Proximity, excellence and opportunity

When we picture Isaac Newton, we picture him making mental breakthroughs with the apple falling on his head. That it likely never happened matters less at this point. Most great stories involve geniuses find opportunity out of nothing.

Except that’s rarely how opportunity shows up.

Instead, the best link I’ve found to opportunity is a combination of proximity and excellence. Get close to people or companies doing what you’d like to do, then get good, and the chances are high that you’ll find opportunity. Intel didn’t just spring up to create the Silicon Valley in the 1970s. Intel’s co-founders worked for Bill Shockley, one of the inventors of the semi-conductor, and then broke off to build their own companies.

Most of the famous management consulting firms, for example, grew out of each other. McKinsey & Co. split from the company that came to be known as A.T.Kearney. BCG was born out of Arthur D Little. And, Bain & Co. was born out of BCG.

Early PayPal employees founded a ridiculous number of great internet companies. And, most leading internet executives today likely learned their trade at an HP, a Netscape or a Yahoo.

Adidas and Puma, owned by brothers from the same village in Germany, dominated the global shoe industry for the longest time. And Nike, the upstart, was created thanks to a plucky track-and-field athlete and the influence of Bill Bowerman – one of the most innovative track coaches who ever lived.

All this is not to say that you couldn’t be someone who popped up with the idea for Nike having no interest in athletics. But, the chances are incredibly low that you’d do something about it even if it crossed your mind.

My learning from connecting these dots translates to simple career advice. First, set expectations – don’t expect opportunity to strike you on your couch. You’ll have to be out on the field getting good at something. Second, if you have a hypothesis for the kind of work you want to do, go to places where the best in the world train and perform. Third, get really good – it helps to recognize what is really opportunity and what isn’t.

And, then, if you’re both lucky and intentional, opportunity will show up dressed in overalls and looking like work.