Opportunity: What is It?

One of the earliest advice I learned was to not miss opportunities.   A similar piece of advice goes something like if opportunity knocks, open the door.   Later I was warned about opportunity cost: the idea of doing one thing may prevent you from doing something else.   And of course, there is the ever present missed opportunity.

One of the things I value in decision makers is their ability to focus on the immediate present.   No matter how you got here or where you heading, given the current opportunities what makes the most sense for going forward.   This contrasts with the usual mark of a good leader of setting a path and sticking to it.   The path of my ideal leader probably resembles more of a drunkard’s walk.

Or at the very least that seems to be way I run my life.   I don’t plan anything.  If I describe a plan it is to humor someone asking for a plan.   I usually have no commitment to any goal.

When bored, I’ll sometimes play some pen and paper solitaire games that takes one of two forms.

One is to start drawing parallel lines as if to denote a road map.  I’d draw only a little at a time and then draw the parallel line to complete the road boundary.  Then I would skip a space to indicate at some point there would be an overpass.   Or I may draw a fork in the road with two paths, or I may draw an interaction or a turn.   The roads are curvy so they end up looping back on themselves and then if there is a gap I’ll draw an overpass or if not I’ll either try to find a way out, make a dead end, or an underpass.   The process continues as long I remain bored.   I don’t think it ever ends when I run out of places to draw paths.   The finished doodle is only interesting in recalling how it came to be.   I may keep it a while (it is usually some page in a notebook so it’ll be around for a while) but it has no long term significance other than occupying my boredom.

The other is very similar but instead of a geometric design, I’ll use the alphabet.  I’ll start writing some long word but after a few letters I’ll think of another word that has those letters and start writing that word instead.   This is not completely gibberish because there is something related about the words, like adding an ending on a word or making a new word by combining two roots.    Unlike the doodle it doesn’t go on forever, but it does end up unusually long for a word.   Sometimes reading out the syllables suggests a possible meaning or at least an impression.   But like the doodle, that meaning is primarily a record of the journey I took to create it.

Neither pastime has anything to offer to advance any goal.   However either one is permanently etched in history (whether recoverable or not) of how I chose to spend my time of boredom.

To be honest, I don’t recall doing either of these activities in any recent years.   But I can’t help but to think I’m doing something very similar in these blog posts.   I put a lot of thinking into the posts but looking back at them they appear to be fragments of thoughts that are tied together by nothing else than the fact that the more recent is building on older ones while trying to avoid an obnoxious collision.

I don’t think I’m bored when I’m writing this blog.   However, I probably don’t think I’m bored playing those solitaire pen and paper games.  It is probably the same thing.

This got me thinking about the idea of opportunity.   In an earlier post I divided time into four parts: the immediate present, the single immalleable past, the mysterious grab bag of missed opportunities, and the future.   We live in the immediate present.

We rarely think of living just in the present.   We inevitably feel bound to the past in some way or another.   Even when we attempt to live in the moment, we don’t really allow us to forget our obligations to others not in the immediate vicinity.   Nor do others allow us to ignore our own past.    Attaching a reputation to a person is chaining him to his past.   So is making a decision to pass up an opportunity because it would be contrary to needs outside of the immediate instant.

We only live in the immediate present.   Pure opportunity is what is available right this instant.   After this instant, three things will happen.   One is that I’ll enter a new instant.   Two is what ever I did in the last instant will be consigned to history.  Three is whatever I didn’t do will be thrown in the trash bin of missed opportunities.    The future doesn’t really play into this little game except to provide the fresh instant with fresh opportunities constrained by causal natural laws.

We can game the future by mastering the causal laws of nature.  Game is a good way to describe it because the future offers opponents to our plans.   What happens next is only partly under our control and is likely to not go according to our plans.

All we have is the current instant.   The current instant offers opportunities that are in the immediate vicinity of our control.   We choose among the opportunities.   Most of the time we choose to do nothing and let the immediately available opportunities pass.   As I mentioned, this is a hallmark of what many consider to be good leadership: stick to a plan through thick or thin and not be distracted by disruptive opportunities.

The other extreme is to allow distractions to distract.

Recently I reintroduced myself to the game of chess and studied it a while but eventually lost interest in it.   What I remember was the progression of learning about the basic principles of openings and strategies, and then learning about tactics and assessing board positions, and then hearing about masters being able to play a room full of opponents by moving from one table to the next, looking at the board position choosing a move and then moving on to the next table and in the end beating nearly everyone.

Maybe he has a great memory to hold dozens of different strategies in his head.  The impression I had was of someone who looked at a board position and thought it makes no difference whatsoever how the pieces got to this arrangement, he knows the best next move.

