Hello, Opportunity, Nice to Meet You

In the last few posts, I’ve been talking about problems and what they do for us. They introduce us to ourselves. Problems introduce us to others. Now I want to talk about how problems introduce us to opportunities. I’m what I like to call a “word nerd.” One of the first things I do when I’m learning something or wanting to communicate an important point is to look up the words being used. Often the definitions open up new insight. I wondered if that might help with this topic.

What is a Problem? – a problem is “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome”

OK. So, what’s an Opportunity? – an opportunity is “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.”

Here’s how this one works. If you take opportunity’s “set of circumstances” and substitute it with problem’s “unwelcome or harmful situation” you get  “an unwelcome or harmful matter or situation that makes it possible to do something.” That’s how problems introduce us to opportunities. The problem, by definition, needs to be dealt with and overcome. In that way it not only makes it possible to do something, it requires us to do something. Whatever that something is, we would most likely not have done it without the problem.

In last week’s post, I talked about people who use problems as stepping stones to success. Am I one of those people? Are you?

Here are some examples of that kind of thinking.

Infectious Disease

Infectious diseases are a real problem. We know that all to well since the onset of COVID 19 almost a year ago. The story goes that Sir Alexander Fleming was working on a cure for diseases. He tried all kinds of things. Finally, in frustration, he threw away his petri dishes. A little later he noticed that mold was growing on those petri dishes. He also noticed that the mold was killing the bacteria. He started studying what he had found and the result was penicillin which has saved countless lives for over 100 years.

In this case, the solution was in what Fleming threw away. Don’t quit too early or you may miss the solution you’re looking for.  Don’t give up.

Burs on the Dog

If you have a dog and have ever gone hiking you know about burs. Those pesky little balls that stick in the dog’s fur. Even if you don’t have a dog, you know what I’m talking about because they stick to your socks, too. Well, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral decided one day after a hike in the Alps, to look at those pesky burs under a microscope to see what made them stick so well. What he found was tiny hooks on the burs that allowed them to grab on to the loop weave of socks and to the dog’s fur. That discovery led to the invention of Velcro. Ever heard of it?

In this case, the very nature of the problem led to a world-changing invention. Study the problem. The very thing that makes it harmful or unwelcome, may be what makes it possible for you to change your world.

No More House

Three days after the election of 2008, the company I worked for laid me and six other highly compensated, newer employees off. No one was hiring then, at least in my industry. The housing crisis at that time expanded an industry called “property preservation.” It’s where you care for the inside and outside of foreclosed properties. I attempted to get into that industry but was unsuccessful. Unemployment didn’t cover my mortgage so I could see that in a few months I would be without a home. Long story short, I found a job outside my industry that moved us to China for a life-changing (in a good way) two-year experience.

In this case, the problem caused me to take action on something I never would have even considered under different circumstances. That led to a life-changing experience. Think outside the box. Color outside the lines. Try something different.

Some people don’t even talk about “problems.” They substitute the word “opportunity” because their mindset is on what possibilities that harmful or unwelcome matter presents.

The Dancer and The Book

One of the stops on our recent vacation was Olathe, Kansas (Kansas City area) to see our oldest daughter, Juliana, who moved there three months ago.  She’s the one I mentioned in my post “How Does A Klutz Become A Dancer?” This is the same girl who, right after graduating from High School, was given no choice but to move to China with her parents and two younger siblings. “What am I going to do in China,” she asked? I’ll tell you what she did. She started a dance school.

I was working at an international JK – 12 school and Juliana saw an opportunity. She started classes in the cafeteria after school. She had classes by age group and by dance style (Hip-hop, Jazz, Lyrical, Ballet, etc.). The junior Kindergarten kids were adorable and she even had some of the staff in classes. She learned how to get costumes made and had several full recitals over the two years we were there. She charged for the classes but also held bake sales to raise money for a scholarship fund so no one who wanted to dance was unable to.

Fast forward to three months ago. Juliana has become a Dental Assistant. She was working and living in an apartment with two other girls in the same town as us . The three of them lived in a two bedroom, two bath apartment that cost them over $1,700 a month for rent. Their transportation was a minivan Juliana’s roommate had borrowed from her dad. When their lease was up, the roommate decided to move home to save money so she could buy a car. Juliana and her two dogs moved in with us temporarily.

