“Creating opportunities means looking where others are not” – Mark Cuban
When my grandma and grandfather escaped to the United States they wanted to create a new life for themselves and their children. They hoped that America would be the land of opportunity they had dreamt about 8000 miles away in war-torn Vietnam.
When my grandparents landed on the shores of the U.S., they indeed saw that America was the land of opportunities but never once expected anything to be given to them; they knew they had to earn it – working 16-hour factory shifts, saving every nickel they made by cooking all our meals at home, and not letting racially-driven hate crimes intimidate them.
My grandparents became my first role models, and as I grew older I was lucky to stumble upon other role models who also taught me what it took to create opportunities for myself.
1. Play your garbage minutes as if they mattered
I loved watching basketball growing up. The most exciting games were the ones that would come down to the final seconds, where the final shot would decide the fate of the game. Watching these games, I could imagine how many of the players on the court dreamt about rebounding the ball and making the winning shot for their team. But not every game comes down to the last shot. Sometimes games are decided long before the final minutes – one team has such a large lead that it is impossible for the other team to win, the coaches have substituted out their best players, and many of the fans have left. The minutes left on the clock are known as “garbage minutes.” During these minutes, the players on the basketball court aren’t household names. It doesn’t matter how good (or bad) they play. The game is already over, all is left is waiting for the game clock to hit zero before both teams can go home.
DeMarre Carroll joined the NBA in 2009. For the first four years of his career, most of DeMarre’s playing time came exclusively from garbage minutes. But watching DeMarre play you wouldn’t know the game was over unless you looked at the score box. DeMarre was given an average of 6 minutes once every 7 weeks to play. Instead of viewing his limited playing time as if they didn’t matter, he played as if the game were still on the line, bringing his energy and competitiveness. As a result, his coaches saw his potential and would give him more and more minutes each season until his seventh year (and on his fifth team) he was moved from the back of the bench and to the starting lineup. But even in the main lineup, DeMarre was the lowest paid of this five starters – the next lowest paid player made nearly three-times as much. But again DeMarre didn’t view his placement as a limit; he viewed it as an opportunity. He played as if he were the star player.
Last year, after nearly taking his team to the championship round, DeMarre ended the year by signing a 4-year, $60 million contract to be a star player for his current team. Not bad for someone who was once the lowest paid player on his teams playing “garbage minutes”. DeMarre created an opportunity where others didn’t see one. Can you imagine if DeMarre hadn’t viewed those 6 minutes as opportunities to showcase his talent, but instead viewed those as a chore and did just enough to earn his paycheck for the day? Do you think he would have the $60 million contract he has today?
In your life, you will be given your share of “garbage minutes”, task that can be done without much thought and often quickly forgotten. You can view these chores as wastes of time…or you can view them as opportunities to show people you are ready for bigger, better opportunities.
2. Help Make Others Successful
I’ve been fortunate to work for many of my role models and later mentors. Before I worked at Bain, I spent two years working at a startup called Quiet. During my two years at Quiet, I worked with Susan Cain, author of the best-seller Quiet which has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and whose TED talk has over 13 million views and her co-founder Paul Scibetta. From age 20 to 22, I managed product development, brainstormed partnership ideas, and created content. The best part about this experience was how it started.
When I was a sophomore in college, I read Quiet: The Power of Introvert and had the desire to spread the message of Quiet and serving Susan’s Quiet Revolution in any way I could. A few months later, I read an article on Fast Company that Susan was working on an online public speaking course for introverts. I found Susan’s email on her website and offered to create the course for her all for free. I meant what I said about helping spread the Quiet Revolution even if it meant working for free. Susan took me up on that offer and I spent the following summer working for Susan creating the course. Though I signed up to work for free, I worked on the project as if I was getting paid a million salary. I pour my time and energy into it when I had the chance.
I would constantly think about how the product (our course) could be better. I wanted to create a product I would be proud of even if I didn’t believe my name nor future income would be coming from it. Three months from the day I first contacted Susan, the course was completed. When Paul and Susan created Quiet, they brought me on as an intern and the first team member outside of the founders to join the company. It was an opportunity of a lifetime that was available because I was willing to help others. Instead of asking, what can someone do for you, always ask “what can I do for this person.” Once your mindset shifts from serving yourself to serving others, opportunities will present themselves.
3. Start knocking on doors
On a delayed flight last summer I had a chance to read Gillian Zoe Segal‘s Getting There where she tries to discover the traits that successful people seemed to have in common. One of the commonalities she found was a relentless drive to overcome rejection. Everyone from Spanx founder Sara Blakely to Warren Buffett dealt with rejection early on in their careers – Blakely from all the manufactures who thought her idea would never sell and Buffett from Harvard Business School. But instead of using their early rejection as a reason to stop, they used it as fuel to continue onwards.
This lesson was most clear in Segal’s interview of John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of the Patrón Spirits Company and Paul Mitchell. Before becoming an entrepreneur, DeJoria spent three years going door-to-door selling Encyclopedias. DeJoria called this 3-year period of his life one of the most transformative and if the job were still available today, he would make his kids do it to teach them the valuable lesson that he learned.
“After you’ve had 15 doors slammed in your face,” he explained, “you need to be as enthusiastic at door number 16 as you were at the first door, if you want to make a sale.” When DeJoria launched John Paul Mitchell Systems, he relied on the same skills, going from beauty salon to beauty salon getting people to buy his hair care products. John Paul Mitchell products are a household name today, but in the early days, DeJoria was lucky to even get 1 out of 5 salons to try his product. He thanked his perseverance for not losing faith and continue to push forward with every salon that rejected him. Had DeJoria stopped knocking on doors, the dual multi-million empires of Patrón Spirits Company and John Paul Mitchell wouldn’t exist today.