In case it is not obvious, I know next to nothing about the game.   I subscribed to an online chess site for about two months and I don’t think I ever won even at the most basic level.   I wasn’t really trying to learn.

But I did like that image of decision-making without constraints to the past.   Such decision making involves both strategy and tactics.  What it doesn’t involve is respect for the strategy and tactics of the past that put the board in its current position.

In some ways chess is simpler than the choices of life but I still think that image holds a lesson about life.

We go about clinging to our old strategies.   Often others know of these strategies and will judge us in comparison with that earlier strategy.   This be an explicit announcement of a plan that is typical of leadership positions.   This may be implicit.  An implicit strategy is that of a young person entering a college degree program implies he intends not only to leave with that degree but to enter a career in it.    This becomes frequent anecdotes about people with college degrees working in jobs that don’t require it.

We think sticking to a strategy for the long-haul matters.  It defines character.  Even at a more basic level, it seems to be the fair thing to do.  It is somehow cheating to change strategies.

There is another concept about opportunities that is called the sunk cost fallacy.  It says when considering what to do next it is not valid to weigh what was already invested in a previous strategy.   All that counts is what resources you have now.   Usually this argument is invoked trying to convince someone to abandon a disapproved strategy.   I rarely hear this invoked by people who approve of the old strategy.    I agree with the idea it is a fallacy as a rational argument.   But I often object to its use as a tactic to distract the decision maker of his current position.   Abandoning a project does require losing even more in addition to what was already lost.   It seems equally a fallacy to say that the current position has trivial worth compared to what was spent getting it.   The current position is what you have to work with.   It is like the chess master coming to a board where his position is outnumbered and seemingly trapped and yet finds a move anyway.   He doesn’t concede unless there is clearly no other sporting move left.

Often there is a change in leadership where the new leader inherits what came before.   In this initial period, a new leader faces a lot of pressure to address the old strategy that got to the current condition before suggesting any new strategy.   If the current conditions are favorable he has to acknowledge the wisdom of his predecessor.   If the current conditions are unfavorable, he has to in some way cast blame on the predecessor.   In either case this seems to be a big waste of time.   It may be a year or two before the leader is allowed to lead on his own right.

It seems to me a better approach would be to start from day one and say it doesn’t matter how we got here, based on our current position, this is where we are going.   Rarely do we allow leaders to be so seemingly arrogant.   But it is the only thing that really makes sense.

I have zero leadership qualities.   I may suggest leadership-type ideas, but I lack any charisma for anyone to take me seriously.   I don’t help things much by neglecting to build a reputation of leadership.   I don’t mind.  I don’t aspire to leadership.   I do like supporting leaders and when I do I encourage them to base their decisions on their current position.   I try to help by quantifying that position using historical data.    Lacking broad recognition of authority, I can’t claim this as a portable career.   That is irrelevant to the case I’m making here.   My point is to emphasize that I admire leadership that takes seriously his current position and charts a path forward no matter what transpired to get to this point.

During my teen years, I dabbled somewhat in wood carving.  I set out to make abstract carvings.   Perhaps I doubted I could make a realistic carving.    But I do like abstract meaningless shapes.   Although abstract in nature, one of my carvings had a plan sketched out on paper.   It involved three standing shapes where the two side shapes where like shadows of the center piece.  On one side, the shadow was stretched horizontally.  On the other side, the shadow was stretched vertically.   I use the term shadow to describe the plan but each was to be a three-dimensional sculpture.   It was part of my plan to give the shapes some individual features.   I didn’t set out to make them perfect replicates of each other.  I wanted to express something about being made taller or being made fatter.   Before taking too much credit for artistry, I more or less approached it deliberately as a technician rather the an artist.   The point is that I had a plan.  I also wasn’t very skilled.  I made mistakes.  Serious mistakes.   The basic concept was set by the initial cut outs but the finished result was not at all as I had planned.   I remember there were a several times when I thought maybe I should start all over, but I decided to continue for reasons I’m not sure I can recover.   I looked at my current position of partially carved pieces and kept carving with what I had.   I ended up with a result that I was very happy with.

That work no longer exists, as far as I know, but I can still recall it in memory.  It started by being a central piece whose two shadows defined the side pieces.   The side pieces were to be descendants of the middle piece.   The final result was more like the two side pieces being parents of the piece in the middle.   I’m pretty sure I carved the middle piece first.  Now I do regret not still having it.

Back to my narrative, our lives are constrained only by the opportunities available in the present.   The unchangeable past may be studied to give us suggestions for choosing among different opportunities.   Alternatively the mysterious trash bin of missed opportunities may provide some hints.   But no matter what we choose the current instant will pass.  What we do will become part of history.   What we don’t do will joined the other missed opportunities.   We will move onto the next instant. The future will be whatever it will be.


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