An equation for opportunity

A current Nissan commercial advertises the fastest way to a promotion:

3-sentence summary: An executive has a big meeting. His car reservation has fallen through, but our hero, Daniel from Accounts, offers the executive a ride. In the course of the 33-second commercial, Daniel goes from being just some guy in Accounts to being VP of Accounts.

While the commercial is partly a comedy of errors, its basic narrative makes an excellent point: Daniel wins a great opportunity (he joins the executive for the meeting, after all) because he is available and because he has the qualifications to take advantage of his availability. It’s part of the allure of the commercial, an it’s a reminder that’s always in season.

Here’s how it breaks down.

Available + Qualified = Opportunity

  • Available. Daniel is willing and able to help out when the need arises. He doesn’t even need to be asked—he volunteers. If we want tomorrow to be different than today, we have to show up. We have to demonstrate that we’re willing to assist.
  • Qualified. Daniel has not only the bare minimum of what it takes to help out (a car), but ample qualifications (a really great car, so the commercial tells us). He makes an impression. We can build our own qualifications by obtaining relevant certifications, gaining competence with a new software program, or pursuing whatever else may be pertinent to our particular aspirations and circumstances.
  • Opportunity. Together, Daniel’s availability and his qualifications produce a singular opportunity. Note, however, that he saw the opportunity and took action. We, too, owe it to ourselves to keep our eyes open and be ready to act.

I had many encounters with this equation while working for a nonprofit, where the budget didn’t make many allowances for, well, anything. For me, that meant an abundance of opportunities. I was available, I was willing to work hard, and I was capable of doing the work well. In only a few years, I went from intern to magazine editor.

Because this isn’t math, it’s not a guarantee. We may not get that one opportunity that we want more than any other, but we have a much greater chance of obtaining it if we’re available and qualified. And who knows what unexpected adventures we might have along the way?

Strategic planning meets last-minute project

So your supervisor announces an urgent project. Or maybe a deadline that was weeks away has been moved up. Or Plan A fell through and you suddenly need to put together a viable Plan B.

Rush projects can throw a team into a frenzied whirlwind of activity. Sometimes they’re unavoidable. Other times they might be a result of poor planning or management.

On the receiving end, our brains kick into overdrive. Our driving thought is, “Must get this done now!” (Okay, that may not be our only thought.) Some people work well in high-pressure situations. Others get a little twitchy. But both still have a job to do.

I’ve worked through a lot of last-minute projects. What I’ve learned is that the most important step is to stop, breathe, and make a plan. Here are a few tips:

  1. Verify expectations. Make sure you know, as best as possible, what the task at hand is and what the expectations are. What’s the deadline, and is there any leeway? What are the project’s scope and parameters? Once you nail down these details as best you can, you’ll have an easier time delivering the desired results.
  2. Identify your teammates and collaborators. Know who needs to contribute to or complete each of the tasks you’ve identified. (If you’re a one-man show, this part is easy.) Make sure they know, too.
  3. Break it down. Divide the task into smaller, more manageable portions. If it’s a report, determine what sections need to be completed. If it’s a new web directory, determine what individual pages need to be built, who’s providing content, and so forth. I worked on a team that was writing, in a short amount of time, about 40 emails for a campaign. Before we got started, we identified the subject of each of those 40+ emails so there wouldn’t be confusion or overlap as we moved forward. Plus, we created a shared document that allowed all of use to view and track our progress.
  4. Set priorities. What task needs the most lead time? What can you take care of while you’re waiting to hear from a colleague? And, speaking of colleagues—if there’s a portion of the project that only Bob in IT can complete, then getting in touch with him and verifying his availability is a high priority. If Jan in finance tends to have a tight schedule, then you may want to reach out to her immediately—if only to alert her to the fact that you’ll be coming to her for assistance. This is a way to show your colleagues that you value their time.
  5. Communicate. When the pressure’s on, does communication break down? I like to keep the key players informed on a project’s progress, and I like to support and encourage my colleagues.
  6. Stay flexible. When I was a magazine editor, I shared a graphic designer with another department, and I sometimes had to rework my own priorities in order to prevent a bottleneck further down the line. Breaking news stories, contributors who missed their deadlines, the unexpected departure of a colleague—all of these can really mess with production if you’re not prepared to devise a back-up plan and/or re-prioritize ASAP.

Strategic planning is essential for any project. It’s especially important to remember, though, in those high-pressure situations where it’s easy to overlook the basics in the race to the finish line.

