How to See and Seize Life’s Opportunities

Note: This is a guest post from Mike Reeves-McMillan of Living Skillfully

Back in December last year, I wrote a guest post for Life Optimizer called 5 Things That Are Better Than a Plan, talking about how a sense of purpose, a direction, a moral compass, awareness of opportunities and a range of tools and techniques are better resources than a rigid plan in a changing world. It got a great response, with lots of comments. One comment in particular gave me an idea for this follow-up post.

Dana said: “Awareness of opportunities, that is the place we get stuck”.

That looks to me like an opportunity to say more. So here are my thoughts on how to create and recognize opportunities in life.

Sow many seeds

Another comment on my earlier post quoted the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes: “Give portions to seven, yes to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.” In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If you want to have a lot of opportunities, start a lot of small things and watch to see which ones become big.

If everything relies on one plan – if there’s no plan B (or C or D or E) – you’re risking everything on the always-imperfect chance that plan A will work out.

A friend of mine is an aspiring actress. She auditions for everything. Fighting prostitute in Spartacus? Sure! Hobbit? Sure! Angel for one scene in the small indie film The Insatiable Moon? Sure! (She got two out of three of those roles. She’s too tall for a hobbit.) She gets tired of it – but that’s the way to create opportunities.

If you want to be struck by lightning, you need to go out in every thunderstorm and climb the biggest tree you can see.

Know what an opportunity looks like

Over Christmas my wife and I did a jigsaw puzzle. It was one of those where the picture isn’t on the box (the picture on the box is of the scene you’d see if you stood inside the puzzle facing out). It was a great lesson in spotting opportunities.

To find the right piece in a puzzle like that, you need to have an idea of what you’re looking for. You say things like, “It’s a Y-shaped piece, and it has that exact shade of yellow on the end tab, I should be able to see this…”.

At the same time, sometimes the piece doesn’t look exactly the way you expect. Perhaps the little bit of yellow is smaller than you thought. Maybe the pattern changes suddenly on this piece. You don’t have the picture, so you can’t be sure.

What we did was to start with the pieces that were easiest to spot, that were clear matches to what we were looking for or obviously went together. Once we’d found those, we had more context to use in looking for the rest.

At the same time, while we were working on a face, or part of a building, if we spotted something that fitted somewhere else we grabbed it then – we didn’t wait until later.

Some of the best opportunities you’ll ever get are ones you’ll find when you’re looking for something else.

Have clear criteria

Exactly because opportunities come along all the time (when you’re looking for them), you need to have some criteria for which to take and which to leave alone. Good questions to ask include:

  • Does this take me closer to, or further from, my ultimate goal?
  • What benefits will it give me?
  • What costs are involved?
  • Does this have the potential to open up to something larger, or is it clearly a one-off?
  • If it did open up to something larger, would that be something I was prepared to pursue?
  • If I refuse this opportunity, does that close off others in the future?

Victoria Brouhard talks a lot about “no-brainer scenarios”, where you figure out what would have to be true in order to give a clear “Yes!” to an opportunity. This is exactly what I’m talking about.

Don’t despise small opportunities

Often, the first opportunity you get from someone else is small. They want to know what you’re like – do you show up on time, do you do good work, are you easy to get on with? My friend the actress isn’t going to be offered a lead role first crack out of the box. You have to, as they say in jazz, pay your dues.

When I was a freelance writer, I several times took small projects that turned into much larger ones. On the other hand, I also took small projects that didn’t go anywhere else – but that I learned interesting and useful things from anyway, like a book of photographs of wineries that I wrote the text for.

Be ready

One of the best things you can do to prepare for opportunity is to have an “opportunity reserve”. By this I mean, structure things so that you can act on opportunities when they arrive.

Think in advance about what would need to happen if your great opportunity did occur. Could you take time from your current work? Would you be able to survive financially? What other responsibilities would someone else have to take over temporarily – would you need someone to mind your kids, mind your house, feed your fish, guest post on your blog?