Time to Get Out of Dodge

After several months of living with her parents again, Juliana wanted to get back out on her own. She decided to leave California because of the cost of living and she does not like the hot summers. So, where do you go? She had three criteria for choosing another place to live and work. One, it had to be a state where her Dental Assistant credentials would be accepted with no additional work. Two, there had to be a family member or friend living there so she wouldn’t be completely on her own (that one may have been influenced by mom). Three she had to be able to afford an apartment on her own.

After a couple weeks of research Juliana zeroed in on Olathe, Kansas. She has a cousin there who agreed to let her stay until she got a place. She had put her name out in the area and had several phone interviews which led to invitations to in-person interviews, so she packed her stuff and her dogs into a rented minivan, got a friend to drive along with her and hit the road.

Within two weeks of arriving in Olathe, Juliana, after having several working interviews with different Dental offices, had multiple job offers. She loves the office where she’s working and the pay and benefits are far better than she had in California. Better pay and benefits with the lower cost of living, I’d say she landed pretty well. She found a two bedroom, one bath apartment that she can afford on her own (with her two dogs). That’s the girl we went to visit.

Dancers Gotta Dance

We arrived on a Monday night. Juliana got the next day off so we had an evening, all day on Tuesday, and the morning of Wednesday together. She took us to the Kansas City Market downtown, to Union Station and to a cool “Made In Kansas City” shop with some amazing ice cream. The day we left, we had brunch at a local breakfast-and-lunch-only place that was delicious.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time with Juliana. One thing that tickled me happened the night we arrived. We planned to have dinner together which we did, but before we had dinner, Juliana wanted to keep her appointment. It was her class at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio where she’s moved on from Hip-hop, Jazz, Lyrical and Ballet to Ballroom and Swing. Hey, dancers gotta dance. I love that she’s doing that.

O Yeah, The Book

Suzi and I needed something to do while Juliana was at her dance class. I took Suzi to a nearby store where she wanted to look for a few things and, at her suggestion, I want across the street to a Barnes and Noble Bookstore.

On the way to the bookstore I remembered a book I’d been wanting to get so I went in, bought it, and started reading it in the car while I waited for Suzi and Juliana. The book is called The Go-Giver: A Little Story About A Powerful Business Idea. It’s by Bob Burg and John David Mann. I absolutely loved it. I’ve read it twice already. The title is a link to the book so you can check it out.

Stories

Stories can have purpose. I could have shared this story (actually there are several stories here) to a number of ends. I could want to talk about entrepreneurship (dance school in China) or to introduce you to the character of my daughter. I may want to highlight some of the spots in Kansas City or talk about the comparative cost of living in different parts of the country. I definitely wanted to introduce you to a great book. What other purposes could you see for these stories? What are some of your stories that can have a purpose?

The Cover Letter

A Friend of mine is a highly successful salesmen. We’ve worked together on some big projects in the past so I know firsthand how good he is. He is especially good at writing. Whatever he writes is concise, precise, clear, engaging, sometimes entertaining (when appropriate), always on point. So you can imagine my surprise when he called and asked me to review something he’d written as a cover letter for a potentially huge deal. I was humbled and honored by the request.

What he sent me was typical of his work and required none of the editorial comments you see in the picture I chose for this post (it is one of the pictures that came up in my search for “cover letters”). In fact, he not only told a story, he told two. They were both hypothetical stories that came from his understanding of the needs of this potential client and how the service he was selling would specifically connect to meet those needs.

The Power of Stories

Last week I wrote about how I used a personal story to connect with an audience. I mentioned that stories are powerful to connect, to teach, and to persuade. We often make a big mistake when we set out to connect, teach, or persuade. That mistake is that we aim for the head. We think that we need to engage a person’s thinking to achieve those goals. We eventually do want the person to think but the heart is the gateway to the head. I must know, like, and trust you before I would be willing to connect with you, learn from you, or be persuaded by you.

One of the most powerful things about stories is that they engage the heart. Whenever I speak to an audience, I hear comments afterward like, “I love that story you told about …” or “It’s cool how you talk about your family.” I don’t often hear, “Now I understand the definition of …” or, “Your second point was very informative.” But guess what, the story that person loved actually defined the term and what I said about my family drove home the second point of my speech.

