Summary: Ultimately, winning in life comes down to two things: (1) Having good options to pick from and (2) picking the right ones. To this end, I’ve created a framework called “Opportunity Universe” that can help you think through your opportunities in a systematic manner. Moreover, I’ve developed an approach for choosing the right opportunities based on your capabilities, market forces and your passions. Following this approach, you will be able to pursue the right opportunities and be successful doing so. While this article focuses on career success, you can ultimately use this framework for all domains of life.
Introducing the Opportunity Universe
First, I’d like to introduce a term I coined: The “Opportunity Universe.” It is a very valuable tool for visualising the concept of possibilities. The easiest way to think about this is as a cloud in the sky. Each of the rain droplets in this cloud represents one of the opportunities you could pursue. Mathematically speaking, it’s the set of all options at your disposal.
The notion of this Opportunity Universe as a fluid rather than a static set is very powerful because it implies that you are the master of your fate. Through various initiatives, you can enlarge your Opportunity Universe, which gives you more choices. Now, whenever you’re not happy with the options you have in your life, there is a very clear path to action: Increase your Opportunity Universe.
Expand your Opportunity Universe
There are two ways to do this: On the one hand, you can increase your awareness level of opportunities already at your disposal. Practically, you can do this in a number of ways, but to name a few:
- Personally, I use an app called Todoist for writing down all the ideas which come to my mind during the week. Every Monday, I take time to go through all of the ideas and put them in buckets such as “Start-up Ideas,” “Personal Development” and “Social Media Ideas.”
- I read about another way in Tim Ferriss’s 2016 book Tools of Titans: Make some time each morning to write down five ideas. I think this can work really well because in the morning you have less decision fatigue and a fresh mind.
- Finally, there is the sledgehammer approach of using mind-altering substances that may aid you in increasing your creativity and hence your awareness level. Although I do not advocate this approach due to the obvious risks involved, there seems to be anecdotal evidence that it may do wonders in terms of driving creativity.
The second way to increase your Opportunity Universe is to find new opportunities that had previously not been available to you.
- This can be done through reading and desk research. Remember from my previous article that knowledge works as a network, so the more knowledge you accumulate, the more clarity you will have on your Opportunity Universe..
- On the other hand, you can turn to external sources (friends, colleagues, mentors, etc.) and ask them to point you to opportunities they think could be a good fit.
Quite interestingly, there is a finding in network science that people with large, open networks tend to do significantly better in their careers in terms of compensation, evaluations and promotions. I believe this is no coincidence, but rather a result of better options due to a larger Opportunity Universe. Hence, don’t be shy, talk to people about your ideas and plans. Often, they will point you in new directions and expand your Opportunity Universe.
Personally, I use this framework to identify new opportunities for my venture studio 10x Value Partners. For example, I meet with investors to find new business ideas and I ask former employees for referrals for new employees. Each of these activities is geared towards increasing my Opportunity Universe, giving me options to pursue many more, potentially better projects.
Pick the right opportunity
Actually, as of today, I have a list of over 500 business ideas, many more than I can potentially hope to build in my lifetime. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that you should pick an opportunity at the intersection of the following criteria:
- Your personal USP
- A market opportunity
- Your passion
The intersection of these three criteria is the sweet spot of options where you are positioned to win.
1. Find your personal USP .
I hold the opinion that, similar to a business, each individual needs to find her value proposition relative to her peers in the market. The most obvious way to do this is honing one skill and becoming the best in the world at this skill. It’s a nice story, but becoming the best in the world at anything is a pretty tall order.
The reality is that it’s just not practical be successful with this narrow approach. Hence, I find it better to identify a combination of skills you are relatively good at and think about how this novel combination of two or more skills makes you unique compared to other individuals in the market. This is how you can define your Unique Selling Point (USP).
I first noticed this principle when I took the GMAT many years ago. As you may know, the GMAT is composed of verbal and analytical parts that together are computed into your final score and percentile rank. To achieve an overall all score in the 99th percentile, it is sufficient to score in the 96th percentile for both the verbal and analytical parts individually.
Why is this so? It’s because the combination of top 4% verbal and analytical skills is rare in the general population. Hence, this combination makes you part of the top 1% of test takers overall.
For the past few years, I called this the “GMAT Principle,” but more recently I also learned about similar career advice given to people by Scott Adams.
Simply put, the secret of achieving exceptional performance is the combination of one’s capabilities. The more capabilities you can combine into a joint skill-set, the more likely you are to be uniquely equipped to excel at some particular thing.
For instance, Steve Jobs made Apple successful due to the mix of creativity, aggressive mindset and great executive management skills (a very rare combination). Mark Zuckerberg is a great fit for Facebook as he understands programming and has a great grasp of human psychology (evident in his ability to engineer viral applications such as the first “Hot or Not” product he built while at Harvard). The latter also enabled him to realize that Instagram was a bargain deal at $1 billion. As a more general example, the combination of good analytical skills, finance knowledge and business judgement can determine whether you do well as a stock market investor.
To achieve similar success, it is therefore of utmost importance that you continuously learn what your capabilities are and think about how you can combine them into a meaningful joint-skill set.
Here are some tips to help you think that through:
- Ask yourself: What is easy for me that many other people always complain is hard for them?
- Ask 5 of your closest friends and 5 people you don’t know so well (such as your boss, instructor or professor) on feedback about your strengths.
- Think about past performance reviews. In what aspects of your job did you perform exceptionally well?
- Use personality assessment tests such as the Myers-Briggs test or the Ocean model.
This is the first step to making decisions that line you up for success. Think of it this way: Do you want to fight lots of fierce battles in the fighting pits or do you want to take advantage of the best strategic position on the battlefield by combining your skills in a meaningful way? Once you have identified the best way to invest your energy in your own skills and professional growth and have aimed your ambitions in line with those attributes, you are ready to find a market opportunity that optimizes your joint skill-set.