To get opportunity to open itself, you have to overcome the sea of “no”s. If you’re not willing to risk having the door slammed in your face, than you won’t be ready when opportunity opens its door.
4. Deliver more than others expect of you
When Noah Kagan started okdork.com, a blog about online marketing, he wanted to become an influencer in this space, but with hundreds of other bloggers and thousands of articles already on the subject it was a challenge even figuring out how to start. Instead of writing and repeating what others were already doing in the marketing space, Noah would study what was working and reverse engineered the recipe for success analyzing over 1 million internet articles to find what tended to go viral.
What Noah learned about the difference between bloggers who get over 100,000 visitors and those who get less than 100 was the quality of their content. Average bloggers wrote about the same topics. Because they wrote the same low quality content, people didn’t stick around. In the blogs that stood out, Noah found the bloggers spent more time crafting their messages and doing research. Instead of putting something together just to hit publish, these bloggers went beyond what was expected of a free online article. Noah wanted to be in the latter camp and he succeed. If you read Noah’s articles you’ll notice a few things different from your usual online marketing article. His articles have more depth than others (2000 words is his personal minimum), he backs his claims with data (personal anecdotes don’t cut it), and he doesn’t recommend anything he hasn’t done himself. Going beyond what others expected, within a year, Noah grew his site to over 100,000 visitors.
It is easy to give people the minimum because it doesn’t require any additional work. If you want to be average, then do the minimum. If you want to create opportunities, learn to exceed people’s expectations.
5. Raise your hand for the hard jobs
During my junior year of college, I was grateful to attend a talk by PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi, one of only 23 women to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Her talk covered her journey from growing up in India to becoming one of the most powerful women in the world. When asked what the best advice she has ever been given, she quoted her father who taught her to “raise your hand for the hard jobs.”
Her father’s reasoning was that 1) people are scared of volunteering for the hard tasks – they hard for a reason – and volunteering makes you stand out 2) having to deal with hard problems forces you to grow so you can take on when harder challenges next time. Nooyi followed her father’s advice from the time she was in primary school, “I volunteered to work with the kids no one else wanted to work with” and well into her professional career “I would raise my hand for the jobs others were afraid to fail at.” Nooyi confessed she didn’t always know going in that she would be successful, but she was devoted to growing herself and making sure more bigger, better opportunities were available for her in the future. And as she volunteered for the hard job and did them successfully, the people around her started to take notice and she was given more and more opportunities, eventually taking over the role of CEO of PepsiCo in 2006.
Nooyi ended the session by reminding us, “Volunteer for the hard jobs because no one remembers the people who did the easy jobs.”
6. Make plans, not excuses
MJ DeMarco graduated college with two degrees, neither in computer science. Despite graduating without any programing knowledge, he made his wealth on the Internet and retired before 35. A former limo driver, MJ founded Limo.com in 1997 before selling his company (and later buying it back). How did someone without a tech background make his money on the Internet? MJ credits his success to one mindset: making plans, not excuses.
As a limo driver in Chicago, MJ noticed how many of his clients would ask for limo company recommendations when he took them to the airport. In the 90’s the internet was still growing and MJ saw the opportunity to create a market place for local limo companies and traveling businessmen. To turn his vision into a concrete idea, MJ read books on HTML and on running an internet business. MJ could have easily quit because he didn’t know how to code a Web site, how to design graphics, or how to manage a server, but instead of he asked, “I don’t know how to do this today, but how could I?”
Even after retiring early, MJ never stopped learning. In his book Millionaire Fastlane, MJ shares how the “make plans, not excuses” can apply to your personal life as well as your professional life. When MJ was remodeling his house, he wanted to paint the walls in a certain style. Since he was retired and had the time, he challenged himself to learn this skill. He went online and watched hours of video tutorials, went to Home Depot to buy the supplies he needed, and spent the next week practicing on cardboard boxes. When the week was over, he became proficient enough to complete the remodeling himself.
When you run into an obstacle, it is easy to come up with an excuse to quit. The opportunity lies in coming up with a plan to overcome your obstacle.
7. Come up with solutions not just problems
Life after college is a scary time. It is the first time most people have been on their own – paying their own bill, handling office politics, and dealing with the uncertainties of adulthood. No one is immune with their first contact with the real world – Jenny Blake was no exception. After graduating from UCLA and starting at Google, Jenny chronicled her journey on a blog fittingly named Life After College. She talked about problems that almost all recent graduates faced from being single in a new town to having a single digit bank account.
Jenny’s problems resonated with readers who were also recent graduates, but what made Jenny different was instead of just listing her problems, she came up with solutions. Instead of just talking about her problems with managing a budget, she shared a budget sheet; instead of talking about being single in a big city, she wrote about why being single rocks. As a result, Jenny was able to turn Life After College from just a blog into a place where recent grads could go to find solutions to their problems. Since 2007, millions of readers have passed through Life After College, found it so helpful, that Jenny was offered a book deal.
In your life, when you encounter a problem, don’t just mention the problem, come up with a solution. Anyone can come up with a list of problems, it takes extra thought to come up with a solution. At work instead of presenting your manager with the problem, come up with a recommendation of how you would solve it. Instead of saying to yourself, “I don’t have this” or “I don’t know how to do that” come up with one way you could “have this” or “know that.” In the same way people are pushed away from problem starters, people are attracted to solution creators. Be a solution creator and opportunities will always present themselves.
As my grandparents and role models taught me, opportunity are abundant but people miss it because it isn’t dressed up in pretty clothes.