Nowhere is the study of opportunity and how to seize it more real than in martial arts training. A black belt and his opponent face off against each other. Cautiously and defensively they move around each other – circling, sensing, and waiting for the right moment. A seasoned black belt is patient, knowing how to look for that moment when a subtle change in posture by the opponent creates an opportunity to strike. The opponent feels like he has to “make something happen” to create an opening himself. He decides to “go for it” and lifts his foot off the ground stepping towards the black belt. And in that moment, that one instant, the black belt instinctively knows his opponent is off balance. He moves to action. This is where mind and body become ”one” and the black belt strikes – opportunity taken.
The concept of seeing an opportunity on a personal development level (you are the black belt in this metaphor) is fairly straightforward and not that difficult to achieve. The explanation above is the identical methodology I use for opportunity identification and action whether it is on the dojo floor, in business, parenting, or personal development. It is a key component of “Centered Harmony” one of the 6 Elements black belts train to achieve.
The Pillar of Opportunity – Preparation
Simply stated, you will increase your chance of getting opportunities only if you are prepared to receive them. That means you have to work hard to be ready to act instantly. Black belts train for years doing drills, partner work and sparring so that they can physically and mentally act (not react) when an opening (opportunity) presents itself. On a personal development level sometimes you don’t always see an opportunity even if it is right in front of you. You need to have prepared yourself to really take an opportunity and when it presents itself, and move on it. What does preparation mean in a personal development context? Most of us aren’t “training” in the classic sense I described above. But there are ways to prepare you for opportunities simply by stepping outside your comfort zone as I have written about regarding performance breakthroughs.
Personal Development Opportunity Framework
Here is a very simple framework (set of steps) you can take to put yourself on a path of personal development in simple and achievable way:
1. Allow yourself to follow your curiosity
Generate some initial ideas by brainstorming areas you want to explore whether that is for career purposes or personal interests. Sit down and make list of the areas of interest you have. Starting this blog is a great example. Although I work in technology professionally the concept of social media is all new for me. I identified this as an area I wanted to explore without knowing much about it.
2. Invest Time in Yourself to Identify New Interests
I don’t think we make time to explore areas we are interested in. There is always an excuse to not do something – too many chores, too much work at the office, picking up the kids. You have to make time. Look at your daily schedule. What can you cut out to start investing in the exploration of that new interest? Less TV? Getting up earlier or going to bed later? You need to find time so you can invest it back into yourself. In my personal social media example I have made time to understand it, work at it, and learn about it. And that is already paying off in personal and professional ways by increasing my knowledge base and connecting with other people to expand my network as two simple examples. Will this level of preparation pay off for me in some other way beyond my enjoyment in blogging, writing and being involved in social media? I can’t say conclusively but it is clear that not doing gives me no chance for an opportunity later. But it is something I have acted on out of curiosity and found time to work on.
3. Putting Yourself in New Situations
I think too many of us worry about looking foolish. I excel at this (go ahead and laugh). Don’t make an idiot of yourself. But go out a little bit and try something new, preferably something you know you are not good at. Some simple examples:
- Public speaking – If you do not do well in front of large groups go and try this. Start small, address a group as your child’s school or do a brief for colleagues on something you are working on;
- Cooking – Those that know me know I love to cook. I used to lack considerable talent in this area. You’ll learn about working under pressure and timing. I now cater events for fun on behalf of friends for 50-60 people at a time. You can see how far I have come in this area here;
- Travel – I am blown away at the number of people that don’t go out of the United States, much less their own city or town. It’s easier to do this in Europe where distances between very different cultures are short. That said, even a lot Europeans don’t get around as much as they could. Go check out another culture, you cannot NOT LEARN by traveling. I am at 30+ countries – there is no downside to this;
- Social Media – Seriously, it makes no sense at first and is hard to start getting used to but by jumping in you will learn how it works.
“A Spark of Flint Striking Steel” – Ignore Your Conscious Mind
The excellent Zen text “Zen and Japanese Culture” by D.T. Suzuki describes the concept of acting without hesitation. This concept is described as a piece flint striking steel and creating a spark. The “spark” is what we are really seeking on a personal development. In the opening paragraph above a black belt always moves without hesitation. He knows the opportunity is there and takes it. In short he does not doubt himself. The mind has been trained to block out anything extraneous that gets in the way of scoring a point. In a real world personal development level the concept is identical. Usually our minds distract us from moving. We aren’t ready or prepared to act. We over-think and say to ourselves “what happens if I do this?” or “What are the consequences of acting or not acting?” We lack the confidence to act as our mind gets the best of us. This is personal development on a very real level. If you can get yourself to the point of acting without hesitation it is progress.
Other times you see an opportunity but you can’t move quickly enough. This is a different but related issue to preparation. I see this happen all the time in business situations. An excellent post I read earlier this week from Mike Myatt who writes the CEO leadership blog N2Growth does a terrific write-up outlining timing from a business perspective. But timing, while important, isn’t enough. You’ve got to have put in the work, OR at least make yourself move, to see an opportunity and take it. Making yourself “move on something” is a fall back strategy at best. It doesn’t matter if it is a market opportunity, a potential change you can make to your personal life, or something else. Don’t get me wrong, on a personal development level, you don’t always have to move in a split second. However, you can over think something and the opportunity to act (the spark) is gone. You’ve missed the opportunity. It’s fine to reason things out, get validation and move towards something. But many times we fall into a trap of not acting because we think we are not ready. Or worse, we don’t think we can do something so we don’t try.
The Reason You Can’t Strike – Fear
Sometimes lack of movement or being ready to seize on an opportunity isn’t about preparation, or knowing when to act. Often it is just over thinking a situation. In business this is commonly referred to as “analysis paralysis”. On a personal level it is “acting cautiously”. Either way there is only thing holding someone back from moving (and doing it instantly): fear.
In Japanese warfare, having fear of the opponent is considered certain death (read failure on a personal development level). Samurai warriors trained for centuries to accept death as part of their job and honed this attitude. I am not equating this level of attitude to making a foolish decision. I am just saying that those that are prepared, or at least prepared enough through putting themselves out there, can see an opportunity and take it.
(On a side note, the book Zen and Japanese Culture I referenced above is virtually mandatory reading for any black belt to be in a traditional karate setting. It’s implications for personal development is significant and I highly recommend you read the two chapters on Zen and Swordsmanship, regardless of your interest (or lack of) in martial arts.)
Thanks for training with me.