2. Identify the right market opportunity.
Investors have pointed extensively to the fact that a start-up needs to establish product-market fit to be successful. I argue that the same holds true for your personal life. In fact, you are the CEO of your career, which is like an enterprise you are running. Thus, you need to find an opportunity that shows demand for your services and also willingness to pay. While this is sufficient to earn a living, for surpassing average results, you need to go further:
Firstly, the opportunity you choose should fit your unique capabilities. For example, if you are a friendly person with great resistance towards stress, you could earn above average tips as a service worker in the restaurant industry.
Secondly, you should ideally have some kind of unfair advantage relative to competitors with a similar skill-set. How this unfair advantage materialises varies case by case, but overall, it means that you have some sort of trump card other players don’t have.
One example for this is the founder of Snapchat, Evan Spiegel. He had proprietary knowledge about college life as a student plus he had an unfair advantage for initial distribution for his app as a fraternity member. Having an unfair advantage can be very helpful if you want to increase your chances of success, but it’s by no means absolutely necessary.
To sum it up, a basic requirement for picking an opportunity is that there is a demand and willingness to pay for your service. To achieve above average results, you should also establish a fit with your unique combination of capabilities as well as possess an unfair advantage.
3. Follow your passion.
I will argue in a future article that it’s paramount to reach flow state to achieve exceptional performance and results. One of the most obvious ways to achieve this is following your passion. Yet, many famous people like Mark Cuban claim that following your passion is bad advice. I partially agree, and I say that you should only follow your passion if it matches your capabilities and a market opportunity. But if you can establish this fit, it will enable you to have a career full of meaning, drive and motivation.
There are a couple of ways to develop your passions and harness them into entrepreneurial aims. On the one hand you can be outcome-oriented. An example of this would be to say: “I want to find a cure for cancer.”
However, I feel having such discrete goals is a recipe for unhappiness because they tend to be all-or-nothing in nature. On the one hand, it is less likely to reach such a specific goal and on the other hand, research shows that once people reach discrete goals a void will open that needs to be filled with achieving an even bigger goal.
Hence, I favour the more process-oriented approach: Life is a journey and it’s your responsibility to make this journey as meaningful and enjoyable as possible. Following this line of thought, there are two ways to make this happen:
a) Regret Minimisation
Regret Minimisation is a framework advocated by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In essence, it all starts with a question: “In x years, will I regret not doing this?” Bezos’s intuition is actually backed by science that says that we tend to regret actions not taken far more than we regret failed attempts.
A similar variation of this is called the “Rocking Chair Test”: Imagine you are 80 years old and are looking back on your life. Would you regret the decisions you have made? There are countless of anecdotes of people in their dying bed who regret specifically the things they did not do. So according to this approach, your goal should be to minimise the perceived regret.
b. Happiness Maximisation
Happiness Maximisation is a framework I learned about reading the book of Zappos co-founder Tony Hsieh, who has done a lot of research on the science of happiness and has brought this into his leadership philosophy at Zappos.
Basically, what Hsieh noticed is that the underlying driver of almost all human action is the pursuit of happiness. To do this, he repeatedly asked people “Why?” they exhibit a certain behaviour and after drilling down the fundamental truth, he realised that most people just strive to be happy. Notice how that is very similar to how Elon Musk analyses business problems with his “First Principles” methodology.
Considering how much the pursuit of happiness is hard-wired into our brains, I would not be surprised if researchers will find a link between happiness and evolutionary chances of survival in the future. After all, happiness and success outcomes have already been well demonstrated in research on the subject. Regardless of this, both minimising regret and maximising happiness will enable you to find your passion.
In case you cannot find a passion matching your capabilities and a market opportunity, there is also a little work-around: You can turn what you are doing into your passion by aspiring to become a master in the field and giving yourself daily challenges to grow and to become more efficient. This way, you can sort of create a new passion without compromising on capabilities and market opportunity.
In any case, matching your capabilities and a market opportunity with your passion, you can awaken an almost unstoppable force putting you on a path to greatness. This is the final step to winning in life:
Let’s review how the concept of an Opportunity Universe can help you identify the best options to pursue when it comes to entrepreneurial or career possibilities:
First, map your Opportunity Universe to get an overview of all the things you can do from where you are now. Your opportunity universe should ideally expand over time as you learn more about your interests, build networks and grow your skill-set.
When it comes to picking the right opportunity, there are three factors to consider. Firstly, your unique combination of capabilities should position you to succeed. Secondly, there needs to be a market for the opportunity you pick, and you should ideally have an unfair advantage pursuing this market opportunity. Additionally, following your passion can help you enter a flow state enabling you to reach peak performance.
To find out what you are truly passionate about, there are two frameworks: “Regret Minimisation” and “Happiness Maximisation.” I recommend a both/and approach to help you identify the potential paths that will maximize your passions.
I firmly believe if you use this methodology to determine what to do, you are on a path towards living a life full of meaning, success and happiness.
Stay tuned for a future article where I will explain how the Opportunity Universe framework is also a powerful tool in more personal pursuits such as sports and relationships.
At 10x Value Partners we utilise the “Opportunity Universe” in three ways. Firstly, we constantly expand our Opportunity Universe by identifying new business opportunities. Secondly, we validate attractive market opportunities through research and by creating unfair advantages, i.e. through partnerships or proprietary assets. Finally, we work with our founders on going through the process of finding an opportunity best suited to their capabilities and passions.
In case you want to learn more about these opportunities, follow me here and also connect on LinkedIn to stay in the loop on upcoming projects.