A Field Guide to Life – Principle #2 – Opportunity

by Brad on November 13, 2012

This installment of A Field Guide to Life shows how uncertainty in nature is the home of all opportunity. It challenges you to see life’s chaos as an opening, not a threat.


Principle #2 – Opportunism

“We all continually move on the edges of eternity, and are sometimes granted vistas through the fabric of illusion.”  – Ansel Adams

Nature’s Principle: In the classical view of science, a system responds smoothly to change; it’s said to be linear. Changes in one thing cause changes in other things. Life, however, is non-linear. Life is uncertain; openings to new possibility happen in response to always-changing conditions, not in response to a plan. Nature steps into open space provided with her creative process, spreading life as she goes. Nature doesn’t have to try to do this. Remaining open to opportunity (which comes from not trying), she allows the process to do the work. This is how the universe coalesced into galaxies, stars and planets; it’s how evolution continues to mold life in the midst of change and uncertainty. Shifts in available resources create openings; life responds naturally, by creating value in one of three ways: by replication – making more of the same thing in times that are “easy;” by improvement – making what already exists better, during times of stress; by innovation – creating something new, beyond earlier conception, during times of chaos. ‘Quantum change’ arises when sometimes-small openings result in big leaps, vastly different from creating according to a plan. With creativity and opportunism together, we can now say the following: life’s inherent uncertainty and unpredictability create opportunity; creative expression then flourishes by filling the void offered. Without uncertainty, there’d be no room for new opportunity, and therefore no place for creativity to happen.

The Opening Offered: True throughout the universe, creativity is a natural state of being. It’s our natural state too, although we’ve “forgotten” this, having allowed life’s inherent complexity, uncertainty and chaos to block our way. In believing we need to control everything, we actually inhibit the very opportunity we want most, because opportunity shows up when conditions permit, not just when we want it. Nature’s principles say we’d be far less stressed and far more productive if we were to allow things to happen instead. In this world, the skills we need are no longer those of “command & control,” but rather: patience, to wait for change, awareness, to notice when things change, acceptance, that life will unfold in a way that serves us, and trust, in our own power of creative expression. It’s an adaptive strategy with big returns. However, it flies in the face of what we’ve been taught about the need for safety in our lives. So we need to redefine safety as well. Safety is not about knowing we have it all, but about knowing we have what it takes. Life’s uncertainty is not a threat, but an opening for blossoming of the natural creative genius inside us. Nothing new ever happens without opportunity, and opportunity cannot exist in an environment of total certainty. 

Prevailing Wisdom: We’ve been taught to be busy, achieve results by working hard, and make life happen via control. If our choice to live that way makes us the only creatures to experience dissatisfaction and overwhelm, however, we might want to take a second look at our rules. The idea of relying on innate creative potential rather than on “trying harder” is a huge shift for most of us to contemplate. It would strike most as a waste of time to be patient until conditions are right. More often than not, we believe that if we are to have opportunities in life, it’s because we go force them into being. In fact, we’re powerless to exert this kind of control over our lives. Our power lies in a new way of seeing instead, learning to see uncertainty as a possibility instead of a threat.

The Opportunity/Promise: How can we learn to step into our own natural creative essence? A first step is to accept the idea that we must embrace uncertainty. Uncertainty pushes us to the edges of our comfort zones, yet we guard our comfort zones with vigilance, to keep us comfortable! Our response to reaching the edge is so automatic we rarely notice ourselves doing it. If, instead of retreating to the perceived safety of the center, we stopped, and consciously examined the edge, we could easily take the first step beyond it. In so doing, we’d experience a sense of freedom, freedom of exploration. When we feel free to choose not only the steps we take, but the attitude with which we approach life, our world gets much bigger very quickly. We can make our world as large and open as we like, or so small and difficult that little is possible. Our worldview, or context, determines how we’ll respond to life’s opportunities. If worldview says that little is possible, then opportunities will pass us by; we simply fail to notice them. If we see possibility everywhere, it materializes everywhere. 

Nature’s Story: About 100,000 years ago, an ‘instant’ in evolutionary time, some brown bears living on North America’s Arctic coasts started to hunt from the edges of the sea instead of from land and rivers alone. Those who succeeded in catching seals from the shore or the winter ice extended their range to the north. With change in behavior and habitat came change in biology as well. Although some of nature’s change is abrupt or cataclysmic, most happens slowly compared to our ability to see or comprehend. The bears most successful at Arctic marine hunting were those with lighter fur, a great adaptation in an all-white environment. Those with longer snouts were better able to snag seals from breathing holes in the ice. Those with sticky foot pads and shorter ears were better able to negotiate the ice and extreme cold. Over many generations of “stepping into opportunity,” the polar bear was born. Science names two processes at work here: adaptation to environment, and natural selection. Today’s polar bear is the ultimate Arctic carnivore, so well adapted to life in this hostile environment that the only “heat” that shows up on an infrared photograph is its breath!

Nothing inside a brown bear offered previous evidence of the emergence of a polar bear. The ecological niche of “ultimate Arctic marine carnivore” was empty at the time – opportunity. Although nature doesn’t envision a specific possibility, she is always poised to step into an uncertain future with new invention. Nature “tries stuff out” until she finds things that work.

My Story:  In the 1980s, I managed Digital Equipment Corporation’s software publishing business. I’d been an engineer and engineering manager for 15 years, and I didn’t take well to this day-to-day operations role. By most accounts, namely my own, I was the worst plant manager they’d ever had. I remember going to my manager to admit my shortcomings and ask for help. He offered the help I needed, for which I was grateful. Yet his most amazing gift was not the help, but a comment he made as I left his office. “You need to remember that you’re the only one who has ever managed that business who actually knows what’s inside those $%^&* boxes.” It took me a few days, but the impact of his words dawned on me. Perhaps he didn’t know the impact; maybe I always did know. The value of software is not in the paper and media on which it resides, but in the information; all my experience to that time had been with information as value – intellectual property. I felt free. Opportunity greeted me when I least expected it and perhaps most needed it. I began to redefine the entire business as an information business rather than a “putting stuff in boxes” business. At a deeper level, perhaps the opportunity had even more to offer. I also felt as if my way of thinking had been freed as well, having been invited to explore outside the box, both literally and figuratively, a new adventure.

Looking back now, I’d probably created conditions conducive to this opportunity by (1) realizing I needed help rather than forcing my way, (2) asking for that help rather than fighting it off, and (3) inviting others to participate in a new conversation. I’m now keenly aware how these same attributes continue to impact my life today, for they encourage me to seek, then step beyond, the edges of my current perception, my comfort zone. This is always available to me, as long as I’m willing to see it all a new way. A wonderful side-effect is that I no longer miss so damn much, just because I see a much bigger world. Note to self: release control, embrace uncertainty as possibility, and allow opportunity to happen.

An Invitation: How would your life change if you viewed uncertainty as an opportunity to be approached with curiosity and creativity rather than as a threat to be approached with fear and control? Do you create enough “empty space” in your life so opportunity has the potential to show up? What is your relationship to empty space? to silence? Is silence an irritant in your life, or is it a source of curiosity, respect and reverence, for life and for yourself? Do you trust life enough to allow the open space to teach you? Can you stand strong, with enthusiasm, curiosity and wonder, in the face of silence and uncertainty? Seizing opportunity in each [uncertain] moment is the essence of creative spirit.


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