I’ve been thinking about opportunity a lot as I’ve revisited some old opportunities—those pursued and those set aside—and started in on the process of shuffling and assessing and selecting from some contemporary ones.
Important to recognize in any discussion about opportunity is that it’s not equitably distributed.
As with most things related to an individual, from height to athletic ability to economic status, we’re born with ceilings and floors in terms of our various properties and capabilities. Countless environmental and social factors determine where we start out relative to those potential highs and lows, most of which have nothing to do with who we are as people or how fair that distribution might be.
Opportunities of the positive variety tend to accrue more to those who have benefitted from past opportunities, and that’s true of those enjoyed by the individual, but also those enjoyed by their predecessors: their genetic and cultural ancestors.
The “Matthew Effect” sums this tendency up by saying those who have wealth or status or fame tend to accrue more wealth, status, or fame compared to the average person who starts out with less of those things, and that tends to also be true of opportunity.
There are things we can control, though, even if the degree to which we can move the needle will vary based on foundational circumstances over which we have less authority.
One thing we can control is our capacity to recognize opportunities when they present themselves.
This can be a tricky undertaking, as opportunities aren’t always obviously beneficial options, and weeding through the seeming (but actually not) opportunities to get to the good stuff can be a full-time job.
It’s possible to truncate this process by training our BS-detectors and committing to a process of rapid but intense research when presented with options that seem too good to be true. It also doesn’t hurt to maintain a sense of epistemic humility and an awareness that we’ll tend to put our thumbs on the scale in favor of even obvious scams when they makes promises we sincerely hope are real.
Also helpful in this assessment process, I find, is asking questions even when you worry it will make you sound ignorant.
A willingness to be perceived as uninformed will often help alleviate ignorance and thus illuminate the true quality of opportunities.
We also have the ability to choose between opportunities which have a seemingly identical likelihood of leading to positive outcomes.
There’s a philosophical thought experiment called Buridan’s Ass, which is meant to address the issue of free will by imagining there’s a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty, and standing equidistant between food and water.
Because the donkey wants—nay, needs—both food and water equally, and because neither resource is closer to it than the other, it dies for lack of both; it can’t decide which to consume, first.
This thought experiment is useful in many philosophical contexts, but it also illustrates how an abundance of opportunities can in some ways be trickier to parse than just a single, standout opportunity.
The capacity to make difficult choices can be trained like a muscle, but like working out seldom-used sinew, it can be initially painful and won’t always lead to optimal results.
Making such choices requires we acknowledge a lack of complete information (because we don’t know how any of the opportunities available will play out in the long-term) while also recognizing our capacity to change our minds, pivot, regret, and learn from potentially wrong decisions.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, we can create our own opportunities rather than waiting for opportunities to come to us.
This usually requires we look out into the world, identify connections or problems or questions we have, and fan those sparks into something more substantial.
Creating our own opportunities is less certain in some ways than taking advantage of those that come to us, fully blossomed and ready for plucking, but building habits around opportunity-generation can make this a more frequent, if still not entirely predictable, undertaking.
I like to think of manipulating these variables as “stacking the deck for serendipity,” because while it’s not possible to completely control the environment in which you operate, it is possible to set your life up in such a way that you’re able to take risks and work hard when the occasion requires it—when a solid opportunity pops up on your radar—while in parallel you’re slamming things together and making sparks, some of which you’ll be able to feed and kindle into your own, homegrown options.