Ambition can blind us to opportunity. Ambitions are the supply side of life’s economy: they are what we want to give to (or in some cases, push upon) the world. Opportunities are what the world wants or needs from us.
Supply-side creativity is a magical thing, beautiful to watch. A great inventor imagines some wonderful new thing and delivers it to the world like Prometheus bringing fire to mankind in Greek mythology. Steve Jobs of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon are recent models of the ideal.
But most successful people are demand-driven, including most of the great inventors and innovators. They see the wants and needs around them, listen to what people are asking for, and figure out how to make and deliver it.
They have an uncanny instinct for finding and figuring out opportunities. They see gaps and shortcomings, the frustrations or unfilled expectations of people or businesses. Read a book on the history of invention and you realize that many of the greatest products and companies in history were not conceived by someone accidentally spilling a beaker in a lab and discovering some new Wonder Thing. Instead, someone was trying to solve a problem that everyone else was aware of and working on. Often, they went through countless possible solutions that didn’t work before they hit on the right combination that did. After that, ambition kicked in as they came up with a plan to sell it into the marketplace.
The same can be said for careers. Some people do form an early dream to grow up and be something and work relentlessly at it. Some careers pretty much require an early ambition because the education and training is so long and selective and expensive: doctors and fighter pilots, for example. One doesn’t stumble into being a brain surgeon at forty-two years old by responding to an advertisement online.
It’s an old formula, but it has stood the test of time because it works: if you want to get ahead in your career, pay careful attention to what others want and need. Be shrewd, inventive, and hard-working enough to meet some of those wants and needs. If you focus less on your ambitions and pay more attention to opportunities, you’ll make your own luck.