Opportunity in Two Flavors

One night this week I met up with one of my best friends. I don’t get to see him that often, but that’s alright. It’s one of those friendships that picks up right where it left off, even if it’s been weeks or months.

He’s had a lot of opportunities, and so have I. This friend of mine is a bit older than me, and, accordingly, has moved farther on in his career. He’s one of these people with a solid job and, like, three side projects, all of which are doing phenomenally well. If he wasn’t so down to earth, it’d be all too easy to resent the guy’s success.

Somehow, we got to talking about opportunities in the meta sense, and I realized his definition of opportunity and my definition of opportunity are quite different. And, now that I’ve had a cumulative fourteen hours on airplanes without internet this week to reconcile these two differing definitions, I think I’ve been won over by his.

Here’s how I’ve thought about “opportunity.” Up to now, I think I’ve been conflating opportunity with chance and risk more than one ought to. I’ve thought of opportunities as the chance to speculate, to venture out and attempt something that would carry some reward at the end. Running the risk of making broad, overarching generalizations here, it’d be fair to say mine is a definition firmly couched in the American tradition. It is, after all, the Land of Opportunity. Or so goes the branding.

But here’s how my friend frames it. What I’ve viewed as fundamentally speculative in nature is, to him, more about options. An options contract gives the holder the right, but not the obligation, to execute a transaction at some point in the future, and the holder will do so if and only if it’s advantageous for them to do so. Sure, one can use options to speculate, as they typically come cheap and offer outsized gains if the holder is lucky. But at the end of the day, options (both financial instruments and opportunities, in this rhetorical framework) are the ultimate hedge. You know exactly what you’re getting yourself into if you act on that option.

So to move away from the strictly financial metaphor here, I’m trying to reorient my way of thinking about opportunities, from something that’s inherently risky to being something that’s more or less risk-free. The opportunity is the sure bet one has cultivated by way of hard work, the right connections, good timing, and a fair bit of luck, and it’s ultimately a personal and pragmatic choice to seize upon that opportunity.

The folks who headed to California in the late 1800s in search of gold were called prospectors for a reason. In sales, there’s a reason why potential customers are called prospects. It takes skill and luck to turn these risks into real opportunities to grow. Gold prospectors didn’t have the opportunity to make money until they actually found the vein of gold. Then it’s just a matter of chipping away at the problem bit by bit.

So, it’s not just that words matter. Definitions and interpretation matters too. Don’t mistake prospectors for miners. There’s a difference between chance and choice.

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

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