When opportunity knocks (how to seize it)

One of the benefits of tracking my time is that I don’t need to have those conversations with myself that go “hey, didn’t that happen around this time last year?” I know exactly when things happened. As I look back on them, I can think about how certain choices played out.

Almost exactly a year ago, I decided to go on a writing retreat at Bear Creek Mountain, the ski resort that’s about an hour from my house. The mountain isn’t high — I’m in Pennsylvania, not Colorado — but it’s lovely enough in the summer, and I was speaking at an event there on a Wednesday. So I drove up Monday, and spent Monday afternoon/evening and much of Tuesday (when not an inadvertent 7-mile hike – always take your map!) editing Off the Clock.

While there, magically enough, I had two opportunities come to me that had a massive positive effect on the next year.

First, Sarah Hart-Unger, one of my favorite bloggers, posted on her blog that she was thinking of starting a podcast. I’d been mulling the podcast idea — though not doing anything about it — for a while. Sarah and I had recently had a very fun dinner in Philadelphia (with our husbands and another friend couple) and I thought we had good chemistry. OK, less marketing-speak: I really liked her! The idea of chatting with someone I liked, about topics I found fascinating, seemed too cool an opportunity not to pursue.

So, sitting in my Bear Creek hotel room, I sent her an email asking if she might want to launch a podcast together. Fortunately, she was amenable, and less than a year later, Best of Both Worlds is about 50 episodes in, has gotten about 300,000 downloads, and has been a ton of fun. I’ve learned a lot in the process about producing regular audio content, and it’s been a great way to stay connected with people in between books (turns out, not everyone reads blogs. And the upside of a podcast is people can listen while commuting. Since this time is often wasted and miserable, if you can make it pleasant, people view this as a real service!)

Second, my editor on Off the Clock sent me an email about an entirely different idea. The team at Portfolio (my imprint) had been discussing business fables. These novellas — which teach a lesson, but also entertain — often sell well. Not many were by or about women. So they had mentioned me as someone who might be interested in tackling the genre. Was I?

I was. After some back and forth about concepts, I wrote Juliet’s School of Possibilities in November and early December. In January, Portfolio made me an offer on it. The book will be published in March 2019.

Neither of these opportunities happened specifically because I was at a writing retreat. If it were that easy I’d go every month!

However, as I have been pondering them, I think there are a few strategies that are helpful for being able to say yes to the right things.

First, don’t make yourself too busy. I really do believe that “open space invites opportunity in a way a cluttered calendar can’t.” (People often tweet that line from my speeches.) If I had been feeling swamped, starting up a podcast might have seemed burdensome, not fun. If I had been, say, ghost writing six books, I probably wouldn’t have been excited about taking on something speculative (Portfolio wasn’t committing to commission the fable; I wound up writing the entire novella on spec, though a high-probability spec.)

Busyness is the ratio of commitments to space. If you want to be less busy, you can either take on less stuff, or you can create more space to do your stuff in.

I had definitely taken on less stuff; Over the past few years, I have resigned from some regular article-writing gigs, which is something my younger self would have been shocked by.

I have also created more space. Some of this is a natural function of my children getting older (no breastfeeding babies = loads of time). Some is more intentional, such as having evening childcare, so if I feel like writing from, say, 7-7:45 p.m. after dinner, I can.

Second, focus on the people as much as the thing. I guess this is like Jim Collins’ suggestion to “get the right people on the bus.” I thought the opportunity to work with someone whose blog I read obsessively would be cool. I’d been pondering a podcast, but there were other things I was pondering too (video, workshops, written collaborations with people, etc.). Rather than ponder whether the medium was perfect, I figured the right collaborator would make it the right decision. In a similar vein, I’ve done a lot of books with Portfolio, and I knew they’d be good to work with as well.

Finally, just keep trying stuff. Opportunity is often about repackaging things in the right way.

Fun fact: Juliet’s School of Possibilities began as a National Novel Writing Month experiment. I wrote a 50,000 word novel (one November, of course) about three friends and an inn on the Jersey shore, and all of them, at various points, falling for the same guy despite his various issues, and the increasingly bad idea this turns out to be. I wrote it in one November. Then the next November, I rewrote it.

The novel was not that great. Someone else reading it might use stronger language to evoke its non-great status. However, when Portfolio mentioned the fable idea, I had in my possession a title I liked, an appealing setting (the fictional town of Maris Stella — “star of the sea” — with its Victorian houses), and three usable characters (Juliet the domestic maven, Riley the ambitious consultant, and Tom the biking dude — not, incidentally, the guy the three friends fell for. That character and that plot line have been consigned to the dust bin). So I was able to turn it into a time management fable with a speed that implies I am a lot more creative than I actually am.

