By Richard Tyson

An Arabian proverb states, “Four things come not back — the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life and the neglected opportunity.”

We live in an inherently risky world, and that can make us fearful. It can even paralyze us. The media bring us news every day of calamities, disasters, wars and even the injurious acts of those whom we may have esteemed as friends and neighbors.

One of my favorite authors, Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, wrote a business classic, Only the Paranoid Survive. While there is merit in the idea of defining the hazard risks we face, and acting proactively to eliminate, mitigate or transfer those risks, there is also the very real risk that paranoia will lead us to curl into a fetal position and miss the great opportunities that surround us.

I call this “opportunity risk.” It is the risk that we neglect our opportunities and, like the Arabian proverb, miss out on life’s great adventures, entrepreneurial successes and even the learning experience of failures.

I suspect all of us have envied, from time to time, those we have viewed as extraordinarily lucky. And I suppose there are some who have metaphorically “won the lottery.” But I believe that most often, the lucky follow a path like the one described by noted 19th century French author, Charles Victor Cherbuliez. He said, “What helps luck is a habit of watching for opportunities, of having a patient, but restless mind, of sacrificing one’s ease or vanity, of uniting a love of detail to foresight and of passing through hard times bravely and cheerfully.”

What keeps us from watching for opportunities? Fear, or aversion to risk, certainly is one factor. However, other reasons often also apply:

1. We don’t think. Too often, our lives are absorbed in being entertained, rather than entertaining deep thoughts about life and the opportunities inherent in the world we live in.

2. We are largely oblivious to what is going on around us, thereby being blind to possible opportunities.

3. We don’t know enough to recognize opportunities. Our early schooling fails to connect with the realities of life, and after our formal education is done, we no longer read or seek other ways of learning.

4. We are too busy. Our current situation demands too much of us to allow for pursuing opportunities.

5. We simply don’t care. We are apathetic. We leave “well enough alone.”

6. We have tried and failed. Pursuing new opportunities is not worth the risk.

How can we overcome these natural deterrents to opportunity risk-taking? The answer is committing to an engaged life, one where you use every day to think, observe, learn and grow.

This requires patience, perseverance and continuous faith that opportunities worthy of your efforts will emerge. Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli put it this way: “The great secret of success in life is for a man to be ready when his opportunity comes.” 

Another British statesman, Edmund Burke, noted that “There is nothing in the world really beneficial that does not lie within the reach of an informed understanding and a well-protected pursuit.”

The pursuit of opportunity risks will always expose us to the real possibility of failure. As Alexander Graham Bell once said, “When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us.” However, if we adopt a mindset that sees every failure as an occasion to learn, even our shortcomings will become opportunities for us. Winston Churchill summed it up when he said, “An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity.”

Acclaimed American publisher and author William Feather gave additional wise counsel: “The prizes go to those who meet emergencies successfully. And the way to meet emergencies is to do each daily task the best way we can, to act as though the eye of opportunity were always upon us. In the 100-yard race, the winner doesn’t cross the tape line a dozen yards ahead of the field. He wins by inches. So we find it in ordinary business life.”

Each of the individuals I have quoted here were distinguished opportunity risk-takers. Even so, none of them were simply handed great opportunities. What do they have in common? They lived highly engaged lives of thinking, observing, learning and growing. They learned from their respective setbacks and emergencies. And when opportunities became apparent, they pursued them.

As Greek statesman Demosthenes said, “Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.”

Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.

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