As essay on the love and heartbreak of opportunity

Last week I had the heartbreaking realisation that an opportunity I had been pursuing, that I had invested my heart and soul into developing, was in fact, no longer an opportunity. I specialise in entrepreneurship process consulting, specifically relating to personal commitment to an opportunity. I design, re-design and do whatever it takes to facilitate the execution of new value – and to accept there were elements that rendered the opportunity void triggered a deep grieving process. 

Opportunities are an extension of our own identity. When an opportunity you have fallen in love with is lost, in addition to the obvious time and resource burn, part of ourselves are lost with it. Our vision, home base and the pathway between the two are shattered and you are left floating in the abyss with no anchor point and no direction - it needs to be imagineered all over again. 

The psychological process of pursuing opportunity begins with personal commitment to the extent that there is no perceived going back (Fayolle, 2011). Much like Henry Ford’s famous quote ‘whether you think you can or think you can’t – you are right’, the human dimension of an opportunity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Intimacy and passion grows as the love strengthens and must also be balanced with dispassion. Dispassion enables the ability to objectively evaluate, to appropriately take personal responsibility and to notice personal patterns that result in new learnings which is the new value acquired from loss. As opportunities are under stress or break down, by their nature of requiring unbridled commitment, they involve an emotional rollercoaster of escalation behaviour and grief. 

Having experienced and witnessed this scenario many times, it has led me down a path of entrepreneurship research and application that focuses on personal commitment to an opportunity: the mechanics of emotions. If we can lessen or circumnavigate the impact of fear and loss, it speeds up the process of entrepreneurship. 

Falling in love with opportunity

A dear friend and mentor said to me many years ago that I fall in love with opportunity too easily. Having known this, and having observed my father go through exactly the same way of approaching life, I deliberately spent the last ten years studying entrepreneurship and systematic opportunity evaluation to learn which opportunities to pursue and at what point they needed to be discarded. Opportunity is my love and I wanted to learn how to create a lifelong relationship. It turns out that while in the blink of an eye I can now evaluate someone else’s opportunity with precision, when it comes to my own, the conflict between passion and dispassion still requires external perspective for evaluation and a personal support network for the emotional journey. Not only do we fall in love with an opportunity, there are times where we also need to, or are forced to, break up with it. 

The connection between love and opportunity

Love and opportunity are intrinsically connected through personal commitment. The narrative we choose determines our perspective, our approach and ultimately the affect both phenomena’s have on us. 

If we first look at entrepreneurship, it is a transformational process that starts with opportunity, requires personal commitment to the defined opportunity and its tactical execution (Hindle, 2010). It is a fundamental, evolutionary, iterative human process that results in the creation of new value for defined stakeholders. That new value could be a new resource, new money, new health or indeed new love. 

“What is love” was the most Googled phrase in 2012 and The Guardian wrote an article from writers spanning fields of science, psychotherapy, literature, religion and philosophy to give their definition which you can read here. While the philosophy of love is vast from Eros as life energy, to Plato’s Symposium, Aristole’s emphasis on friendship and affection through to modern scientists, Robert Sternberg is considered the most popular modern day theorist who developed the Triangular Theory of Love in 1986. Sternberg describes three fundamental and necessary components required for lasting love as being intimacy (attachment, closeness, connectedness, and bondedness), passion (energy, intensity, drive and attraction) and commitment (a willingness in the short-term to create and maintain a relationship and long-term plans to sustain the relationship). According to Sternberg, different forms of love exist from a combination of these three base components which you can read in detail on wiki. For me, I define love as an unlimited source of energy from the soul that over comes fear. However you perceive or define love, it is universally agreed that it involves intense personal commitment that drives people to do the extraordinary. No love, no opportunity.

SOURCE: Sternberg, Robert J., 1986. A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, Vol 93(2), Apr 1986, 119-135.

SOURCE: Sternberg, Robert J., 1986. A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, Vol 93(2), Apr 1986, 119-135.

How personal commitment affects an opportunity

The level of personal commitment needed for an opportunity to be ‘investable' is equivalent to the intensity, conviction, courage and generosity experienced in love. As an entrepreneur it is possible to outsource strategic value creation (stage one) and to outsource the managed implementation (stage three), but personal commitment (stage two) is intrinsic. Of course we need a focused support network which brings a horse to water, but the fight of the leader to pro-actively mitigate risk and create new value despite adversity is the largest determinant of the viability, durability and credibility of an opportunity. 

