29/300: Opportunity Knocks

Some pretty unexpected things have been happening lately. I’ve had offers to ghostwrite another book, write a script for a film, help create a television show, give a talk on the art of storytelling, contribute to a website, have meetings with executives, consult on business strategy here and overseas and create a product. I didn’t see any of these things coming. I didn’t plan for any of them and I’m not even sure I’ll pursue all of them. But there is a common thread running through all of these opportunities – I opened myself up for them.

I spent nearly two decades wishing and hoping for these kinds of opportunities. When I was a young, struggling reporter, husband and father, my view was, admittedly, myopic. I was just hoping to make it to the next pay day, hoping to get through a day without a phone call or piece of mail that would tear our lives apart. I couldn’t see past the end of the week, let alone imagine a day when someone might casually offer to let me write a movie. I dreamed, of course. We all dream, particularly when we’re desperate or struggling. But even in our dreams, we sense a lie, a falsehood we devise as escapist self-defense against a sometimes cold world.

Then, about eight years ago, a spur of the moment decision began a slow sea change in my outlook. I’ve written briefly about it before, how a friend of a friend was looking for a writer and was frustrated by the high price tags and low work ethic of what he was finding. I spoke up without really thinking it through. “I’ll do it,” I said, “I’ll even write a sample chapter for free.” It was a desperate move. I’d never even freelanced, let alone written a book, but desperation has a way of distorting your decision-making. I can look back to that moment, Fourth of July 2008, and see it was a turning point in my life. I can see now how that simple act turned me from a dreamer to a doer, an amateur to a professional.

Nothing happened overnight, of course. That book took almost two years to write for a whopping $8,000 spread out over the project life. But that book lead to another book, lead to another book, lead to another job, a better job, a better resume. Everything began to snowball, slowly at first and more steadily over the years.

And it all began with yes.

I’m as guilty as anyone of dreaming, of hoping for that moment that I might get ‘discovered’ — for my under appreciated talents, for my diamond-in-the-rough qualities. In fact, I’m probably guiltier than most for going through periods of my life self-tortured and a little bitter. I kept waiting for that moment for opportunity to knock at my front door.

Here’s the thing: in order for opportunity to knock, you have to first have a door. And if you have a door, you might as well build a house.

That’s what I’ve been doing for the last decade, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I’ve been building my house, with rooms built on work ethic and experience, with a foundation poured from bravery and a willingness to fail. We all need to do this, especially now.

We live in a world where a lottery drawing was top of the feed, top of the hour, front page news for almost a month. We live in a culture that lionizes and fetishizes the quick win, the instant gratification; the get rich quick, get fit fast, move at the speed of Twitter lifestyle that has almost no basis in real life or real value. If you find yourself chasing that speed, that pace, the house you build is made of clouds, gossamer, with a front door made of goose down through which you’ll never hear a knock.

I’ve been there. I’ve done that. Sometimes, when I get frustrated, I lose myself in moments of those kinds of false dreams.

But when I think about the things I get to do, the offers that come my way, I realize the path never began with a lottery ticket or a miracle pill. They begin with thousands of hours spent learning my craft, hundreds of small opportunities to say yes – especially when I wasn’t confident in the outcome.

The old saying goes that good things come to those who wait, but that’s not entirely true. Good things, at least the good things I’ve come to experience in my life, are not the product of simple patience. They are the product of iteration, of hard work and focus over the long haul. They are the product of possessing the humility to be willing to learn, to pay your dues, to take on work you might not love but can learn from; of doing favors and finding ways to create value for other people even before you receive the value you desire.

Good things come to those willing to put in the work, those willing to delay gratification long enough to earn it. Opportunity only knocks on solid doors opened by people willing and eager to let it inside.

Start building your house, if you haven’t yet. And if you have. If you’ve been working toward your goal, share your experiences. There are people out there – including me – who will find value in your openness and want to create opportunities for you. And never stop building. Your house is never done. Stop sitting around and waiting for the good things. Get to work and find ways to make them happen yourself.

I’m thankful for all the opportunities that have come up lately. I’m thankful for all the ones I’ve yet to hear. But, most importantly, I’m thankful for the ones I’ve taken, the doors I’ve opened and the house they’ve helped me build. 

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