Opportunity Knocks

To start off Spring Family Weekend this year, Associate Head of School Nate Snow encouraged us to take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way in a riveting morning reading. Below is the text from his reading. Be sure to check out photos from the weekend by following us on Facebook, Instagram and SmugMug.

This morning, I want to take the opportunity to talk with you about opportunity. There are certainly many ways to define ‘opportunity’ and many angles from which to consider its role and impact. At its core, the primary dictionary definition of ‘opportunity’ is: “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.” That makes sense, right? I’ve always found it intriguing that ‘opportunity’ typically has an innately positive connotation and is also generally viewed via an external lens, as in: “this great opportunity just landed in my lap!” You may have had nothing do with it, but isn’t it still awesome? However, you could take that same dictionary definition and reword it to say:  “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do nothing, or to do the wrong thing, or even to do something really stupid” What is the difference between opportunity and adversity – whose dictionary definitions all seem to center around misfortune or bad luck? Is it still an opportunity if not somehow actualized positively through your behavior? Is an open door welcoming if you have no intention of walking through it? Is it then just an open door? A set of circumstances?

The utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill coined the term “opportunity cost” to mean “ the value of the next best thing you give up when you make a decision.” This expression is now mostly used in economic terms, but I like its application in personal terms as well. What is life if not a near constant set of opportunities, each with mini (and sometimes not so mini) consequences that follow from what you chose and of what you chose to give up. It starts right away every day when your alarm goes off: Do you get up right away (yay, first in the shower!)? Or do you hit snooze (9 more minutes in my bed!)? We’ll circle back to that snooze button later, but the rest of your day is ALL more of the same, opportunity after opportunity all with values and costs. This is what opportunity means to me.

We’ve been told that “opportunity knocks”. I don’t actually know where that notion comes from but I’m sure that there are times when opportunity does in fact knock politely on your door: showing up like Ed McMahon with a bunch of balloons and a check from Publishers Clearing House. More often than not, however, I’m guessing “opportunity knocks” is closer to the 90s movie of the same name in which Dana Carvey poses as a meter reader to knock on doors and then steal TV sets from unoccupied living rooms. In fact, I think it is actually pretty clear to everyone that sometimes opportunity doesn’t even knock at all. Sometimes opportunity kicks your door in. Sometimes it may sneak up behind you and hit you with a frying pan. Sometimes opportunity can feel a lot more like a requirement or an obligation that you didn’t get to choose at all. And sometimes opportunity politely makes an appointment with you, but then doesn’t bother to show up at all. At that point, you may have to go out by yourself and search high and low in the worst of places and circumstances to find wherever it may be that opportunity hangs out. Or, even, if you do all that and still can’t find it, you might have to go back home and figure out how to just make it yourself with your next best decision.

So, I wanted to take some time this morning and talk about three people’s stories, some of which may be familiar and some not. I think it is instructive to investigate how opportunity found them (or they found it), but, much more importantly in my opinion, what they did with it. It will be surprising to absolutely nobody here that these people all hail in some form or another from the world of sports, but in all of these cases, it goes much deeper into their lives as people and their roles in their communities and the world.

On every April 15th since 2004, every single player in all of Major League Baseball wears the exact same number on their uniform: 42Most people know the story of Jackie Robinson and how on April 15th, 1947, Robinson started at 1st base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus breaking baseball’s color barrier as the first black player to play in a major league game. It is that opportunity, which he worked towards for years, which led him to be named Rookie of the Year that year, make 6 different All-Star teams (once black players were allowed to compete in the All-Star game), helped lead the Dodgers past the arch-rival New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series and to have his number 42 retired across the entire league. His talent, grace under pressure and ability to withstand the enormous forces of hate which surrounded him not just that day, but for his entire career, also very clearly opened the doors for Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, who entered his first big league game just 11 weeks after Robinson; as well as thousands of players since that day. Beyond baseball, Jackie Robinson was the first black high level executive at a major US company and was also instrumental in helping to originate and define the Civil Rights movement to a national audience, since baseball was America’s game.

What many people do not know about Jackie Robinson’s story is that the Brooklyn Dodgers were not his first opportunity. His first opportunity to try out for a major league team actually came two years earlier on April 16th, 1945 at Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox. By all accounts, this entire tryout was nothing but a political sham from the beginning and Robinson was subjected to racial epithets throughout. Obviously, this opportunity did not open a door for Robinson into the Major Leagues. It did, however, raise up something inside of him that made him ever more determined to reach that threshold, even though those next two years in the minors and the barnstorming leagues were some of the toughest he faced, with racial slurs levied at him in every game by players, managers and fans, teams refusing to play against him and locking their stadiums and not being able to stay in hotels with his own team. It is what he made of that first failed and negative opportunity in Boston that truly shaped his ultimate success and led him to capitalize on the next opportunity. In what is, for me certainly, a sad footnote to this story, The Boston Red Sox were the absolute last team in Major League Baseball to integrate their roster when they added Pumpsie Green in the summer of 1959, three full years after Jackie Robinson had retired from the game of baseball.

I have spent some time in years past at morning meeting talking about the life and death of Pat Tillman. For those unfamiliar with his story, Pat Tillman was a passionate athlete from California who earned the exact last football scholarship available for his class at Arizona State. He played linebacker for the Sun Devils and though undersized, worked his way up the ladder to be a college star. He also graduated in just 3.5 years with a 3.85 GPA. After college, he got the opportunity every athlete wants: he was drafted into the NFL by the Arizona Cardinals.Though he went in the 7th round and 225 players were drafted before he was, via his efforts and tenacity, he excelled for the Cardinals and was on his way to being a star again at the highest level of his sport. During his short career with the Cardinals, he was offered and turned down a contract nearly three times larger than his current one to stay with the Cardinals out of loyalty to the team that drafted him.

