It’s Not a Problem…It’s an Opportunity to Excel

October 20, 2011

I became familiar with the phrase opportunity to excel when I was a brand new lieutenant, fresh out of college with “butter bars” and no idea of how to do anything.   I remember at some point I was voluntold for a task. Not familiar with the term voluntold? That is when you are highly encouraged (told) to volunteer for a task. Or, better yet, your boss is at a meeting and he/she volunteers you for a project and tells you about it afterward.  The first time that happened to me, I remember being a little irate. It wasn’t even related to my job, in my mind–just some ridiculous extra duty I got stuck with because I was the newbie in the office. I was prepared to have a royal attitude for the entire project until a friend, who had a little more experience in these things said, “it’s not a problem–it’s an opportunity to excel“.   In all honesty, it wasn’t even really meant as a word of encouragement–it was just a nice way to inform me that I had to do it and I might as well figure out how to change my attitude about the whole thing because I was stuck.

Getting stuck with projects nobody else wants happens a lot, especially when you’re the newest hire, least experienced or at the very beginning of anything–like a new lieutenant. So I got voluntold a lot–or, at least until I learned it was just easier to actually volunteer in the first place (that way, at least I knew it was coming).   I found myself repeating that phrase–opportunity to excel–quite often.   The funny thing is, it eventually ended up changing my attitude about more than just additional duties as assigned.   Changing my perspective of how I viewed the problem–as an opportunity to excel–changed my general attitude towards the task and gave me the energy to figure out how to just get it done.

I’ve learned that when a problem or challenge presents itself, we have a decision to make. We can either allow it to remain a problem or, we can flip it on its side to find that opportunity to excel, which can also resemble change, growth, or new knowledge or experience. It may also, initially, resemble failure.   The key is that, no matter what it looks like, we get to choose how to approach it, and that can make all the difference.

There are tremendous risks involved in seizing an opportunity, but we have to remember that with great risk comes great reward. We don’t have to jump in foolishly or leap without looking, but we do have to deliberately and on purpose decide that, since we have to deal with this problem anyway, we may as well milk the experience for all it has to offer. If nothing else, once the lesson of the moment is over, the experience gained is ours to keep forever, to use as we see fit.   So, go for it!

I once heard that the definition of insanity was to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. Problems will never be resolved by using the same kind of thinking and perspective that created them in the first place. A change in perspective, or taking a look at a problem from a different angle, is the way of the great innovators.   I was reminded of this with the death of Steve Jobs. In the wake of his death, his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University was heavily referenced and circulated on the Internet.   One of the (many) pearls of wisdom in that speech refers to taking a different view of problems, or what he learned from failure. Referencing his very public firing from Apple in 1985, he said,

“So at 30 I was out.   And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating..I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” 

His decision to start over–to focus on finding a way to do what he loved, instead of looking at his problem–changed not only his life, but the lives of future generations.   So, remember the wisdom of Steve Jobs. And remember, it’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity to excel.

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