Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Insurmountable Opportunity

Dad, give me a call. I think I've got some really good news.

I dial Luke's number.

What's up?

Well, I'm standing in the break room at work this afternoon and the director of sales walks in. I wonder what he's doing in our break room. Turns out he's looking for me.

Why was he looking for you?

He has this big, important project he wants done and he wants me to do it. It's something he's wanted to do for a long time, but hasn't had anyone who could do it. As he explains it to me, I'm not even sure where to begin. But he seems to think that I can do it.

I'm sure you can.

But I'm not even sure where to start. It all seems so unstructured and vague. I'm not quite sure what he really wants in the end.

Did you ask him?

Yeah. I got the general gist of it, but... well, there's parts I'm not sure about.

That's kind of par for the course. Don't worry about it. People often have a general idea of what they want in the end, but they count on the developer to figure out the details.

But, how do I know what's important and what's not?

Well, just put yourself in his shoes. If you were the sales director, what would you want to know? What information would be actionable? What actions would you take if you knew this or knew that? You know how the organization works and how it's structured. Build a system that would be useful to you if you were in charge.

Yeah, that makes sense. I'll get started writing down all the possible actions and all the metrics that would help decide which of them to take.

Luke and I continued talking until Iris waved to me through the window at Bizen indicating that our food had arrived. As I thought about our conversation, it occurred to me that Luke had just been confronted with an insurmountable opportunity.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of insurmountable challenge; however, few of us are even aware of the insurmountable opportunity. In fact, the thing that differentiates us in our relative levels of "success" is not how we manage insurmountable challenges, but instead, how we manage insurmountable opportunities. You see, challenges are things that we ultimately can't avoid. We might deny them for a while. We might try to hand them off to other people. Nonetheless, the challenge ultimately does not go away until we deal with it.

On the other hand, opportunities are optional. When presented the opportunity to take a job that would put you way over your head, a band where everyone is far more experienced than you, a scholarship to a training program where you have none of the prerequisites, a task that no one has been able to accomplish, you have an insurmountable opportunity.

In those moments everything inside you screams, "What the hell are you doing even thinking about this! You're not qualified! You'll be so far over your head that you'll never get to the surface again. Who do you think you are? Run away, fast. Just say 'No!'"

Well, almost everything. Some part of you says, "Wow, this is a great opportunity. I think I know how to pull this off. I'm not sure how yet, but if I put my mind to it, I can do this."

In my experience, 99% of the us go with the first set of voices. We politely decline or feign not to have heard the offer. We breath a sigh of relief that we didn't have to take on something so scary.

Yet, when you talk to anyone who's ever had outrageous success, invariably they've chosen at one point or another not to walk away from an insurmountable opportunity. No matter how overwhelming or scary it seemed at the time, they took a deep breath and walked forward into it.

To be clear, taking the first step may not be the hardest part. Insurmountable opportunities are fraught with all the difficulties faced in insurmountable challenges. Worse, knowing that you can walk away from the insurmountable opportunity makes it much more difficult to persevere. There are times when you ask yourself, "What the hell was I thinking? I was perfectly happy where I was, doing what I was doing."

That's par for the course. Believe it or not, all the doubt and self-judgment eventually become so familiar that they're laughable. You hear it start and you just turn it off, "Oops, there I go again. Enough of that."

The cool thing is that the person who enters the insurmountable opportunity is not the person who exits. Insurmountable opportunities make us stronger, smarter and more capable. Tasks that were overwhelming at the beginning are child's play at the end. Your ability to see and understand problems grows exponentially. And of course there are the rewards of having accomplished something that no one else was able to do.

There are plenty of lies we tell ourselves that help us avoid insurmountable opportunities. I just didn't feel right about. I wasn't really comfortable with it. I realized that I am actually perfectly happy where I am. It just wasn't the right time for it. And so on. These are so commonplace as to feel "true."

They're not.

The thing is to recognize insurmountable opportunity when it knocks on your door. It feels incredibly uncomfortable. You find yourself looking for reasons why you're not qualified to take it on or why it won't work out. You start longing for the status quo, no matter how much you've been complaining about it. You've encountered an insurmountable opportunity.

Anyway, this morning I realized that not everyone knows that that's par for the course.

Happy Thursday!

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