Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” I have this quote on my desk, handwritten on a blue Post-it note. Sometimes when I read it, I feel an inexplicable urge to straighten my posture and focus my attention more intently on my computer monitor. I suddenly want to be fully aware of my surroundings so I don’t miss any opportunities that may present themselves.
But… what exactly is an opportunity and why does missing one seem like a tragedy? The dictionary matter-of-factly tells me that an opportunity is “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.” Another source describes opportunity as “a chance for success or advancement.” Central to both of these definitions is the idea that an opportunity is not a normal occurrence. Rather, it is a unique occasion to enact significant and positive change, if you like. The irony of Edison’s quote is that extraordinary opportunities are often camouflaged in the grey monotony of school, small talk, emails and newspaper clippings.
I recently learned about a fascinating man who takes full advantage of the opportunities he encounters. Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains tells the intriguing story of Dr. Paul Farmer. Raised in a low-income family, educated in Ivy League institutions, and molded by his experiences in broken, rural Haiti, Farmer is a quirky and brilliant doctor committed to treating the chronically ill in developing countries. Farmer’s staunch dedication to and concern for impoverished people is unwavering. As I was reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, I caught myself romanticizing Farmer’s life. His endless trips from Haiti to Russia to Peru to Cuba then back to Haiti sounded exhilarating. I quickly realized, however, that Farmer’s trips abroad are hard work from start to finish. He likely has endured countless 24-hour workdays, exhausting conversations and demanding projects during his travels among some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
Opportunities are elusive and maximizing them is not easy. However, pursuing good often leads to positive consequences. Throughout Mountains Beyond Mountains, Paul Farmer’s schedule is more than chaotic, but he is energetic and derives great satisfaction from serving impoverished people. Countless others who are devoted to meaningful causes have had similar experiences. Though leading a purposeful life is difficult, sweet rewards stem from sacrificing personal comfort in pursuit of service to others. The rewards shouldn’t prompt the action, but remembering that they will eventually come is an encouragement when one’s desire to pursue meaningful work is obscured by unexpected circumstances or missed opportunities. I’m going to try to remember this the next time I look at my Post-it note.
Allison Bearden is the technical proposal writer in Opportunity’s International Business Development department.