Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Seizing Opportunities vs. Being an Opportunist

About ten years ago I did something that I still feel bad about.

A friend and colleague of mine had a meeting with some producers at MTV to pitch a show—it was quite a coup for him and he was very excited about the meeting. Instead of celebrating this success with him, I started thinking about how I could benefit from this meeting. After all, I had created a book series that had great potential as a TV show, and gee, it wasn’t every day that someone I knew was rubbing elbows with television producers. Even though I knew deep down that I was crossing the line, I asked him to bring along a copy of my series treatment and slip it to someone important when he had the chance.

Never mind that I was putting him on the spot. Never mind that he had his own pitch to worry about. Never mind that slipping my treatment to the producers could make him look unprofessional. Never mind that I was jeopardizing our friendship.

When he returned from the meeting, I asked him how it went. He said he didn’t have a chance to give my treatment to anyone. He couldn’t look me in the eye when he said this, which led me to believe that he had simply not chosen to do it. I was disappointed—and ashamed of my behavior.

When you start seeking out opportunities, it’s easy to get greedy. If you’re not careful, you can start seeing the people around you as commodities. There’s a fine line between seizing opportunities and being an opportunist; you need to be aggressive enough to kick doors open, but not so aggressive that you exploit people’s kindness and personal relationships. Here are a few guidelines to help you get ahead without stepping on any toes:

1) Information is free—action is not. One of the best ways to create opportunities is to ask questions. When successful people have the time, they are usually more than happy to share their expertise. Be polite, listen with true interest, and ask the right questions and you’d be surprised what opportunities can open up for you. Sometimes they might even offer to help you out in a more concrete way. If they don’t, it’s best not to ask for any favors. There are, of course, many exceptions— you just have to be able to read the person and the situation correctly. When in doubt, thank them for their time and be happy with the information you have.

2) Assume the other person’s time and resources are more valuable than yours. If you remember this rule, you are much more likely to approach any situation in a more generous frame of mind. Sure, you might be the next Jonathan Safran Foer, but you still need to assume that most people are too busy to talk to you—because most of them are. Rather than thinking, “You’ll want to help me because I’m going to be famous someday,” you should use phrases like, “I hope I’m not disturbing you…” or “Thank you for your time” or “If you have a moment to spare, I’d love to find out about…” Then be as brief and concise as possible. You don’t have to grovel—just be considerate.

3) If someone does you a favor, be accommodating. If they agree to a phone interview, call on time. If they agree to meet you in person, let them choose the time and place, and if your schedule is busy, move mountains to be there at the time that is best for them. If they agree to read your manuscript, give them as much time as they need.

4) If someone does you a favor, don’t ask for another. Once someone has helped you out, it may be tempting to squeeze just one more favor out of them. You have to be aggressive to get ahead, right? What will likely happen is that you’ll look greedy and may even come across as a bit of a pest, which will only backfire on you. Accept the favor and then search out other opportunities.

5) A little gratitude goes a long way. This may be the most important tip to remember. If you’re meeting in person, buy them lunch or a cup of coffee. Send thank you notes. Let them know that you appreciate what they’ve done.

The main goal of showing gratitude and consideration is to be respectful of others—the side benefit is that you will build a favorable impression and maybe even a lasting relationship. Arrogance closes doors, respect opens them.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Good Enough Opportunities

A few weeks ago I watched an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and the show had me in fits. For the uninitiated, Ramsay is a famous chef and TV personality with restaurants all over the world, who swoops into troubled eateries and saves them from financial and culinary ruin. Ramsay’s style runs somewhere between foul-mouthed drill sergeant and exasperated life coach. With a little cleaning, some blunt advice, and a whole lot of free publicity, Ramsay usually manages to turn the restaurant around.

Not so with Piccolo Teatro, a tiny vegetarian restaurant in Paris, which was the subject of the episode that made me crazy. The restaurant was bleeding money, yet it appeared that no one was making any effort at all—not even with Chef Ramsay standing by and pointing out the problems. The cook was goofy and unprepared. The restaurant’s only waitress quit the second Ramsay criticized her. The owner, the worst offender of all, was lazy and had no authority. At times, it seemed as though she cared about saving her restaurant, and then she’d do something like stay home all day (without informing anyone) because she said her cat was having kittens. Instead of making an effort, she was full of excuses.

