Opportunity is Not Convenient

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was from a surfer who said, “Surfing is just like life, it’s all about timing and position.”

I was thinking about those words today and how life brings you opportunity when you least expect it and almost always at the worst possible time. It’s one thing to catch a wave, it’s quite another to catch it at the right time and place with foot/pounds of water swirling all around you and numerous other dangers (reefs, rocks, sharks) awaiting your slightest mistake or hesitation. The confusing part is often you will be in the best place and position to catch it when you feel the least prepared. This is a theme repeated throughout the ages—carpe diem—to rise above the routine, all the obligations and seize the day even when it all conspires to drag you back.

Four years ago I decided to sell a home in Seattle that I loved, pack up (or, in most cases, sell) everything I owned, leave all my friends and family and move to Charleston, SC (a place I’d never been to before), to stand up a high tech start up. I was over 40 and a woman – we just don’t do things like that, what was I thinking? My friends gave each other those knowing looks, my family was upset. While I’d made software since ’89, I’d never done my own startup. I’d recently met a co-founder/CTO I knew had both the vision and experience I needed and we agreed to go into business together. I decided to ignore convention, practicality and good sense. What the hell was I going to do with the rest of my life anyway, garden? I took the proceeds from my house sale and invested it in the company.

Some believe we each only have one moment of “grace”. I believe there are moments there all the time, right under our nose, waiting for us to notice. Moments that can be accepted or ignored, amplified or left to disintegrate into the vapor they’re made of. Who knows, maybe the universe gets tired of waiting, but lately I’ve noticed that some moments walk right up and hit you like a 2×4. For me, the decision to found a start up was like that—it was a choice to take a very different path than the one I was on and I knew it was an opportunity that would not come around again.

It couldn’t have been a worse time for my family – my father’s health was deteriorating rapidly and I’d always been there to help. I was leaving them when they needed me most. But, opportunity doesn’t ask if it’s a convenient time, it only cares if you’re ready, and ready doesn’t have a thing to do with convenience for you or anyone you care about, or if it’s appropriate, or whether or not people will think you’re being selfish. It also doesn’t mean you won’t feel guilty, confused, scared, angry and sick to your stomach. It just means you’re ready to survive the experience. Neither of my parents wanted me to go, but as they had done before with each one of my hair-brained adventures, when it was clear I would not change my mind they sent me off with these words: “do a good job”.

Two and a half years after we founded our startup we sold it. It wasn’t easy. Let me restate that, it was awful. There were people involved who wanted more than their fair share and it took a long time for me to get everyone to agree to the original terms. Money, as I’m sure all of you know, tends to bring out the worst in people. That, and my Dad started to die in the middle of it.

My Dad was a huge figure in my life. As a little girl he taught me how to find my way in the woods, the names of plants and birds, how to swim (by throwing me out the back of a boat, of course), how to fish and most importantly, how to conduct myself. He had funny sayings like “no holidays”, referring to those places you miss when you’re mowing the grass. What he really meant was “no holidays” in life. If you’re going to do it don’t half-ass it.

My Dad made Buddhists look mean. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man who would carry Wolf spiders outdoors (if you’ve ever seen a Wolf spider you know what I’m talking about). But, he was also the man who, when our dog bit a kid on the street in front of our house, picked up a shovel and his .22, walked the dog out into the woods, dug a hole, shot the dog and buried him. He loved that dog.

My dad died the morning after I signed the papers to sell our startup. I had stayed in town thinking I had time. I didn’t mention my dad was dying to our investors or the buyer because, well, he would not have wanted me to use his death as a negotiation device. That’s poor form. The buyer had putzed around all week, stalling, to get us to agree to a lower price and finally scheduled a time late Friday night to sign. I had a ticket to fly home on Sunday. Dad died Saturday morning.

When the call came, I was standing in a karate seminar taught by the head of our dojo. It was a big deal, the man had traveled all the way from Hawaii and people, shoulder to shoulder, surrounded me. When I heard my phone ring I knew it was my Mom calling me to tell me Dad had died. Sometimes you just know. I thought about walking out of the seminar then but knew that Dad would have wanted me to finish—no holidays—so I did.

The following week, along with my Mom, cousins, aunt and a couple friends, I dug a hole for Dad’s ashes in the Maki family plot, a mile down the road from the farmhouse where he was born. We used the same post hole digger my cousin’s had used to dig the hole for their father, Arne, and we buried Dad’s ashes next to Arne’s—the last of their generation. I had paid the full price for my choice to leave but I knew my Dad wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I think about my dad just about every day now and when faced with tough decisions I ask myself “what would dad do?” and it always seems to bring the right answer. I was thinking about him again today as I prepare to set out on a new, crazy adventure and watch the people that might join me make their own tough decisions. Most of us are small town kids, now grown up, who have made the most of the opportunities presented to us—education, career, family—and it is difficult to choose to embark on a choice that puts ourselves first. Country kids are loyal and tend to stick close to home and the people who have helped them along the way.

But I say to them, like my Dad taught me, there is nothing you can’t do. But, to truly seize the day, you will have to shed all attachments, even our small towns and families (not forever, just a little while), and go big like they raised us to do, even when you feel you’re not ready or it’s not the right time. It’s never the right time for anyone else, only you. If it’s a huge opportunity worth risking it all for, you will recognize it by the fact it requires more than you’ve ever sacrificed before, maybe even the good regard of friends and loved ones (again, not forever, but maybe a little while).

If you make that choice, dive head first, carpe diem, do a good job and no holidays.