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Many would argue that what we do and what we become in life is pre-destined. Others might argue that it is a matter of luck. Still, others would argue that whatever you achieve in life is a product of hard work (and perhaps another personal factor, like intelligence). I tend to teach achievement, or what you are able to accomplish professionally in terms of opportunity. Opportunity equates to a possibility to undertake action and cause a result (the desired result).
In terms of careers, I break opportunity into three parts:
- Opportunity Generation
- Opportunity Recognition
- Opportunity Exploitation
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
Opportunity generation concerns the factors or circumstances that must arise for you to have the probability of a desired outcome.
As for career opportunities, what do you have to do to make it possible to obtain a job or get started on a career path.
Here are some things we common associate with generating a career opportunity:
- Credential – Many jobs require specific credentials of employees. Most notably, many jobs require a college degree. That is, before a company will consider an applicant, that person must have some form of college degree. Some firms take it a step further and require a specific major, specific GPA, or only entertain applicants from certain schools. In this regard, the college degree provides a signaling function. That is, it signals to an employer that a potential candidate has the desired qualities, such as intelligence, knowledge, exposure, is hardworking, or is likely to fit into the company culture. What’s interesting about this aspect of opportunity generation is that it does little to account for ability. College accounts for exposure and the completion of assignments. It does little to attest to one’s ability and potential. Nonetheless, it can be valuable or indispensable in the creation of specific opportunities.
- Note: The college degree is the source of bias for employers. Many employers only entertain applicants from a specific group of identified schools. The reason for this requirement vary from company to company. Some employers believe that individuals from certain schools are more intelligent than others. Some believe that these schools provided greater knowledge and exposure. Others believe that individuals from elite backgrounds will fit better with the elitist culture within the company (though they are remiss to use those words).
- Subject-Matter Knowledge – Many jobs or career paths focus almost exclusively on technical skill or ability. Perhaps the best example of this is a technology career. In the cyber security field, the ability to navigate systems and to identify and address security risks is more important that any amount of experience or education. Creating an opportunity in such a field requires expansive knowledge and ability that comes from directed practice.
- Experience – Experience, like education, provides a signaling function. It signals to employers that you have a level of exposure to a particular type of work. Unfortunately, it does very little to demonstrate one’s competence or ability. It is rare to find that a 20-year-old, no matter how talented or knowledgeable, will be considered for a corporate executive position. In some regards, there is an engrained bias against younger professionals. Of course, the success of many startup entrepreneurs has begun to question the traditional beliefs about ability and experience.
- Connections – Lastly, and arguably the most important, is connections. The majority of opportunities that present themselves will come as a result of interaction with others. This means that individuals are connected with individuals in their chosen career field or path have a major advantage over others. For this reason, networking is perhaps the most important thing that you can do for creating career opportunities. To learn more about networking, visit our articles Networking and Employment Opportunities and Networking – A Process.
- Note: One of the major sources of class disparity in US society results from opportunity generation. Individuals who are born into families or communities with lots of professional connections are far more likely to encounter career opportunities than someone without those same connections.
Having all of the above elements in place is the perfect storm for generating career opportunities. To begin with, students who are born in wealthy, connected families have exponentially more opportunities arise throughout their lives than does the ordinary person. Those who attend a highly reputable or elite business school (where it is mandatory to undertake an internship) have an entirely different degree of career opportunities.
I often remark that individuals in such situation must trip themselves not to be successful in their careers. Of course, that is only partially true. Those individuals must still recognize opportunities that arise and do what it takes to exploit them. Let’s explore those aspects now.
You may have heard the cliche, “90% of success is showing up”.
There is a lot of truth in this statement.
It seeks to accentuate that fact that you can only take advantage of an opportunity if you are aware of it.
In terms of career, we have all probably been in the room with someone who, if we had met, could have changed our career paths for the better. Unfortunately, we never met that person. Either we didn’t show up, we didn’t realize the potential of an encounter, or any other reason that we did not make the connection.
This is a relative certainty that illustrates the fact that opportunities exist all around us. If we want to take advantage, we must first become aware that the opportunity exists.
For someone interested in learning business, this knowledge will greatly aid the process of recognizing a career opportunity.
For example, entrepreneurs generally start businesses in career fields that they understand very well. They are able to see the potential of the value proposition (good or service) that they will begin to offer because of their existing knowledge. Without this knowledge, they fail to recognize an existing opportunity.
In a best case scenario, doing everything that it takes to create an opportunity (Credentials, Skills, Knowledge, Connections) will allow us to recognize an opportunity when it arises.
Just be mindful of the fact that recognition is just as important as generation. You may be one of the fortunate on whom a litany of opportunities are forced. If not, your career should be marked by diligent effort and dutiful observance.
Lastly, an opportunity is just that – an opportunity.
The work is not done. Now you must make that opportunity a reality.
There is no certainty that a desired outcome will result from your effort. There is only that potential. You are going to have to make it a reality. Fortunately, the more effort you put toward it, the more likely it will be realized.
Unlike opportunity generation, I can say comfortably that opportunity exploitation is the most fair and just aspect of achieving career success.
Most people, if given the opportunity, would work diligently to exploit an opportunity. That is, if we believe that there is potential to achieve our dreams, we will work tirelessly to achieve it. The problem is that many of us either never generate or fail to recognize that opportunity. In other instances, we are filled with self doubt of fear of failure.
As Kevin Costner once said, “I’ll never understand why people give up big dreams for small realities”.
The point of this article is to illustrate the difficult road that lays ahead in pursuing career success. If you are part of a privileged class, working diligently to exploit an opportunity that was handed to you will be enough.
If you are not so fortunate, you are going to need to work diligently to generate opportunities, prepare yourself to recognize them, and then work tirelessly to exploit them. Don’t bury your head and wait for someone to hand it to you. Don’t wallow in pity for yourself. You still have the ability to be anything you want.
My last point is this. Going to school or getting a business education alone will generally not be enough. You are going to have to do everything (or as much as possible) that could generate an opportunity. Prepare yourself to obtain credentials, to acquire knowledge, to learn skills, to meet people. Then work like there is no other option. Follow this recipe and you will meet with your definition of career success.