Open the door when (the right) opportunity comes knocking

  • June 22, 2017
  • Kim Nayyer

From time to time I recall the drama elective I didn’t take in high school. I hardly harbour secret aspirations to be a Broadway star. But in high school, to work through drama exercises, to write script, to put on a play were secretly appealing. When I watched the school play I did ache just a little bit at not having had the courage to step out of my comfort zone and play some role in creating that fantastic little production. I had been afraid of performing in front of my family, my friends, my teachers. I was sure I would have messed up a line or written a weak scene. By not joining drama class, I saved myself certain humiliation and an unnecessary spotlight, I thought.

When I weighed the decision at the time, I concluded quite easily that to avoid this spotlight was the right choice. But I also didn’t get to work on the school play.

Only later did I realize that the regret of not trying can weigh considerably harder over time than the possibility that things won’t go perfectly, that some embarrassment or even failure might follow.

If success could be guaranteed, we would all jump at every new invitation or offer. We know that not everything will work out that way. Prudence always has a place.

But depending on the circumstances, failure in fact can be a powerful vehicle for learning.

When to say yes

On occasion the right opportunity is self-evident. For more challenging situations, a few preliminary questions can help us. Often a driving consideration is whether the opportunity comes from a source we respect. If a person I admire or respect asks me to do something, my past experiences or associations with that person may be enough to recommend a “yes.” At the same time, most often you’ll want to ensure your “yes” is in some measure for you, and not only to make another person happy.

Sometimes, like with the drama class, we’re considering an opportunity that allows us to tap into a latent desire or unfulfilled goal. Recollections of regrets from previous missed opportunities may guide us straight to a “yes.” I remind myself in these scenarios that I have to let go of an expectation of perfection.

Often a challenge intrigues us and our inclination is to say “yes,” but we feel afraid, we experience worry, self-doubt, perhaps impostor syndrome. Should I give that professional development session? But wait—maybe the people in attendance will know more on the topic than I do. Should I seek that new job? But would word get around if I don’t ace—or if I fail— the interview? Strategies are available to help us address such fear and anxiety, such as distancing ourselves from the feeling, and reciting to ourselves the likely positive outcomes and their reasons. Likewise, we can consider honestly the possible unwanted outcomes, their likelihood, and their consequences.

Try a strategic approach when the immediate benefits of “yes” aren’t self-evident: Will this opportunity help me, practically or eventually, if it does not satisfy an ultimate or deep-seated goal? Is this an opportunity for learning? Is this a first step on a longer road? For example, a presentation can lead to a paper, to a chapter, to a book, to recognition of expertise. An application may lead to a better job or, if you’re not successful, to introductions to people who may open new doors for you. Would a positive result, even if not assured, make my career better? And is recovery from any failure straightforward and would I nevertheless learn something from failure in this?

Be prudent

“Yes” often is the fulfilling and productive answer when we are at a crossroads; nevertheless, the crossroads wouldn’t exist were there not another reasonable direction, and prudence is always appropriate in assessing risks and opportunities. Ask yourself: Can I manage this; am I comfortable with the standards and expectations, with the time commitment? Take the time to plan, research, and gain tools and knowledge about the opportunity to further your likelihood of fulfillment. Perhaps you’re at a stage where boundaries or conditions on your “yes” are appropriate. Find out what your options are, and take full advantage to make the opportunity, and its fruits, your own. If you can’t get agreement to your needs, then perhaps the answer is “not this, not now.”

And a caveat is essential for forward-looking professionals: You don’t want to “yes” yourself into overextension and underperformance. From time to time I’ve had to recognize the hard way that a “yes” here almost always needs a concomitant “no” somewhere else. We must respect ourselves, those close to us, and those to whom we want to say “yes” and ensure we do not overcommit. An otherwise enticing opportunity can lead not only to burnout, disrupted life balance, but also to mediocre (or poor) performance if we do not truly have the time, energy, or other capacity for it.

What ifs

Sometimes a counterfactual study of decisions or hypotheticals is helpful. What would have happened had I failed the last time I said yes to a challenge? Would I have recovered, and what would the path have been like? If I say yes to this and it leads to nothing further, will I regret having spent the time and energy? Or will I have learned from the experience; will I have avoided later regret? If I turn down the opportunity and later see someone else pursue it, will I wish I’d done it?

The drama class episode has become my focal point of reflection when I weigh whether to say “yes” to an invitation or unexpected opportunity. More often, I now say “yes.” Most often, I’ve found that “yes” was the right answer, or a good one, so long as time, energy, and balance allow.

Kim Nayyer is Associate University Librarian for the Law, Legal Research & Writing Program at the University of Victoria’s School of Law

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