5 Rules to Live By When Looking for the Perfect Opportunity

Part 3: How to decide which opportunities are worth considering.

Posted Feb 03, 2019

Steve Johnson/Pexels
Choosing between paint swatches is like choosing good enough opportunities
Source: Steve Johnson/Pexels

I was invited to the Lisa Valentine Clark Show to do an interview as a follow-up to my post on tips for saying yes to more of the right opportunities. Lisa had so many great follow-up questions that we couldn’t possibly cover them all 20 minutes. So, I decided to create a short series of follow-up posts to answer some of those additional questions. This is the third in the series. 

In addition to questions about how to say yes to the right opportunities, one interesting question we didn’t get to discuss was whether you should apply for roles or try new opportunities that are not-quite-perfect for what you have been looking for. I believe that this particular skill is critical to helping women obtain more leadership opportunities

I’ll share some “rules to live by” and the explain why this is critical for emerging women leaders. 

Rule to Live By #1: There is no such thing as a “perfect” opportunity. 

Steve Johnson/Pexels
Abstract art is like choosing opportunities
Source: Steve Johnson/Pexels

The thing I love most about abstract art is that from the artist’s perspective, while you might have a certain feeling in mind of what you want to evoke, the final outcome is developed along the way. It’s a journey. It builds on itself as you grow to understand how you feel about it. And unlike still life paintings, it’s perfect in all its imperfections. And from the viewer’s perspective, different pieces evoke different reactions in different people. No two people will view it quite the same. What is an image of perfection to one person may not be that way to another person. 

When you are looking for the “perfect” opportunity, it’s the same idea. Think not “what is the perfect opportunity?”, but rather “what is perfect for me?” And what is ideal for you only develops over time, as a journey of experiences that unfold and reveal themselves as you evaluate your reactions to them over time. 

A concrete way to think about it is to consider the goal, skillset, or set of experiences that are really important to you to fulfill in your life – the bigger picture goal. Take some time to think about what those goals or skills are. What motivates you? What are your values and priorities? 

Then measure all opportunities against that yardstick.

The earlier you are in the process of seeking that “ideal” opportunity, the more you should be trying things that are farther off from your perfect criteria. If an opportunity can provide you with even 60% of those experiences on your bucket list (and as long as they don’t completely overlap with the same things you are already doing now), it’s worth considering. 

Read on for some ways to figure out how to develop the bucket list. 

Rule to Live By #2: Know your degrees of freedom. 

There are always tradeoffs.  For every opportunity, there are a set of situations that you are going to be restricted by. A past mentor of mine referred to these as your “degrees of freedom,” a mathematical term referring to how many independent components you can have, without breaking any constraints, before something can be estimated fully. 

So instead of looking at it like a trade-off or that you are restricted, you can look at it as a question of how much wiggle room you have and what is enough information to make a good enough final decision. 

These degrees of freedom include: 

  • Location of the opportunity (do you have to move? is it close enough?)
  • Salary 
  • Type of job, tasks, or projects you will get to do
  • Hours (how many, what is the schedule, etc.)

I often tell the people I coach, mentor, and supervise to take the following steps:

  1. First prioritize. Which of these are non-negotiable? Which are you willing to compromise on?
  2. If you get an opportunity that meets only the highest priority on your list, consider it strongly and then use the rest of the rules below. 
  3. Of the rest of the degrees of freedom lower on your priority list, most people are lucky if an opportunity meets their top 2 degrees of freedom, extremely lucky if an opportunity meets 3 degrees of freedom, and it’s very rare to meet all 4 - you would likely have to move to a different location if you found the “perfect” type of job hours, tasks, and compensation. 

Rule to Live By #3: Go beyond the traditional means of accessing opportunities. 

Waiting for the perfect job announcement to come your way? That rarely happens. Always think about how you can create opportunities that match different parts of your bucket list (see above). You never know which one could lead to more opportunities that could fulfill your goals. And in the meantime, you are better preparing yourself to be a great candidate for that next right opportunity. 

For Example: I volunteer with several non-profits that are always looking for volunteers to fill specific needs they have identified. If there is some small piece of an announcement that I think fits with my interests and goals, I don’t always jump in and take it as it is described. 

Sometimes I first ask for more information to see if it can be adjusted to better fit my interests and goals: “What are you looking for? What do you need? Can we try it this way instead? What about this? Can we talk through some options?”

