely change our circle of friends!
I like this "next exit" idea because it is a great visual for the concept of making a change. When you take an exit, you are leaving the highway you are on so that you can either make a stop at your destination or get onto another road. Whatever happens, you are making a change.
You have to believe that opportunities abound everyday. If you don't believe this, you'll never see any. Nothing cuts us off from opportunity faster than a closed mind and limiting beliefs. Sometimes opportunities are hiding in plain sight, and other times it's as if we need a microscope or a crystal ball to see them. Sometimes it looks like a missing piece of the puzzle. "Opportunity is often difficult to recognize; we usually expect it to beckon us with beepers and billboards," wrote William Arthur Ward. Sometimes more than one opportunity presents itself at one time, and we aren't sure which to choose. As Maltbie Babcock explained, 'Opportunities do not come with their values stamped upon them." Sometimes an opportunity that looks like a main chance turns out to be a dead end street, while other opportunities that don't look like much may completely change our lives to the point where we can't imagine what life would be like if we hadn't taken it.
Sometimes opportunities are presented to us when we leave our little pond for the ocean. This may mean leaving a small town for the big city, or transferring from a smaller college to a large university. It may mean leaving a smaller company for a much larger corporation. Or it may simply mean moving to a "larger room" in our state of consciousness. There's a spiritual exercise you can do in order to accomplish this. Imagine yourself living in one room. This represents your current state of consciousness. Notice all the things that make you feel comfortable there. Notice, also, what makes you feel uncomfortable. You are cramped for space, or maybe there is no window. Now leave this room and go down the hall to another room. You notice this one is larger. You can furnish it with a few things from your old room, but notice all the features of the room that make you feel better in your new living space. It's worth noting that when we dream of moving to a new house, it is our subconscious moving us into a "larger room." When I have dreams like this, I often notice that I am carrying way too much baggage, and I end up having to let go of some things.
Musho, the blogger from Africa, shared a great story about recognizing opportunity.
"A friend of mine recently mentioned that a relative of his grew up in the gemstone rich Chiadzwa area in Zimbabwe's Manicaland province. She used to play games with some of the stones, which were lying around everywhere. To them, these were ordinary stones which were extremely beautiful and yet of no value. It was only after the prospecting mining companies came and started hoarding these stones that they realized that the stones that they had used in children's play, the stones that they had used to decorate their homes, the stones that they had kicked everyday on their way from the hard work at farms were in actual fact some of the best diamonds in the world."
Many successful people say that opportunities are hard to spot because we just don't know what to look for. Opportunities are often hidden in our problems. Did you know that the two Chinese characters that are combined to form the word "crisis" are the words for "danger" and "opportunity"? Opportunities generally don't come when things are going well. Rather, they come when we are having problems, and the solutions we find to our problems are opportunities to learn something new, and to share what we have learned.
Networking is important, too. Many personal coaches say that opportunities are actually people, and it is people we should be looking for, not events. We are advised to surround ourselves with highly creative and knowledgeable people, and we shouldn't forget to cultivate people who are positive in outlook and who are willing to give us moral support in our endeavors.
OK, so what should we do when the opportunity actually appears? Most advisers say that it is important not to procrastinate. We all know that Latin phrase, Carpe diem. This advice, usually translated as, "Seize the day," was contained in a poem written by Quintus Horatious Flaccus, otherwise known as Horace (65 BCE - 8 BCE). Benjamin Franklin also advised us not to spend too much time deciding: "You may delay, but time will not."
We may have to spend quite a bit of time waiting for an opportunity to present itself (patience), but we shouldn't waste time avoiding a decision (procrastination). Patience means taking the time to learn what to do; procrastination is knowing what to do, but not doing it. When your chance comes, jump! Another way to say this is, "Start cooking while the pot is hot."
Criticism is a major roadblock that keeps us from grabbing opportunities when they are offered. One helpful mind exercise to deal with criticism and naysayers is to imagine shrinking the other person (or a part of yourself) to a small size and putting them into a glass cage. You are aware of their concerns, because you can see them through the clear glass, but you can't hear them because the cage is soundproof. Of course, you may fail, and that's OK, because as Henry Ford said, failure is simply an opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.
Worry is another major roadblock. Earl Nightingale made an estimate of the types of things people worry about. Here's what he says:
* 40% of what we worry about never actually happens
* 30% of what we worry about can't be changed, anyway
* 12% of what we worry about is our own health - and that's often something we can do something about
* 10% of what we worry about are petty, miscellaneous things
* 8% of what we worry about are legitimate concerns.
In other words, 92% of the time, our worries are a waste of time.
One of the things that happens when we worry is that we lose sleep. Even this can be turned into an opportunity, according to Laura Posey, Vice-President and Co-Founder of Dancing Elephants Achievement Group. When she finds herself awake in the wee hours of the morning, she just gets up and starts her day early. It's her way of going with the flow, being open to change. She finds that when she does this, she is invariably much more productive.
Other roadblocks include our fears, many of them based on past failures. It's important to realize that some of the most successful people in the world failed many times before their one big success. Some of us worry what people will think of us if we fail. Both professional and amateur ice skaters know that there is always a danger of falling on the ice. It happens to the best of them, as you can plainly see anytime you tune in to the Winter Olympics on TV. What do they do? They pick themselves up and continue their routine with a smile, knowing that the audience loves to see a great comeback.
It's been a good exercise for me to put all these thoughts down on paper, my way of preparing myself to meet the next great opportunity. :-)