I’m a hard worker and assumed this would soon become apparent to my new FBI squad. I expected my supervisor to assign me good cases, not the dog-eared ones I found on my desk. It became apparent that if I wanted to shine, I’d need to seize my own opportunities and not wait for them to be handed over.
It’s easy to wait for approval; it’s a lot harder to take initiative. People want to get noticed and take control of their careers, but it can be hard to catch the attention of the C-suite.
Successful people are proactive self-starters. They provide value beyond what’s asked of them. A product of value will prove itself. The good news is that other people will also see its value.
Few things in life are handed to us on a platter and with a smile. Most of us need to use mental toughness to push past our comfort zone if we want to move ahead. In order to take charge of your career, you often have to be the one to take the initiative. Don’t wait for someone else to create your opportunities -- create them yourself.
Here are four dumb reasons you don’t seize big opportunities (and how you can change that):
1. Inaccurate assessment of strengths and talents
Many people believe that self-promotion can help them move up the ladder of success because it gets them a seat at the table. Problems arise, however, if they sell themselves too aggressively when they aren’t ready for the opportunity. Blue flamers are often impatient and seek to cut corners to maintain momentum. These are the folks who give self-starters a bad reputation. They don’t have the talent to take it to the next level.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who do have the talents and strengths to be significant but lack the confidence to step forward. In both cases, it’s essential for them to have a realistic grasp of the areas in which they shine, and those areas where they need to brush up their skill set.
How to make it work for you: If you’re not sure where and how you can make a significant impact, identify the people who work on important projects and observe how they operate in the workplace. Once you’ve spotted them, find a way to get involved in one of their projects. This will help you uncover your strengths, so you can continue to develop them. It will also help you pinpoint your weaknesses, so you can manage them. You don’t want them to sabotage your best effort to seize an opportunity.
2. Failure to make your own luck
Average people tend to describe those who seize opportunities and succeed as “lucky.” Luck has nothing to do with how successful entrepreneurs and business leaders do the right things to increase their probability of success.
Successful people make their own luck. They ask this question: What can I do to change my situation? When they focus on the possibilities that lie before them instead of what they don’t have, they seize control.
In his book, “The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity,” Michael Marmot explains how clerks and secretaries are more likely to die of heart attacks than senior executives. His team took into consideration several variables such as smoking and poor nutrition. His research team concluded that those in lower category jobs had less control over their life. That’s why they were more likely to suffer from heart disease.
Most of us fear the things we cannot control. People who are willing to seize big opportunities have confidence they can control the outcome.
You have more control over the outcome when you increase the probability that you’re the right person, at the right time, with the right talents to take advantage of a career opportunity.
How to make it work for you: It’s a dumb move to seize every opportunity and add it to your to-do list. Choose only those opportunities where the probability is high that your talents will make a significant contribution. Ask strategic questions, such as:
Do I recognize what others cannot see?
Can I develop possibilities that others have not yet explored?
Is there an objective that sparks my imagination and passion?
Am I uniquely qualified because of a talent or strength?
3. Refusal to think outside the box
As we age, our brains become more comfortable with familiar patterns and routines. They become less agile and flexible. Neuroscience tells us that it becomes increasingly difficult to break out of existing mindsets. As a result, habits are formed which lead to rigid thinking.
When we look at the nature of habits, many of them are the result of a desire to avoid the repetition of a mistake. It’s dumb to settle into a habit based on fear.
A flexible mindset that thinks outside the box might look at a mistake as an opportunity to learn and not something to be avoided in the future. Flexible mindsets can seize opportunities because it always collects and processes new information.
In his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman reminds us that fast thinking is automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious. While we need slow thinking to be deliberative and logical, it’s fast thinking that allows us to think outside the box.
Fast thinking enables us to throw out long debates in favor of snap judgments and hard-wired rules of thumb that have served us well in the past. We think outside the box, and when we do, we don’t panic when confronted with the unknown.
How to make it work for you: Create a petri dish of experiences and ideas that will move you into your discomfort zone. This is where you’ll experience small doses of terror and uncertainty. You’ll know how it feels to move into the unknown, so you can strengthen productive responses. As a result, your mind won’t get mired down with fear when new opportunities present themselves.
4. Panic at the thought of change
If you are to grow as a leader, you must change with the times. If your company is to expand in the marketplace, it will also need to change to attract new customers. Those who are resistant to change have decided to live with their problems and frustrations rather than face new ones.
The reason is simple: we don’t like change because it might mean we’ll lose something. Our brain likes to feel comfortable and seeks pleasure over pain. That’s why we’re tempted to abandon ship at the first sign of distress. Academics call this “risk aversion.” We feel the pain of loss more acutely than we feel the pleasure of gain. We may like to win, but we hate to lose.
Our desire to avoid losses is almost twice as powerful as our desire to take a risk. This explains why we often walk away or fail to seize new opportunities.
We hesitate to change our current situation because it means we have to make a decision, and we’re afraid we’ll make the wrong one. It’s easier to stick with the status quo.
How to make it work for you: It’s very important to pinpoint exactly what you’re afraid of, and how you can minimize the risks that come with change. Make a list of every possible outcome and your response. Visualize how you’ll deal with each outcome. Be intelligent with the chances you take. Carefully weigh each possibility, think through each possible outcome and make a smart decision.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.