Stories are about ROI (return on investment). People remember stories more easily than they remember facts. If you want someone to remember a point you’re making, make the point with a story. If you are trying, for example, to advocate for children in the foster care system, it’s overwhelming to hear there are over 400,000 of them. It’s so overwhelming that we can’t take it in. If, however, you tell me the story of Alicia (made up name), who had a particular experience in the foster care system, I can grasp that. The story elicits far more from me than the numbers.

  • Stories connect
  • Stories illuminate
  • Stories illustrate
  • Stories explain
  • Stories inspire
  • Stories are powerful

Your Stories

After hearing Suzi and me share one of our stories, someone said, “You should write a book.” We’ve had a few people say that, actually, so one day we thought it would be fun to sit down and list episodes in our life that were memorable for us. I think at that point we ended up with a list of around 65 stories. Some more significant, others less but still memorable. Some of them were sad, some hilarious. It was a fun exercise, like going through a verbal photo album.

I’d like to suggest that you do the same. Take some time to jot down as many significant events in your life as you can remember in one sitting. Then pick a handful of them and write out each full story. That’s an exercise great communicators do to sharpen their communication skills. When you’re communicating, use one of your stories to connect, inform, or persuade.

My Black Swan

Several years ago I took my young family on vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was just Suzi, our oldest son, Joshua, and me at the time. The resort had a tall hotel on the beach and a condominium style set of single story units arranged around a beautiful pond behind it which is where we stayed. When we first arrived and were checking the place out, I noticed three beautiful black swans gliding across the water on the pond. I grabbed Joshua and the camera and said, “Let’s go see the swans, buddy.” As we approached the water’s edge, the swans gently turned and started to swim in our direction. “Cool,” I thought, “if they get close enough, we’ll be able to get a great picture.”

I got to the edge and crouched down holding Joshua between my knees to keep him steady by the water. By this time the swans were moving in our direction. “Look at that, Josh,” I said, “they’re coming to get their picture taken.” While I watched the swans through the viewfinder of my kodak instamatic camera three things suddenly began to occur to me all at once. 1. Items seen through the viewfinder of this camera appear farther away than they actually are, 2. I had a vague recollection that someone once told me swans are mean, 3. The two outside henchmen swans had stopped swimming and the bigger boss swan was coming up out of the water right at us.

I dropped the camera, quickly picked Joshua up and started backpedaling as fast as I could. I slipped on the wet ground, got up, lifted Joshua into the air and turned away from the attacking swan in one movement. Just then the monster swan reached out and bit me on the butt. I screamed like a little girl (no offense to little girls intended) and ran to the deck where my lovely wife was laughing hysterically. The black swan literally did a victory dance around the deck with it’s wings flapping and then went back to join it’s henchmen in the pond.

To make matters worse, there was a group of construction workers across the pond on top of some scaffolding who had seen the whole thing, too. The roar of their laughter from across the pond completed my humiliation.

So, my Black Swan Event was literally a black swan.

So Why The Story?

I began with that story a few years ago at a high school graduation where I’d been asked to give the commencement speech. I felt less humiliated when they roared with laughter, probably because I hammed it up and acted out some of the story. They especially liked when I grabbed my butt while describing where the swan bit me.

As I explained to that audience, my black swan story had nothing and everything to do with the topic of the speech. They agreed when I suggested that my story had connected us in an unexpected way. Many of them didn’t know me and I only knew a few of them. But, because of my story, they now knew they liked me and believed they could trust someone who would be that funny and vulnerable in public.

The topic of my speech was the power of stories. This was a Christian School so I went on to show how God uses stories throughout the Bible to connect with us, to inform us and to persuade us.

Then I turned to the graduates. “Most of your story is yet to be written,” I said. I played the Natasha Bedingfield song, “Unwritten” for them and then challenged them to think about what kind of story they were going to write and how their story might impact the world. Stories are powerful.

Regardless of where you are in life, whether you’re retired, you’re approaching “retirement age,” are in college, or you’re in the middle of life, family, and career, the same thing that was true of those high school graduates is true of you. The rest of your story is yet unwritten.

I’d like to encourage you to do two things. First, use your story up to this point to connect with people. Don’t be afraid to let people get to know you a little bit by sharing some of your story. Second, think about how the next few chapters of your story will go. Will they be about consistency, surprise, struggle, achievement, overcoming? How will your story impact others? I’d love to hear some of your story in the comments below this post.