A lot of opportunity turns out to be about trying stuff, or putting enough stuff out into the universe that eventually something works. You don’t know what, and you don’t know how, but cast enough lines and something eventually bites.

How do you bring opportunity into your life?

8 thoughts on “When opportunity knocks (how to seize it)

  1. Laura, I’m really excited about this idea. Recently I attended an event for women in my specialty, and one of the junior faculty said that you can’t say no to anything at the beginning of your career because you won’t ever get asked to do anything again. A lot of people found this horrifying, as did I. What terrible advice! I do wonder how pervasive that myth is, however. Fortunately, a more senior faculty member spoke up and said that if you don’t say no, then someone else will do it for you, and you won’t get the opportunity to choose what you want to work on. I am far more junior than she is, and I say no ALL. THE. TIME. which frees me up to do a good job on what I am committed to, and allows me more control over my life. So far… it’s worked out pretty well for me.

    I look forward to reading your new book when it comes out this year. This is such a great extension on what you’ve been doing with encouraging women to think outside the box with respect to outsourcing, etc., and I look forward to hearing what you’ve discovered. I think you’re onto something.

    1. I so wish I had learned this lesson earlier in life, about feeling like it’s OK to say no and keep some space in your schedule. Or at least say yes, but then talk openly about what needs to drop or be de-prioritized. I was more than 12 years into my career when I finally started doing this instead of just blindly taking on everything I was asked to do 🙁

      1. @ARC – yep, or at least learning to ask for more resources when you’re asked to do lots of stuff. As in, sure, but I need 3 more people reporting to me. That sort of thing!

    2. @Sydney- yes, not saying no to anything is indeed horrible advice, especially since women are often asked to do the low-value, thankless tasks in academic departments. Say yes to too much of that and you don’t have the time or energy for the collaborations with big players in your field.
      I hope you enjoy the book when it comes out!

  2. I’m fortunate to be in an academic position where I’m protected by a great chair from unreasonable requests and demands. In order to protect our ability to perform our core responsibilities (teaching, research, and important service) well, we’re supported in saying no to non-core opportunities in which we’re not interested. As you say, this frees up space to say yes to things that we really do want to do. For example, I was able to say yes enthusiastically to an ad-hoc committee assignment on a topic I was interested in because I really did have the time.

    Additionally, I would say that targeted visibility and asking for things help create opportunities. Re: targeted visibility, even though I’m a 100% introvert on the MB, I try to force myself to show up to conference receptions, etc., where there might be interesting people, even if I’m not sure I’ll know anyone there. Rarely have I regretted doing this beyond the first 10 minutes. 🙂 RE: asking for things, as you note in a recent post, people generally want to help. Even if they have to say no sometimes, this makes them more inclined to help in the future. Plus, you become known as an initiative-taker.

    Two additional thoughts:
    1. Knowing when to say yes or no is not an exact science. There might be regret either way, but one has to assume that there will be more opportunities.
    2. Sometimes, it is probably a good idea to say yes even if you’d rather say no, e.g., to volunteer for a boring project to help out the boss who generally supports you. If your default response is generally “no” and you’re in the habit of weighing opportunities/commitments carefully, there will be more time and space for this sort of thing.

    1. @smh- yes, targeted visibility is smart. Sometimes opportunities come because people see you and remember you. People generally don’t remember people they aren’t seeing that much – sad but true. And yes, sometimes we need to say yes to things in order to preserve relationships. It is an inexact science.

  3. I’m a big fan of trying stuff out. To market my services I use a blog, LinkedIn posts, LinkedIn articles, Facebook posts and now videos. I recycle material that I write to create ebooks for my students, newsletters and videos, that I can reference my clients to. And by doing this I got more work, but above all more visibility. Through LinkedIn I got contacts from companies who started following me reading my articles. Colleagues watch my videos and said that they help educate customers. Even companies I already work for call me with new opportunities in mind because they think I might be interested in them, precisely for what I write about. Visibility is hugely important to maintain a constant stream of work, especially if you don’t have the time to attend live events, like most parents do.

    And then I also free up time by outsourcing the stuff I cannot or no longer want to do, like Facebook posts, blogpost pics, video subtitles….This allows me to focus only on the things I do best.
    I need to work on outsourcing more and saying more nos in my personal life though 😉

  4. I really like the advice to focus on the right partners and the people who are involved. Right now I have some space in my life and am looking around for the right opportunities, so I also need to remind myself that it might take a little while of “putting stuff out into the universe.” Thanks for this post!

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