Despite revamping the menu, hiring a young, talented new chef, starting a lunch service and making the restaurant profitable again, even Ramsay couldn’t save Piccolo Teatro. When he returned to Paris a few weeks later for a follow-up, he discovered that the owner had closed the restaurant.


It seems inconceivable that someone with so many great opportunities, with a road map to success spelled out explicitly, would just throw it all away. I can’t begin to speculate as to her reasons for giving up, but I do know that some people are so afraid of success or failure that they’ll sabotage every opportunity that comes their way, sometimes without even consciously knowing it. I truly believe that what separates successful people from the rest of the pack is not talent or money or connections—it’s hard work, perseverance, and most of all the ability to seize opportunities, no matter how small.

When I moved to New York City from a small town in Maine, I hardly knew anyone. I was 22 and timid, largely unfamiliar with city life, and had no connections. I had just enough money to last in New York but a few months. I knew my time was limited there. I also knew that if I went back home right away, my chances of having a career in the publishing business would be zip. Back home, I had been offered a great position in sales by someone who had seen me working at my summer job. The offer included a car and a great salary, and the security of being in familiar territory. All I had to do was say the word and the job was mine. The problem was, this opportunity didn’t coincide with my goal of working in publishing and becoming a writer. I was scared to be in New York, but the thought of giving up on my goals—without giving it a real try—was even scarier.

I made a promise to myself that whatever publishing opportunity came along I would take it, no matter what. It didn’t have to be a perfect opportunity, just a good enough opportunity. I didn’t have resources to wait for something perfect, which may or may not have materialized, anyway.

I found my first job through the New York Times’ classifieds. The position was for a file clerk in the accounting office of a small literary agency. It paid very little. I wasn’t sure I could handle the accounting they wanted me to do. It wasn’t a perfect opportunity (or so I thought at the time) but it was good enough. Jump in first, I told myself, and figure out the rest as it comes. I had nothing to lose.

I wasn’t there but five months when I co-worker told me about one of the agency’s clients—a company that packaged book series for teenagers. She told me they needed ghostwriters. That’s all I needed to hear. I asked around and got more information about the process. I made a phone call. I wasn’t really interested in writing books for teenagers, but I was interested in writing, period. Good enough.

Within a few weeks I had my first ghostwriting contract and was writing at night in addition to my day job. My income doubled and I was leading a comfortable existence in New York. Soon I was writing, building valuable contacts, learning everything I could about the publishing industry, and writing books along the way. Good enough opportunities turned out to be perfect opportunities. I ended up spending six productive and fun years in the city, and used all that I learned along the way to get my first adult novel published.

And as far as Kitchen Nightmares goes, the episode did end on bit of a bright note. Even though Piccolo Teatro closed, Gordon Ramsay saw tons of potential in the young chef he had hired for the restaurant, and offered her a new job in one of his own kitchens. I’m happy to say that she jumped at the opportunity.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

White Noise

Vacations are a bit of a paradox for writers. We want a mental break from our usual obsessing so we opt for a change of scene or carve out a bit of quiet time for ourselves, but in doing so we often inadvertently stir our creative juices.

This happened to me on my recent vacation. My goal was to forget about the never ending pile of work waiting for me at home, get caught up on some badly needed sleep, and enjoy lots of uninterrupted time with my family. I gave myself permission to forget about writing for the week—a little relief from the constant self-imposed pressure to produce.

Before my vacation, I had felt as though my well had run dry. Creating was a forced activity, instead of a natural one. But as soon as I managed to find a few quiet moments to myself, I was surprised to find ideas quickly coming to the surface. Without any conscious effort, dialogue and narration started flowing. It was very strange; it was almost as if the story was playing low on a crackly radio station and only when I stopped long enough to listen I was able to tune into what was being said.

It struck me that maybe part of us is always creating and that creativity is the background noise of our daily lives. How comforting to know it is always there, quietly waiting for us. All we have to do is sit still enough to hear it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Book Launch 2.0

For those of you who have published, I'm sure you've had this conversation. For all aspiring authors out there, some day you will.

Thanks to Pat for the link.