Are You At Capacity … Nope!

Suzi and I were at an event with our kids and she said, “Oh, get some pictures of this.” I pulled out my phone and opened the camera app to start shooting when it said, “Not enough space left to take pictures.” the camera had reached it’s capacity. I could fit no more pictures on it, but this was important so I frantically began looking through the gallery for the random funny face selfies my kids had taken, or the unintentional shot of my foot to delete in order to free up space for the pictures I wanted to take. I lost a few moments in the process but was able to capture some nice pictures in the end.

Capacity is a limit. By definition it means “the maximum amount that something can contain or produce.” Are you operating at capacity? At first, that may sound like a good thing, to operate at capacity. But, consider this quote by Albert Einstein: “The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.” That suggests what John Maxwell calls the “Law of Expansion: Growth Always Increases Your Capacity.”

How Much is Full?

The truth is, nobody knows. We’ve all heard the myth that we only use 10% of our brain power. That’s been debunked by science, but true or not, we do know that people who think they know everything don’t tend to learn and grow. On the other hand, we’ve all experienced the phenomenon where we learn something new and realize in that moment that there is more we don’t know than we do know. Our capacity has just been stretched.

Living overseas was a huge capacity expansion for our family. Experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of another country on the other side of the planet expanded us to realize there was a whole world we knew nothing about prior to living there. There are hundreds of more subtle examples, When you go to the grocery store to buy bread, for example, you select the bread you want, buy it, take it home and enjoy it.

I’ve worked in bakeries in my past. There is a whole commercial baking world most people know nothing about. There are GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices) to be followed, food processing sanitation to be sure equipment is clean, recipe formulas, line speeds, proofing, oven temps, packaging, shipping, and distribution. Each of these elements has experts.

My point is that I didn’t know anything about anything until I learned it. And, each thing I learned actually increased my capacity to learn more. The same thing happens for you. So, how do we get intentional about expanding our capacity?

Expand Your Thinking Capacity

  1. Stop thinking MORE WORK and start thinking WHAT WORKS? If working longer and harder made you successful then more developing countries would be successful. Put your time and energy into what gives the greatest return.
  2. Stop thinking CAN I and start thinking HOW CAN I? When you add the question How? you have moved from doubt to solution finding. Doubt cripples and hinders, Hunting for solutions is energizing.
  3. Stop thinking ONE DOOR and start thinking MANY DOORS. There is always more than one way to achieve a goal. The problem with one door thinking as that you are usually disappointed when you go through that door because it doesn’t deliver all it promised and you wind up going through other doors anyway. Keep options open on the front end.

Expand Your Capacity For Action

  1. Stop doing what you’ve ALWAYS done and start doing what you COULD and SHOULD do. At first you do what you know. But the more that you do what you know you will discover additional worthy things, innovative things, that you know you should do. At this point there’s a pivotal decision. If you know what you should do but continue to do what you’ve always done, you’re in a rut. But if you know what you should do and then do what you know you should do, you’re leading and you’re growing. Get out of your comfort zone. Stay in your strength zone.
  2. Stop doing WHAT is expected and start doing MORE THAN is expected. Jack Welch calls this “getting out of the pile.” During your annual evaluation, do you want to be the person who “Meets Expectations” or the one who “Exceeds Expectations?” I had a boss once who said his favorite three words were, “And then some.” He wanted that extra from himself and others.
  3. Stop doing important things ONCE IN AWHILE and start doing important things EVERY DAY. Important things are those that are
    1. Required – things that not only must be done but that only you can do
    2. Deliver the greatest return – don’t just look for the “low hanging fruit”, look for what will multiply results
    3. Bring the greatest reward – the things that are in your sweet spot, where you passion, your strengths, and your dreams come together

Nike had a slogan, “There is no finish line.” In the same way, unlike my camera, you will never be at capacity. Keep growing.

The 5 T’s

Hi Friends. This is a bit of a different post for me. It occurred to me awhile ago that five members of the Thomason family are actively either posting online or have an online presence for a business. Those 5 guys are my Dad, Jim Thomason, my brother Dr. Dan Thomason, my other brother Dr. Steve Thomason, my son Justin Thomason, and me. I thought I’d take a few minutes to highlight the other four.