Commitment that falls short of the intensity required ultimately relates to fear. Ego alters our perception of self and affects capacity for personal awareness and responsibility, personal alignment to the opportunity, objectivity of value exchanges and the ability for positive progression. Crossing the threshold is a personal journey of transformation that no one can do for you. 

Intention does not equal outcome. Intention explores opportunity to commit. Inspiration chasers that seek to outsource courage are not viable. If you're looking to determine someone's personal commitment look for clues such as: Who is early? Who goes the extra mile? Who will do what others don't want to? Who beats deadlines? Who has attention to detail in quality? Who invests in learning? Who is willing to do the grunt work? Who embraces being outside their conform zone? Who stands by their convictions during adversity? Who has a history of earning respect? Who is in lasting love with their opportunity opposed to infatuation, friendship or romance? Whom would you trust if $h!t hit the fan to hold the reigns? Conversely, who uses the term ‘busy’, will, could or should? Who has a disconnect between intention and actions/outcome? Notice how people allocate their time, money and energy. 

The dark side of personal commitment to an opportunity 

When you are in love with an opportunity you will do whatever it takes to make it happen. Roadblocks are a mere sign that you need to take a different tact. The more you invest, the more you continue to invest of your time, energy and resources… You reflect on the cartoon of the gold miner in the tunnel who stops digging a foot before he reaches gold. You read about the overnight success that took ten years. You reflect on the commitment you made to yourself and to other people. The drive that catalysed the opportunity for you in the first place, is the very same drive that triggers what’s known as escalation of commitment. Barry Shaw described this behaviour in 1976 as “the phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the cost, starting today, of continuing the decision outweighs the expected benefit.” Key word here is justify. 

Opportunities are in a state of constant evolution and what constitutes an opportunity today, may not tomorrow. That is why opportunity evaluation is an iterative, on-going, daily dispassionate process that requires a personal board of advisors. As an entrepreneurship process consultant that specialises in opportunity evaluation and personal commitment, the greatest challenge I see entrepreneurs and investors face is that of uncommitment. If personal commitment is the signature trait that determines the future likely success of an opportunity, how then, are we to possibly know the point to uncommit? Furthermore, if uncommitment requires you to deliberately instigate loss and knowingly put yourself through the trauma of the grieving process, surely that would make us fight even harder for the opportunity?  I asked Prof. Kevin Hindle about this, one of the world’s leading professors of entrepreneurship, specifically about ways in which the challenges of an opportunity he had consulted and advised abandonment on could have been solved. Yes, my proposed solutions were viable solutions on the specific problems at hand, however, the time and resources required rendered the initial opportunity that was under evaluation, redundant.

The heartache of opportunity

Love is the most powerful of human emotions and its loss is the number one theme of hit songs over the past fifty years (read article on that here). 

When we experience loss we go through five stages of grief that were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While we go through each of the five stages, they may occur in any order and to varying degrees of time and intensity. One of the challenges in opportunity loss is that it is not only an external loss to us which we must accept, but it also encompasses a shattering of personal identity. Furthermore, when the loss occurs through circumstances beyond our control our capacity to reconcile ‘act of god’ or black swan events creates even deeper trauma (it is important to distinguish external events outside one's control as separate to blame that occurs during grieving). Remember, an opportunity may be sound in the generic evaluation process, however, contextual and commitment evaluation may deliver the hard truth of opportunity loss and thus trigger grieving.

To love again

I have loved, I have lost, and I will do it all over again because I believe in myself, in happiness, in opportunity and in love. While I cannot circumnavigate the emotional rollercoaster, nor would I want to, I am able through knowledge, experience and support to lessen the frequency and impact of losing an opportunity. As someone diagnosed with clinical anxiety to extent of conversion disorder, I have been forced to explore self and discover ways of perceiving and being during chaos. 

These days, I strive for the learnings, ensure I have a pipeline of opportunities, maintain a constant support network, apply dispassionate evaluation, have unwavering conviction for my vision to execution and as much as it hurts, have the courage to walk away when an opportunity ceases to exist. This is the fastest way to execute entrepreneurship, the creation of new value. As an entrepreneurship process consultant, this is the transformational process I help clients through. It is important to know that an opportunity is no different to energy – it cannot be created or destroyed, rather it changes form. When opportunity reinvents itself it is always stronger, more aligned and returns greater value than was previously imagined, if you have allowed learning from hard truth to occur.