If you’re totally enmeshed in your life as it is now, with no room to maneuver, how would you be able to take opportunities if they did arise?

Having these essential things taken care of becomes part of your no-brainer scenario.

So, take a look around. What do you have that you can turn into opportunities?

Mike Reeves-McMillan is always looking for opportunities to connect with people who want to pay attention to their lives and live them better. That’s the purpose of his blog, Living Skillfully: Change Your Life.

Photo by Micky


  1. I have to ask, where can I find a puzzle like the one mentioned here? Sounds a LOT more fun than the usual kind.

  2. An opportunity reserve, I like that kind of like opportunity insurance!


  3. This is what I aim for —- Opportunities (not plans).

    Opportunities are for those will to take some risk and get rewarded with zazzle. Plans are for those who want a scripted life.

    Opportunities are for those who want to take a walk on the wild side with the Werewolves of London. Plans are for those who want a quite stroll in the park with Mary Poppins.

    Opportunities are for those who want to live life and death comes as a surprise. Plans are for those who want to be prepared for their death.



    • I seem to recall that hanging around Mary Poppins got pretty unexpected, but you’re right. I think it’s time we recognised that things change too quickly and unpredictably to lock ourselves in to too many long-term plans, and that we need to cultivate the ability to respond creatively. If life hands you lemons (and it will), make lemon tart without a recipe.

      Accordingly, I’m currently doing an improv class. It’s great.

  4. I like the part about being ready. You could mess up everything else, but if you’re truly ready for an opportunity, you’ll find that it will show up.

    I would add to not be afraid to be creative. Many opportunities can be created with some guts, imagination and a willingness to break some “rules”.

  5. Now I’m one of those people who enjoys exciting opportunities and taking a giant leap into the unknown every once in a while… but I like my wild side to fit into my little box called a plan. I must have a plan, both for today and for a year from now. Without set goals and steps to accomplish those goals, I would go crazy!

    Like Proverbs illustrates: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps”. This is at the heart of how I do business. I must be organized and have a plan for my own sanity, but I also leave room for God (and opportunity) to change those plans at any given moment.

    I think it’s important to have a road map and know where you’re going, even if you might decide to take the scenic route later on. It’s not having a plan that hinders us, but rather the failure to make those plans flexible that can be a roadblock.

    Thanks for the post!

  6. The way I see it, if you know what an opportunity looks like, then you’ve got huge leverage over those who don’t, because opportunities are always going to come your way. Opportunities are there for those who want to make their lives more interesting, enjoyable and better. Who doesn’t? 😉

    • Sadly, some people don’t – or at least, are afraid to. But you’re right, being able to see an opportunity when it comes makes a big difference. Even being aware and being in the mindset of asking yourself, “Is this an opportunity?”

  7. “If you’re totally enmeshed in your life as it is now, with no room to maneuver, how would you be able to take opportunities if they did arise?”

    Having children I am always hoping to teach them how to look at life in a different way than I was taught as a child. This was such a good article. It’s all about perspective and what people perceive with each life experience or event. I wish they taught this in the school system. It is very slow to change how it teaches. It is a little better than when I was a child however, they still teach to follow and to get the one right answer. The new math my kids are being taught is “cutting edge” and teaches that there is more than one way to come up with the right answer. Sadly, the “new math” is only taught in a couple of grades and then they revert back to the old way of doing it. I’m glad my life path has taken me to a different understanding (similar to your articles in this blog) and I can show a new perspective to my children so that they can see the opportunities around them.


    • Thanks, Melissa – there’s a lot that isn’t taught in schools that could be in order to prepare kids for real life and real success in the 21st century. The current school curriculum is aimed at producing useful cogs in an industrial society that we’re rapidly outgrowing.

      Anyway, don’t get me started. As the song says, “When I think of all the $#1t I learned in school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

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