Once I have worked enough with the organization that they know my work and trust it, I then have even more leeway to pitch new ideas that meets both their needs as well as mine (e.g., “Have you ever thought of providing trainings on communication? I would love to be involved in something like that. Would you be interested?”). 

It becomes a win-win. You get to that perfect opportunity by NOT expecting to start with perfect. 

Rule to Live By #4: Know Your Signs.

There are also signs within yourself – the gut check – that tell you whether you are going in the right direction with not-quite-perfect opportunities. Your reactions, such as bodily sensations, self-talk, and how you are thinking about it, allow you to gather additional meaningful data that can help with decision making, beyond just the up-front content.  

Do you know what your signs are? If not, start paying attention to how you feel immediately before you take on each new opportunity. Then compare them. 

What differences in your internal reactions do you notice between jobs or experiences that turn out well and those that do not?

For Example: When an opportunity is a good one for me, I find myself tossing and turning all night thinking about it, imagining myself in the role doing the work. 

Even if I’m scared out of my mind to take it on because I don’t think I’m ready, I can’t get the desire to do it out of my head

Even when I try to find reasons not to do it (usually out of fear), I find myself compelled by and pulled toward it. 

Even if it sounds like it would be really hard, I am drawn to it as an exciting positive challenge

On the other hand, when an opportunity is NOT a good one for me, I find myself easily able to sleep restfully, let it go, or forget about it. 

Or I might find myself having to force myself to think about the decision when it doesn’t really compel me, or to convince myself it’s a good decision (e.g., “You should really take this job - it makes sense to take this job.”) 

And if the opportunity would be a difficult challenge, I experience it as arduous rather than exciting.  

Do you have the butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling? Is it accompanied by thoughts of excitement or dread? Is the dread due to fear you are not good enough or fear you might fail? 

Do you feel joyful and full of energy? Do you find yourself talking about it more? 

What are you saying to yourself? Listen to your self-talk – that running inner dialogue you have with yourself about this opportunity. 

Follow the feelings and the associated running stream of thought to help you tease apart normal fears of taking a new exciting opportunity from fear that it’s the wrong path for you. (These skills are, in fact, at the root of cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques).

Talking through these feelings and thoughts with trusted friends or family members will also help you tease them apart better than spending too much time mulling it over. 

Rule to Live By #5: It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.

There are many opportunities out there that will allow you to try things out without a full commitment. I find these to be the best types of opportunities and I seek them out routinely. 

In business, they are often called “stretch assignments”. In the federal government, they are often called “being detailed” or assigned to a new temporary role. In research, the concept is similar to conducting a “pilot study”. Jennifer Dubow of Jennifer Dubow Consulting, who applies design thinking to her coaching, uses the industry term “prototyping.”

The idea is to create a short-term, low-risk project or role to test how things work, maybe even trying it out in several different ways, to identify what is most important or the best fit for you before making a huge investment.  

What does this look like in real life? Often, it’s volunteering to take on a specific time-limited project that will stretch your skillset and allow you to learn new things without changing most of your schedule. Sometimes, it could actually mean changing your role for a short period of time in order to learn how another part of your company, department, or group works. 

For women who work in business in particular, this is actually a critical step toward success. 

Women tend to be offered fewer opportunities to oversee the aspects of a company that would make them successful in leadership roles, including experiences with profit-and-loss responsibilities, larger budgets, and broader management of others. 

So, what are you waiting for?

If “perfect” opportunities are unlikely to be offered to you and rarely come your way, use these rules to create your own (not-quite-perfect) opportunities – you’ll be surprised how much faster you get to your “perfect” goal. 

P.S.: I always love hearing from my readers. Got any more “Rules to Live By” related to this subject? Please share! Got a great example of your own experience applying these ideas? I’d love to hear them!

P.P.S. – Here are the previous posts in this series:

Part 1: 7 Tips to Say Yes to More of the Right Opportunities

Part 2: Why Go For Opportunities When You Are Under-qualified

Related: One Perspective on Switching Careers and Letting Go of Fear

The final upcoming post of this series (Part 4) will focus on 7 Tips for Encouraging Girls to Take Risks with New Opportunities.


A special thank you to Jennifer Dubow of Jennifer Dubow Consulting for her thoughtful review and edits to this post.