Despite all of these, however, his greatest ‘opportunity’ came as a result of the attacks of September 11th, 2001. After finishing the 2001 season, Pat Tillman turned down a multi-million dollar contract to continue playing football in order to enlist in the Army and ultimately become a Ranger, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He signed up with and fought alongside his brother Kevin (who had been playing professional baseball at the time in the Cleveland Indians system). For Pat, the opportunity cost of not enlisting to serve and defend his country was simply too great, despite having to give up the game he loved, millions of dollars, and though he obviously didn’t know it at the time, ultimately his life. Pat Tillman was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan on April 22nd, 2004. An even more tragic element of his story is that it was eventually determined that his death was the result of friendly fire, a fact that was brazenly and purposefully covered up for far too long by the US Government.

The last story I want to talk about is that of Kimberley Chambers, who, unless you happen to follow the world of long distance open water swimming, you likely have never heard about. Spoiler alert: This example feels like opportunity hitting you on the head with a frying pan. Kimberly Chambers grew up in New Zealand and spent much of her childhood and adolescence focused on her dream of becoming a ballet dancer. At 17, she left her family farm in New Zealand and followed her brother to UC Berkeley where she left dance behind for her studies, completing both undergraduate and Master’s degrees at Berkeley with self described Type – A zeal. Upon her graduation, she applied this same zeal to successively greater tech jobs in Silicon Valley.  

Then, one day in 2007, she fell down the stairs on her way to work. Because she was who she was, she ignored her swollen and disfigured leg and got in her car and went to work – where she promptly passed out and was rushed to the hospital. Doctors diagnosed acute compartment syndrome and she immediately went into surgery. They were able to save her leg but told her that she would never be able to walk on her own. It took two long years of physical therapy to prove them wrong and she was able to walk. The scars, both physical and emotional, ran deep.   

Was this adversity or an opportunity? Was this bad luck or a set of circumstances which made it possible for things to happen? As Chambers herself says it, “ That accident was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the beginning of me having gratitude. Up to this point, I had a body that always did whatever I asked of it.”  Another quote: “I won’t say I’m happy I got injured, but it did change my life in many ways, most for the better.”  

During her rehab, Chambers begin swimming, which she had never really done.  This led to some friends from the pool challenging her to swim with them in the cold waters of San Francisco Bay, thinking that she would bail immediately.  Since that first dip in the bay, however, she became hooked and since that day has trained for and completed some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous open water swims (think sharks, jellyfish, storms, etc. . . ). She is, among many other notable achievements, only the 6th person in the world to complete the Ocean’s Seven, sort of the Seven Summits of open water swimming. She continues also to work in Silicon Valley in and around her swimming adventures, but now with a very different perspective on life.

These are all amazing and remarkable stories of growth, challenge, perseverance, courage and passion.  The ‘opportunities’ that I highlighted in their lives, good or bad, seemed to happen on a grand scale. Because of these factors, I recognize that it may be easy to dismiss them as irrelevant to our own lives. “That is not going to happen to me”. You may very well be right.

But, what I find most inspiring in Jackie Robinson’s story is not that he took the opportunity to take the field in Brooklyn on April 15th, 1947, but that he came back and took the field on April 16th and 17th and 18th. Kimberley Chambers was not defined by the ‘opportunity’ that happened to her and magically made her develop a greater sense of purpose and gratitude. She hauled herself out of bed every day for the next two years to make that transformation and now continues to live in that way. Pat Tillman’s story became popular because he turned down the opportunity that the rest of us would have taken in an instant. Why would someone do that? For me, that is not what should be taken from his story. What we should learn from this is that Pat Tillman took every opportunity he got and lived every moment of his life in the way that aligned most tightly with his values: passion, commitment, honor, devotion. To make any other choice than all of the ones he made simply would not have been tolerable.

So, where does this leave us, living our lives in perhaps somewhat less dramatic fashion than these three? Here is the secret: It all remains exactly the same, regardless of scale or external input. It is not one bit different for any of us. Opportunity and adversity are both simply what we choose to make them, or take from them.

Though there are a number of different translations, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with the idea that “No man can step in the same river twice; because he is not the same man, and it is not the same river.”  

Thus, every day is a new day, filled with a whole new set of opportunities: some will knock, some will kick, some will hide from us, some will be required by others and some may even hit you in the head and feel like adversity. This is an unavoidable truth for every single one of us. The only questions that remain then are not:  What opportunity will befall me today?  Or what adversity? But, rather what will I do with each of them? How will I make my own opportunities when necessary? And how will I decide what calculus to use in making those judgments? Can I be nicer tomorrow than I was today? Can I be more compassionate? Can I be more honest? Can I work harder? Love more deeply? Learn more broadly? How will I challenge myself to make the most of every type of opportunity in my life, big or small, internal or external, good or bad?

I told you at the beginning that we would circle back to the snooze button, and it is here that I will wrap up. I recently found this quote from David Goggins, former Navy Seal and ultramarathoner, which seems to sum this up well: Goggins writes: “You will never find your best self in that extra nine minutes of sleep.” So my challenge to all of us is to wake up tomorrow with an eye towards maximizing every opportunity and every adversity that we face, starting with that alarm going off. Just get up and start your day. Maybe you’ll even be the first one to the shower.

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