Creating Your Own Opportunity Machine

Richard Branson’s first business was Virgin Records. He’d started selling records via mail order in 1970, and by 1972 he had Virgin Records, the first of what would be more than four hundred companies.

Stefani Germanotta sang beautiful piano-accompanied songs and experimented with avant-garde dance music before becoming Lady Gaga and launching three incredible pop albums in five years, building a tremendous brand and establishing a tremendous recognition base. Now she can create any kind of music she wants, doing duet albums with Tony Bennett and making powerful emotional art like Joanne.

Jeff Bezos sold books online, and now Amazon runs half the world. Guy Fieri had a place called “Johnny Garlic’s” in California in 1996, and now he’s, well, he’s Guy Fieri. Elon Musk’s first company was called Zip2, a company that made freakin’ city guides for newspapers, and you probably didn’t even know that.

Here’s the central point of all of these examples: Once you “activate” an idea, activating future ideas becomes way, way easier.

Lots of people have good ideas. Hundreds, maybe thousands. And they sit in your brain forever for one of a hundred different reasons. Maybe you don’t have the resources to put them into action, or maybe you’re just not that motivated. But one of the big reasons people with lots of ideas don’t ever act on them is the sort of analysis paralysis that comes from having too many.

If you have 100 great ideas for a business, it can be just as daunting as having none. In your mind, you’re not choosing one idea to run with, you’re choosing to put a bullet in 99 and you just can’t do it. How can you abandon so many great concepts and focus on just one?

Here’s how: step one, recognize that it’s not choosing to focus on 100 ideas versus “just one.” It’s choosing to think about a hundred things and do nothing versus doing literally anything. Even the idea of “focusing” on a hundred things is ludicrous. You can only pick one.

Step two, recognize that you’re not putting 99 ideas in the grave in order to serve only one. What you’re actually doing is using that first idea to blaze a trail so that all the others can follow.

Richard Branson didn’t choose Virgin Records over Virgin Airlines, Mobile, Atlantic, or Trains. Stefani Germanotta didn’t choose to make pop albums instead of soulful ballads. They just picked one thing and did that first, and their success in that built them the machine that would produce all their other success.

Virgin Records was Richard Branson’s Opportunity Machine. The Fame was Lady Gaga’s. Your own Opportunity Machine can look like a lot of different things, but there are a few elements in common:

  • It will teach you how to turn an idea into reality. The idea or the reality or both might not be as good as you expected, but making that first thing real is a powerful ability to gain. Once you have it, you’ll always have it.
  • It will shape your life. Do you know why people have “empty nest” syndrome? It’s because once you shape your life around something big, like having kids, that shape stays even after the kids leave. Empty nesters are great babysitters (as everyone with a grandparent knows) not just because of their experience, but because of all the little things about their life that are already shaped around being prepared and able to support kids. Once you turn your life into a life that can “activate” ideas, it stays that way.
  • It will give you a foundation of credibility. The ability to communicate your idea to others is foundational. No one truly accomplishes anything alone – whether you have to convince employees to join you, people to listen to you, customers to buy from you, investors to give you money, or vendors to sell to you, the ability to make others believe in your ideas is a necessity. After the first time, that gets a lot easier. Do you think Elon Musk would have much trouble getting people to invest in a new company? And this is true even if your first idea wasn’t successful – someone who failed knows about a thousand times more than someone who didn’t try, and other people know that, too.

Taking action on a single idea now drags all of those other ideas you have closer to reality. Trying to make a decision without taking action is next to impossible, so take action and use the results of that action to guide your decision. If you still can’t decide, act more. You’ll never run out of steps to take. The engine in your Opportunity Machine can run forever.

Good Credit, Bad Credit

“How much credit should you seek” is a different question than “how much credit do you deserve?”

Something I reflect on pretty frequently is that I don’t like to think of opinions, thoughts, or ideas as “good/bad” or “right/wrong.” Rather, I like to think of ideas as either helpful or unhelpful.

Consider the following idea: “You are 100% in control of everything that happens to you. You have the ability to work through any obstacle with your choices and actions.” Is that idea right? Pretty obviously not. Even though I believe you have a great deal of control, only a fool would say it’s absolute. So the idea isn’t right, but is it helpful? I say that it is. Think about two opposite ideas: “You are 100% in control of your destiny,” as above, and “you have zero control over your fate; everything happens to you as a result of predetermined factors or other people’s influence. You can’t affect your own life in any way.”

