Opportunity Blindness

Sunday, September 25, 2022 by Louie Bacaj

You may or may not know the story of how America was actually “discovered.” When Christopher Columbus set out on his famous voyage, he was actually looking to find a shorter sea route to India. It’s how they got the Queen of Spain to fund the expedition and why the Native Americans were at first confused for Indians.

You see, even back then, folks had a hunch that the world was round.

They reasoned that if the world is round, they should be able to find a shorter route than sailing around Africa. Or the much more arduous land route Marco Polo took in the 13th century. A fun fact for you is that it takes 12x more energy to move things on land than it does through water.

They were right that the world was, in fact, round, but the diameter of the globe was much bigger than they calculated, and in the process, Columbus “discovered” America.

But America was not the only thing discovered by accident; the vast majority of discoveries, inventions, and opportunities seem to happen by accident.

And you and I may never stumble upon many of them simply because we are so focused on the one big thing we want.

Here are a bunch of other important discoveries and inventions that happened by accident:

The first synthetic dye was discovered when William Perkins was trying to cure Malaria.

Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was discovered when Alexander Fleming left for vacation and, accidentally, did not clean his lab.

The pacemaker that keeps many people's hearts beating was discovered by accident when Wilson Greatbatch used the wrong transistor to try and measure a heartbeat.

When Roy J. Plunkett was researching refrigerants, he discovered Teflon. Roy noticed by accident that some refrigerant gas turned to a white powder that was heat resistant.

Rubber tires, the post-it note, artificial sweeteners, micro-wave ovens, viagra, the x-ray machine, sonar, chewing gum, coca-cola, safety glass, and so many other things were discovered by accident. I could keep going, but you could also search Google to find these and many others. And these discoveries and inventions turned into big opportunities for those who found them.

In fact, so many things were discovered by accident that it makes you wonder if anything was found on purpose or if they just said it was on purpose after.

Stumbling on opportunities on the road to something else means that you and I should keep our eyes open to unexpected opportunities. In fact, one of the key philosophies of the "Small Bets" approach to entrepreneurship (that Daniel Vassallo teaches) is exactly this. We can easily make ourselves blind to opportunities simply by having full-on stubborn tunnel vision for the one big thing we want. If we are in such a hurry to do our work, we might not notice that all the bacteria in the petri dish are sensitive to penicillin. If America wasn't so big that it hit Columbus in the face, he, too, might’ve missed it looking for that shorter route to India.

Daniel calls this Luck Blindness. And he often says, "the world is more random than it seems; act accordingly."

This simply means that besides miscalculating the diameter of the earth or accidentally not cleaning up our desks, there are so many inputs into our lives that we cannot possibly account for all of them. Nothing can. But we can all be more open to serendipity. We can all do things that make us more susceptible to luck. We can all try more things and not stress about the one thing.

When I embarked on my own entrepreneurship journey late last year, I wanted to build a venture-backed SaaS at all costs. But the majority of my growth and opportunities have come from stumbling around and trying many things. I’ve made $50k selling a course and $15k+ mentoring and teaching in various other courses and communities. I’ve also made more money from software I built on a whim than on things I set out to make huge from the get-go.

I’ve built more relationships and opened more opportunities for myself from my Tweeting and writing this newsletter (thank you for being a part of it!) than I ever did from the one thing I set out to do and focused all of my energy on at first. The thing is, I am not done with that dream of building something big. I still love making software and have ideas about what to do if something goes big. I have engineering management skills, something I was promoted for many times. I’d love to put all those skills back to work if the opportunity presents itself.

But I also won't be limiting myself, and neither should you!

I understand that my measly $65k or so from this internet game is a far cry from the nearly $1mm I was making in total compensation working as a senior director of engineering. But that path was like the known path to India, on land or around Africa. Nothing wrong with it; of course, it works. But that path is also long and arduous. And perhaps most importantly, that path exerts so much more energy, and it would never lead to discovering America.

This new path may not have gone exactly where I intended in this first year, but it is fun, exciting, and full of growth.

And now I ask you, are there opportunities you are blinding yourself to discovering? Because they seem too small at first or not what you intended to find?