One more thing—strive to keep a positive attitude. “Urgent” requests can be stressful on many levels, but we don’t help ourselves when we let aggravation get the better of us.

What smart people don’t think to do

I know this because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve done it myself. Thus, this post is half observation, half public service announcement.

So what do even smart people not always think to do?

They don’t think to look up the answer when…

  • they don’t know how to do something
  • they don’t know what a word, phrase, or concept means
  • they don’t know where to find something

How can I make such a claim in the Internet age, when PewInternet reports that 91% of adult Internet users in the U.S. use a search engine to find information?

Let me relate a quick story.

When I worked with master’s and doctoral students at a research university, I was taken aback by how many of them didn’t know how to solve their MS Word formatting issues (something they needed to do in order to submit their theses or dissertations). After all, these students are researchers. They’re problem-solvers. They’re smart.

It got me thinking—how often do we compartmentalize our knowledge and problem-solving methods and simply don’t think of transferring those methods to another task or region of knowledge? How often do we settle for not knowing—even when we need that knowledge to do our work well?

Or even—how often do we not realize how easy-to-find the answer actually is?

It’s not a matter of being stupid—it’s a matter of making the connection. Of developing the habit of looking up those questions that we might not quite know how to phrase. Of risking a little extra time on the chance of getting the results we want.

In the case of the grad students’ MS Word formatting issues, a quick google is likely to turn up the answer—even if they don’t know quite what keyword to use (e.g., “hanging indent”). It’s amazing the number of tutorials that other users post online to help people out.

Of course, we all know that one’s presence on the Internet is no guarantee of one’s expertise or integrity (as this State Farm® “French model” commercial cheerfully illustrates. “They can’t put anything on the Internet that’s not true.” Cracks me up every time). Caveat emptor.

So, the moral of the story?

Be the smart person you are. Look it up.

Branding (or Rebranding) Yourself

Last week I listened to John Heaney from Orange Envelopes talk about “Building your social media brand.” (View the slide show.)

John emphasized the importance of having a personal branding statement—that is, a brief sentence that describes what you do, for whom, and what you deliver.

His talk was right on time, as I’m in the process of rebranding.

Currently, my personal branding statement is “I write creative content for web and print.” As I look at that statement and at my accomplishments and interests, I quickly see that I’m so much more than that. I’m not only a writer, nor do I want to be. So it’s time for a re-brand to match the direction my career is going.

Writing a branding statement isn’t easy. There’s a lot to capture in just a few carefully-chosen words.

In a moment of frustration, I considered ditching the statement entirely. Is it really necessary? I thought. After all, my re-launched website (coming soon!) will contain plenty of information that describes my brand.

Nevertheless, a personal branding statement is necessary—especially in the age of social media. I need a brief, compelling way to gain a potential client’s / employer’s / business partner’s attention. As John said in his talk, the purpose of a personal branding statement is to make someone ask the next question: “Tell me more!” It gets the conversation started.

My new personal branding statement is still in progress. Below are some resources I’m consulting to help me with the thought process. One theme that stands out is uniqueness—what makes you or me different from others? What makes you or me stand out professionally?

Writing Samples

Go ahead—take a look at some of my work.

Thumbnails captioned “Web” were originally web pages. By clicking the image and then enlarging, you will be able to view the page much as it actually appeared online. Use your “back” button to return to this page.

Thumbnails captioned “Print” will open in a new window as a PDF. These pieces originally appeared in print.

Homepage of The Graduate School at Binghamton University. My contributions are outlined in dotted red. Web.

Homepage of Binghamton University’s Graduate Community of Scholars (GCOS). Web.

NSF-AGEP at Binghamton University (serving diversity scholars in science and technology). Web.

MPA Alumni Profiles for the CCPA at Binghamton University

Research Homepage for The Graduate School at Binghamton University

Graduate Certificates Application Instructions

Alumni profiles, Master’s in Public Administration.  Web.

Research homepage for The Graduate School at Binghamton University. Web. 

Application instructions for graduate certificate programs at Binghamton University. Web.

Promotional Interview with Danny Abramowicz

Editor's introductory column

Book Review of Benedict XVI by Peter Seewald

Promotional interview with Danny Abramowicz. Print. 

Editor’s column, introducing the issue.  Print.

Book review. Print.

Book Review of Real Women, Real Saints by Gina Loehr



Book review. Print. 

Note: This site is in process. I will be posting a representative portfolio, so be sure to check back or contact me for more. Connect with me via e-mail: sarah [at]