The Luck Surface Area of the Opportunistic Mind
An opportunistic mind can be one that is poised to see potential in all situations, the juiciest being the most challenging. Years ago, when ExpressionEngine first came onto the market, I had a client who put his trust in me to build a significantly sized website on EE. At the time, EE did not have much in the way of form submission handling. It lacked even the basic capability to publish blog entries from a front-end form. I was on the hook for delivering some lead generation and contact form functionality. EE at the time was providing me with very little to work with. I was stuck.
Fortunately this significant challenge caught me on a day when I was in an opportunistic mindset. An opportunity arose where moments before I could envision only pain. That was the day that I started writing Freeform. Freeform later became Solspace’s best selling add-on.
Previously I have blogged about a fun idea called luck surface area. I’ve been hacking it for a while now. You can see the backstory here. But what’s interesting is that the phrase explains itself. There is ‘luck’ and there are ways to increase the gravity that pulls it in. One of those ways is to develop an opportunistic mind.
As a young business person I was fortunate to have a client emphasize to me that challenges were just candy wrappers around chewy nougat opportunities. Opportunities come in disguise and that’s a good thing. Those who can see the wheat inside the chaff gain in the marketplace. Those who cannot, fall behind. The metaphor applies to product development but I like how it applies to service work even more.
When I speak with a client for the first time my mind is abuzz. Endorphins flood my brain providing a heightened state of awareness as I listen to the client complaining about some source of pain. Anything that signals a challenge causes my ears to perk up and I am ready to pounce on the opportunities hidden inside. The best thing about these opportunities is that while they are work opportunities for my team and I, they are at the same time opportunities to help a client solve a problem.
You’re reading this and you likely work on the web like I do. You likely understand the web a bit better than the people who hire you do, and that’s as it should be. You’re the specialist. You may find, as I do, that because the web is your hammer, you see internet shaped nails everywhere you look. When I talk with clients and I hear challenges, the opportunities I immediately see are web development shaped. When I am at my best, I see these on behalf of my client. Is there a way to build a simpler, less expensive e-commerce system for them? Is there a way to tie two systems together through an API to reduce staff workload? Is there a way to change a navigation scheme to reduce user friction? This is an opportunistic mindset.
You know how when, back in the day, you were really flexible and good at jai alai? I don’t know what you were good at, but you were flexible, fast, lithe, and nimble. You had eyes behind you, on top of you, you could see all. That’s the feeling I want you to feel when I describe an opportunistic mind. You are poised and ready, you are up on your toes and ready to react when you see a challenge morphing into an opportunity in front of you.
There is something essential in the calculus of challenge = opportunity. And I think a critical piece is language. I mean to use language in the broadest sense. In this sense, a language signifies the underlying constructs by which we are able to think and perceive. In order for it to germinate into opportunity, a challenge has to land on something. That something is language in one form or another. As web developers our language is web software. For a chef it might be food. For a musician it might be melody. Each of us can enter into the opportunistic mindset, but only if we have the foundation of some skilled, practiced discipline.
Eddie Van Halen was quoted as saying that he just tried to keep his chops up, meaning his guitar skills, so that he could execute on an the opportunity of an idea when it came to him. He thought these ideas were given to him more than of his own creation. His was mainly to be able to seize them when they came. And he had a language; he had mastery - a hammer with which to pound the nails. The opportunities that come our way emerge from challenge and pain, but usually only when we can see them through the lens of our own skills and mastery.