How to Stop Missing Out on Opportunities

It all starts with your imagination. Think through more than one method for every action you take. When you think in multiples, you step out of your comfort zone and into new opportunities.

How do you cope with the rejections and outright lack of response that arise in most job searches? What can you do when you keep encountering obstacles in the path you’ve planned?

The short answer is: Let go of your security blanket, and think in multiples. It can be hard to do when declined and ignored by hiring managers day in and day out. But sculptor Louise Nevelson said, “I think all great innovations are built on rejections.”

When you’re in your comfort zone, you’re stuck. Getting unstuck is critical because whatever challenge you’re facing now, it’s likely that you need to think and behave differently.

As far as I can tell, unjamming your thinking a two-step process.

1. “Kill your little darlings.”

When I was an editor, I always loved the quote attributed to William Faulkner that writers needed to “kill their little darlings.” It’s a message about how, in order for inspiration to enter, we need to let go of the ideas we’re so in love with.

I was reminded of the importance of this willingness when I read a cover story in Fortune on why J.P. Morgan did better year than other investment banks during last year’s meltdown of financial markets. The article focuses on CEO Jamie Dimon’s leadership style and points out that Dimon is known not only for holding strong opinions but letting go of his passionate position when someone on his team presents a compelling argument to do so. His leadership meetings are like “Italian family dinners,” with everyone throwing out their opinions vociferously. Said Bill Daley, the head of corporate responsibility and a former Secretary of Commerce, “People were challenging Jamie, debating him, telling him he was wrong. It was nothing like I’d seen in a Bill Clinton cabinet meeting or anything I’d ever seen in business.”

As Dimon discovered, the ability to kill our little darlings gives a huge competitive advantage. It keeps us open to new information rather than stay loyal to our own surety.

Bottom line: It allows you to see opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise.

How does this guidance apply to you? Whether employed or in an active job search, we all have beliefs we hold onto about life and ourselves. We can’t help it. That’s what our prefrontal cortex does for a living: creates assumptions about what is happening in order to make predictions about the future.

Under stress, we tend to hold these core beliefs even tighter. Which is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing.

When things around us are changing, rather than clutching our assumptions like a security blanket, we need to hold them up to the light and examine them closely and critically.

That means having a willingness to admit, even if only to yourself, that you don’t have all the answers. Invite challenges and seek out contrary opinions — “Tell me where my thinking is wrong here,” “What am I missing?” “What else should I be considering?” You want to make sure you’ve considered all the options. And that takes up to Step Two:

2. Think of another way to do the same thing.

Here’s the secret in Step Two: There is always more than one way to deal with anything — even when it doesn’t seem so.

There’s a fabulous movie called “Thirteen Days” about the Cuban missile crisis. In it, JFK learns from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in which he accepted without question his generals’ intelligence and authorized a failed invasion of Cuba. During the crisis, the president asked all kinds of “dumb” questions and refused to accept the experts’ assumptions. Many historians believe that it was his refusal to heed his generals that averted a nuclear war. He insisted that his advisors find another way — and they finally did.

But how exactly do you think more broadly? Simply telling yourself to expand your thinking doesn’t usually work. Based on working with executives around the world, I’ve found the following steps to be the most effective. Try one; try them all.

  • Focus on the solution, not the problem.

Because society rewards analytic thinking, we believe that identifying the cause is the answer: Why is this happening? That’s a starting point, but don’t spend too much time there. The real question is, what are you going to do about where you are?

  • Take your own advice.

What would you tell a friend or colleague to do in your situation? One of your best resources is the advice you give others. Then be sure to follow your own suggestions.

  • Ask yourself the classic entrepreneurial questions:

If anything could be right about this situation, what could it be?
How could I turn this situation to my advantage?
What opportunities has this situation created that I could take advantage of?

  • Consider the alternative.

When considering options, before you say something won’t work, consider how it might work. Try it on for a while.

  • WW_D?

Imagine the wisest business guru in the world, living or dead. What would he or she tell you to do right now?

If you find yourself in either/or thinking, your brain is doing what’s called “bifurcation.” It’s stuck between two choices. That’s when it’s time to ….

3. Think like a Native American

The Native Americans say that if you haven’t thought of seven options, your thinking is incomplete. Challenge yourself to come up with seven ways to deal with the situation.

If you can’t do this easily yourself, brainstorm with a friend. When we look at multiple possibilities, we increase our sense of freedom, invoke our creativity and usually find a way forward. Otherwise, we tend to feel like a bunny rabbit caught in a hole with a fox poking its nose in the only escape route. And that’s a recipe for staying stuck.