Monday, March 25, 2013

Insurmountable Opportunity

There are times that you find yourself faced with insurmountable opportunity and you just don't know where to begin. So what do you do?

A sage might advise you to take a step back and gain some perspective, to not rush in, to consider all the angles and take your time. This is sound advice. The only problem with this approach is that opportunity is often fleeting, by the time you've stepped back, it's gone. By the time you've gained perspective, there's no evidence that it existed.

The other night, Iris and I experienced a microcosm of opportunity to be seized upon or forever lost. It was 1:00 AM on a cold Saturday morning. We were returning home from a gig, our Ford Flex packed to the ceiling with amplifiers and instruments. It had snowed on-and-off all day and I'd made several passes of our driveway using our ATV with a 60" plow-blade to clear the way, making a last pass just before we left for the gig at 3:00PM.

I turn off the highway onto our driveway. Iris is asleep in the passenger's seat. The driveway feels a little slick, but not too bad. It's about a half mile from our house to the highway and a two-hundred-foot rise from the highway to the house. The first half of the driveway rises relatively slowly: the second, quickly. 

As we make our way up the first half, the surface becomes noticeably slicker, but not too bad. Because of the rise it can be two-to-six degrees colder at the house than down by the highway. At the house we can have snow or ice when there's none below. Halfway home, we make the turn to head up the steep section. As the incline increases, I have to modulate my use of the gas pedal to avoid spinning the wheels.

Halfway to the top, I turn slightly to take the steepest section. The Flex rolls forward smoothly, but even my slightest attempts at acceleration cause the wheels to spin. As we climb our momentum slows and just a few feet from the crest the Flex stops altogether. 

I think, "No problem. I'll just put it into park and we'll walk the rest of the way to the top."

As I press the brake and reach for the gear shifter, the Flex begins sliding backwards. My foot pushes the brake to the floor, but does nothing to slow our backward momentum. 

I think, "Uh, oh."

Apparently, I say it too, because Iris stirs and begins to wake up.

I decide to drive backwards down the driveway, except I can't see. The truck is full of gear and there's so much cloud cover that we have almost no ambient light. 

As the Flex accelerates backwards, I am faced with an insurmountable opportunity. The driveway is surrounded by trees and a culvert. There's little margin for error. However, in my mind's eye I see that the section sliding past our immediate right has no trees and a bit of space. 

I crank the wheel to the right, and release the brake. The rear of the car slides into the clearing as the front spins downhill. When the car is perpendicular to the driveway, I spin the wheel in the other direction and hit the brakes again. The rear wheels become a pivot as the front continues it's downward spin. A fraction of a second later, I turn the wheels center and release the brakes. We're still heading downhill, but at least it's in the forward direction. 

The incline slowly decreases and we come to a stop. I look at Iris who's looking at me. She says, "What happened? We were going one way and then sideways and then the other way."

I notice that my heart is pumping hard. I say, "Yup, that's about it."

It's easy to see insurmountable opportunities that must be acted upon or lost when they're presented by an icy driveway at 1:00AM. It can be a bit more challenging at other times. Nonetheless, sometimes you just have to act not knowing exactly how things will turn out, but taking each step as it comes.

Happy Monday,


  1. Phew! Knowing your driveway, Tef, my heart was pumping by the time I got to the end of your account.

    I thought it was interesting that you suffixed "insurmountable" with "opportunity", rather than the more common "challenge" or "obstacle", or even "mountain".

    What would you say contributed to your seizing the opportunity at the split-second notice it came with? Your comfort level with the conditions (knowledge of terrain, vehicle & your driving abilities)? Practice you've had seizing similar opportunities in the past? Confidence that no failure is fatal?

  2. Hey Sree,
    As I read your list of potential contributors to seizing the opportunity, it occurred to me that the best answer might be "all of the above" (but perhaps with some qualifiers.)

    First, there's the notion of comfort level. I think that we typically view comfort level as conditional; we're comfortable in some situations, but not in others.

    It's as though there were a comfort level arch that expands as we grow into adulthood and then later contracts as we grow into old age. Perhaps it's the contraction that makes us old.

    Thinking aloud, there appears to be analogs to specific and general relativity. For most of us, comfort is specific (i.e., conditional); however, I think there's opportunity to become comfortable generally (or unconditionally). Well, at least there's opportunity to move from conditional towards unconditional.

    All that said, I think I was comfortable for of all the reasons you described (knowing the terrain, vehicle, and my abilities.) Plowing the driveway, I have a better sense for the terrain than I might simply driving up and down it. In high school, I practiced maneuvers on snow and ice in empty parking lots. I'm intimate with the capacities of our cars.

    However, I believe I was also comfortable for reasons that were less conditional. In particular, I spend the majority of my time working diligently in situations where, far from guaranteed, I have no idea what the outcome will actually be. You don't know whether or not what you're trying to do will work. You don't know when the next paycheck will come. You don't even know all that you don't know.

    So I guess I spend a lot of time practicing not knowing. I don't have anything like a "general comfortability"; however, the conditions in which I'm comfortable continue to expand.

    Perhaps my level of comfort is still only conditional and I've simply expanded the number of conditions in which I'm comfortable. However, I think the nature of it is different. It's not just a process of ticking off new condition sets; it's a process of becoming comfortable, generally.



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