Neither of those ideas is correct, but one is certainly more helpful than the other! If you believed the first idea, you’d work very hard in your life. Sometimes you’d put effort into lost causes, but most of the time you’d be a driving force for improvement and change in your life. If you put all your stock in that second idea, you’d be a hopelessly lost cause yourself, never trying (and therefore never accomplishing) anything.

So let’s get back to that idea of credit. There are a million situations where you could imagine deserving credit for something, but seeing how it would be more helpful to you to share it. Maybe you did the lion’s share of the work, but the other people who contributed less than you are nevertheless in a position to help you with your future goals. Is the value of “the credit you deserve” worth more to you than the value of the help you may receive?

One of the hardest things we ever have to give up is the concept of entitlement. Especially when, by all accounts, we actually do deserve the thing we feel entitled to.

There was once a man who saved up all of his money and invested in gold, purchasing a large bar of the stuff. Then he sailed across the ocean with his bounty, ready to use it to settle in a new land. A storm suddenly appeared and the man and his gold were thrown overboard. The man, unwilling to give up what was rightfully his, clutched his gold and refused to let go, even as it dragged him below the depths and he drowned.

That was his gold. He “deserved” it, as much as anyone can deserve anything. The gold being his was a “right” idea that was very, very unhelpful. That can be like credit – something you deserve, but will drown you if you cling to. Be careful about what you don’t let go of.

Responsible Uniqueness

Deviating from the norm in some capacity or another is almost always a strength, if you build the right framework to make it one.

First, a potentially controversial opinion: Statistical models about people are helpful. It’s helpful to know what the “average” person is likely to do, think, feel. It gives you a baseline that lets you live your life in a way that would be impossible if you could literally never predict anyone’s behavior.

I live in New Jersey, in the United States. That means (among other things), that if I walk into a store to purchase something, I have a reasonable expectation of what language that transaction is going to happen in, what comments will or won’t offend the people I buy from, and so on.

Now, I should make really, really clear that I’m not saying that the average, predictable model is the best of all possible versions of this (or any) scenario. I’m absolutely not saying that anyone should be forced into this model. Just because it’s useful for me to be able to predict that an interaction with a stranger is probably going to happen in a certain way doesn’t mean that it has to go down like that, or that I have any good reason to be upset if it doesn’t.

In fact, if everything fell right in the middle of the statistical average, this would be a boring and unproductive life. I hope the world continues to be wild.

But if you’re one of the people who does something that other people might not expect, there’s a good way to make your life easier. Consider yourself to be the one responsible for managing that deviation.

My father used to tell me that the way to avoid car accidents was to be predictable. Never do anything that would surprise any other drivers. Don’t stop suddenly, don’t turn without signalling, and so on. Allow others to predict your behavior easily and the interactions with those people (in this case, navigating around each other in cars) will go much more smoothly.

That’s good advice for life. If your goal is smooth interactions with other people, then be predictable in your social behavior. Don’t get mad about stuff that would surprise someone. Don’t veer into strange conversation topics without warning. In other words, when you want to deviate from the norm, signal first.

This isn’t you asking for permission to be you. A turn signal isn’t signaling you requesting permission to make a left. It’s you saying that you’re going to turn left, and you want other people to be aware of it so that turn goes smoothly. Sure, you could just turn without signaling – but then you might get hit, and if your goal was to not get hit, you messed up.

If you have a peanut allergy, a phobia of dogs, a traumatic reaction to loud noises, or a certain kind of common social interaction that you don’t like, then your life gets a lot easier if other people know about them. Some people are very gracious and will ask if anyone has a peanut allergy before even opening their own lunch, but you can’t count on that. The number of ways people can differ from the average is nearly infinite, and even the best-intentioned can’t check for all of them. Each of those things can be a strength – even a peanut allergy, which seems to be 100% negative, can give you insights into other people’s struggles or maybe steer you to delicious new recipes that you’d have never discovered if you could default to easy peanut butter sandwiches – but if you don’t “signal” then you’ll spend a lot of your life getting rear-ended by people who expected you to go straight when you were turning left.