The first is my Dad. Jim Thomason is a retired pastor who is also an artist. He regularly posts a blog where he features a piece of his art every week. He writes briefly about the art, it’s medium and inspiration, and follows that up with a “Thought” which is always a wise devotional. Here’s a sample.

Next is my younger brother, Dr. Dan Thomason. Dan is a Psychologist with an emphasis on Marriage and Relationship coaching and counseling. In addition to his practice, Dan does speaking, training and coaching. Check out his website where you can start the “Relationship Makeover Blueprint,” book his to speak, or begin receiving the benefit of his coaching.

This is my youngest brother, Dr. Steve Thomason. Steve is a pastor and an artist. While he does fine art like our Dad, you’re more likely to see his cartoon work. Steve put himself through college doing caricatures at theme parks in the summer and did that as his business for awhile before entering the ministry. His latest website, “Visual Preacher.com,” highlights how he combines both.

Finally, my son, Justin Thomason. Affectionately known as “Mr. T” by his high school students, Justin is a social studies teacher. He has also been a volunteer youth group leader at his church for many years. Justin is a song writer, musician with one album so far. You can find “Where You Find Meaning” by Southbound 5 on Apple Music. Justin also regularly publishes a podcast, “Chicken Scratch” I had the privilege of being a guest on Justin’s podcast on leadership.

I’m proud of all of you!

Coloring Outside the Lines

Now I’m going to sound like I’m contradicting myself from my last post. In that post, I wrote about boundary lines and how important they are for raising children and for employer/employee interactions in the workplace (not to mention on the road during a snow storm). Now I’m writing about “coloring outside the lines.” That phrase is usually associated with creativity and ingenuity. People who color outside the lines are those who break the rules of conventionality, who challenge the norms, and who create new things.

Outside the Lines

We often admire those “outside-the-liners.” Maybe it’s because they display a certain childlike freedom that makes us nostalgic for when we had that. As Pablo Picasso said,

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Children are not afraid to try things because they are not paralyzed by the fear of failure. Children aren’t frozen by perfectionism. Children haven’t been shamed by comparison. These things happen to them (us) when they (we) get older and, sadly, when they (we) go to school. We admire, and, if we’ll admit it, long to be the kind of people described in this lyric from an older song called “Unwritten,”

“I break tradition
Sometimes my tries are outside the lines.
We’ve been conditioned to not make mistakes
But I can’t live that way.”

Natasha Bedingfield

We are also encouraged by authors like Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman who wrote, First Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. And it’s interesting that the single most watched TED talk of all time is called “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by Sir Ken Robinson. Then there was Steve Jobs who encouraged us in this video that “Everything in life was made up by people no smarter than you and you can change it,”

Creativity is fun and ingenuity changes our lives. These are wonderful things and I want to display more of them in my life. What concerns me is those of us who think we aren’t creative or can’t come up with new ideas because of barriers we see to what we want to accomplish. We falsely think creativity comes from the absence of restrictions.

The Lines Are Our Friends

My Dad is a retired pastor and an artist. He writes a devotional blog based on different pieces of his art. Check it out and you’ll see that he often describes his art by the size of canvas (restriction), or the medium he’s used to draw or paint (restriction). The colors he uses (restrictions) all come from only three primary colors (restriction) combined in different ways. So, there is a sense in which his creativity is stimulated by the restrictions that exist or that he chooses.

One of our sons is a musician. He writes songs, he sings them, he plays the guitar and the keyboard, and he records them. The interesting thing about his songs, in fact, the interesting thing about every song that has ever been written is that they all have only 12 notes. All musical expression is limited to the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. What a limitation! How can anyone create anything significant with only 12 bits? You get the idea.

The bottom line of one study that looked at 1.7 million corporate award winners was that people who create new value on the job are most often inspired by their constraints. Those constraints may take the form of policies they must follow, procedures they must practice, rules that must be obeyed, or customer demands. The difference between award winning value-adders and everyone else is that they see the constraints as pieces of a puzzle to be figured out, not as road blocks to progress.

Whatever challenge you’re facing right now, don’t look at the 12 notes, or the 3 colors, or the size of your canvas and say “I can’t!” Look at the puzzle and say, “How can I?”