6 min read

It's Really Easy to Miss Opportunities

I started a new job recently. It's the biggest opportunity I've ever had, yet I was close to not taking it. This is how I've started thinking about opportunity so that it doesn't happen again.
It's Really Easy to Miss Opportunities

3 billion people don't have affordable and reliable internet access. It's easy to overlook how big a deal that is. Think about how much of your work and life relies on being connected to the internet. I wouldn't have had the opportunities I've had without it. I couldn't work without it. I couldn't learn without it. That's true for the people around me and it's true for most of you reading this. Figuring out how to connect people to the lifeblood that is the Internet is one of the most important and high leverage things we can do to move humanity forward.

I recently started a new job to work on this problem. We're deploying internet infrastructure in African communities, increasing the total number of people on the internet and connecting people that were previously unconnected. We're leveraging a blockchain solution to build something enduring; an entity to fund internet infrastructure in Africa and the rest of the world for the next 30 years.

It's the biggest opportunity I've ever had.

I was close to not taking the job. I didn't realise the magnitude of what we were doing until I was in the midst of it. That scares me an awful lot. It reveals how easy it is to pass on opportunity without realising it. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a quote in The Black Swan that is particularly relevant:

"Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity. They are rare, much rarer than you think. Many people do not realise they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel anything you have planned: you may not see such a window open up again."

I got my opportunity after flying across the country to have coffee with one of these big thinkers. I trusted my gut and booked the flight on the belief that it'd pay off in the long run. I got lucky. But if opportunity is as rare as Taleb points out, I don't want to rely on luck. I want to be able to identify, assess and act on opportunity. I want to be able to think about it clearly. This is an essay about how I've started thinking about opportunity in light of that [1].

How I Think About Opportunity

1- There's no opportunity without risk

We talk about risk like it’s a bad thing, but all progress involves risk. You can’t find a risk-free way to accomplish anything significant. You can live a quiet and comfortable life, but you're unlikely to create something new, and you're unlikely to make your mark on the world [2].

If risk is unavoidable, what's the best way to handle it? Choose projects where the downside is understood and the work is worth doing. The downside of this new role is that I don't know what I'll do if it fails. There's no obvious backup. The upside is that if we get it right we'll change the world permanently. Being 25, taking that risk is a no-brainer.

2- If you're diving into the deep end, dive quickly

If you ever feel like you're being thrown into a position way ahead of where you should be, sign the deal as quickly as you can.

Consider this tweet from the perspective of the person being hired. Few things provide motivation and confidence like having someone believe in you more than you believe in yourself. Knowing you're capable is one thing, having someone else confirm and push you to reach that potential is another.

If you find someone willing to believe and invest in you, do whatever you must to work with them. Being out of your comfort zone will force you to grow, and the person that put you there is far more inclined to be invested in you and your progress. Few things are more effective for personal growth than good mentorship.

3- Value alignment is rarer than you think

I've been trying to figure out what I want to spend my attention on and it's surprisingly difficult to answer. I've learnt that I'm deeply interested in using technology for social change and large scale human coordination. It's why I find challenges like connecting 3 billion people to the internet so energising. Whether we succeed or not, it's an attempt to build something better than what we have today. Those are the challenges I want to be working on. That's where I want to dedicate myself. That's what's important to me.

If an opportunity aligns with what's important to you, and allows you to devote the majority of your time and attention to it, jump at it.

4- Be irrationally optimistic

As teams and individuals we can achieve monumental things that change the world permanently. It's a choice whether you pursue that or not.

I think most people benefit from taking an irrationally optimistic view and acting as if individuals can make a very big difference. There’s little downside from being too optimistic, and a great deal of upside if your stance proves right. We all choose how we regard the possibility of great achievement, and it's one of the most important choices we each make.

5- Accept that there will be curveballs

You don't need to have plans for every contingency before you can act. You don't need to be highly confident in your analyses before you present a model. If you sit around waiting for certainty, you'll be waiting a long time.

Accept that there are going to be curveballs and trust your ability to handle them. Trust your ability to get back up when you're knocked down by a curveball you couldn't handle. Accept that you might be hurt so badly you can't get up, and move forward anyway.

6- Optimise for the best next decision

I'm guilty of doing way too much career planning. Looking back on my career and life to date, none of it has gone according to script, yet it's turned out far better than I could have imagined.

The world is an incredibly complex place and everything is changing all the time. You can’t plan your career because you have no idea what’s going to happen in the future. You have no idea what industries you’ll enter, what companies you’ll work for, what roles you’ll have, where you’ll live, or what you'll ultimately contribute to the world. You’ll change, industries will change, the world will change, and you can’t possibly predict any of it. Stop trying and optimise for the best next decision.

7- Opportunity and popularity are inversely correlated.

Sometimes, the paths that look safe are the riskiest, and vice versa. If you’re looking for an under-exploited opportunity, you’ll have to go against the herd. As investor Jim Grant says: “Successful investing is about having people agree with you… later.”

8- When in doubt, do what makes for the best story

The person who tells the most compelling story wins. As Amjad Masad, founder and CEO of Replit, says: when in doubt, do what makes for the best story.

"Life is also a form of self storytelling. We're continually retelling ourselves our life story, but very few people think of themselves as authors of their story, not mere subjects. People with extraordinary high-agency realize this early in life and start maximizing the interestingness of their life story. Having a fascinating life story is not just an exercise in vanity -- it has a real impact on your success in life. You'll have an easier time attracting friends as well as life and business partners. It'll also make it much easier to sell yourself or your products. It has a kind of compounding halo effect. So next time you're faced with a tough decision, consider the path that makes a more interesting story. If it turned out to be the wrong decision to have made, you'd at least be fun at dinner parties."


[1] It's important to offer some context about where this thinking comes from. I'm 25 years old, with very little responsibility and no dependents. I've got a low personal burn rate and almost no physical attachments. I'm free to move and in the perfect position to optimise for experiences that will serve me well later. This is not the time in my life to play it safe. This isn't a unique position because most of my friends are in a similar position, or could be relatively quickly. If I were married with children this would be a very different conversation. Part of the reason I'm writing this is so that I can look back on it when I'm at that stage and see how much my views have changed.

[2] For me, going through life and living this way is the biggest risk of all.

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