Be unique. Be different, be weird, be fun, be cool. Please, don’t ever stop – the world needs you so much. But put a framework in place that gives the maximum possible benefit to both you and the world from that uniqueness. My impression is that people don’t want to do that because they sometimes don’t want to be seen as unique, or they fear that their uniqueness will become a weapon used against them by people who do want to “enforce the average.” Those aren’t invalid fears or thoughts, but I challenge you to give the world a chance. To beat the metaphor to death a little, I don’t think the people going straight are mad at the people turning left – they’re just mad at the ones who don’t signal first.

P.S.: It should go without saying, but it probably doesn’t: If someone does signal, you are the best kind of person if you do everything you can to make that go smoothly for the person who did so.

Marking Time

We count time in many ways, and most of them aren’t very scientific.

We count a lot of arbitrary things annually. A year is a convenient measuring tool, but nothing about the number 365 suggests that it’s an ideal block of time for learning or experiencing or developing.

We worry about deadlines, are eager about weekends. We waste fifteen minutes on nothing many times over, but would often kill for an extra fifteen minutes first thing in the morning. We think about how long it takes for a cup of tea to cool.

Our value of these moments varies wildly. I won’t watch a YouTube video that’s over eight minutes, but I’ll happily read for hours. I’ll spend a whole weekend on some leisure activity but I don’t like taking 20 minutes to make myself lunch.

These are the rhythms of your life, and it’s worth putting them in some sort of harmony. Think about the things in your life that you mark time against, and make sure that they have a flow to them that’s complementary. Don’t ignore the value you can gain by moving even a single minute from one activity to another. You can find great treasure hidden between breaths.

The Second Try

It is amazing to me just how much better you can get at something on only your second attempt.

There are just so many “first-time” mistakes that are literally just that – things that you only do while learning the most basic elements of a task. As soon as you’ve experienced even one cycle of actions and results, your understanding is an order of magnitude greater. Compared to someone who’s never done something, the person who’s done it once is an expert.

Despite this, the fear of those initial mistakes makes people not attempt the action at all. Or discourages them after that first attempt. “I made so many errors,” they say, “I must be terrible at it, so once was enough.”

Quitting right before it gets good is silly! The first-time mistakes don’t last, and once they’re out of the way you can have such a blast. That wall is paper thin – go break through it!

Good & Narrow

I was speaking with someone yesterday about various impressive accomplishments one could achieve. He pointed out that many impressive accomplishments were no longer unique; even climbing Mt. Everest, while amazing, isn’t a win you could solely own.

Life offers you two solutions to this conundrum. One is to be the absolute best at some broad thing – climb Everest the fastest or something. Difficult in a world of so many people! Option Two is to narrow your focus. You might not be the only person to summit Everest, but maybe you could be the only one to do it blindfolded.

I’m not recommending that directly, of course. I’m just saying that one way to be the absolute best at something is to pick a niche.

Not only is it easier to be the best in a narrower field, but you’ll actually be more distinctive for it. The news doesn’t cover when people climb Everest any more. But it sure would if someone did it blindfolded.

Invisible Walls

Sometimes, there are huge things stopping us from moving forward, and we can’t see what they are. We think the way looks clear, and we’re confused when our forward momentum is halted – perhaps suddenly! Not only can the sudden stop be unpleasant because you thought you’d get to Point B and you didn’t, but in addition you might have even suffered some loss from the impact. Maybe you sank money into an investment and not only didn’t you get the return you wanted, you lost your stake. Maybe you thought things were going really well with the new person you’ve been seeing, and when it falls apart you’re not only left confused as to why, but you’ve also invested time and emotional effort that’s now lost.

There are some simple steps you can take that, while they can’t prevent this, can at least soften the blow. Don’t be too careless – if you charge ahead heedlessly, you can hit a wall you didn’t even know was there. Trust the opinions of a few others whose intelligence and insight you respect, and seek advice with some regularity. If you always go it alone, you only ever have one angle from which to view things, and maybe from another the wall wouldn’t have been quite so invisible. Don’t invest more than you’re willing to lose in any one endeavor; but remember, you can often bear greater losses than you think. You’ll earn back that money, and you have more emotional effort to give, and you’re not out of time yet.

And if, just if, you work in an office that has floor-to-ceiling glass paneling directly next to doorways, just… maybe watch where you’re going? Your face will hurt less.