Do You Know the Difference Between Options and Opportunities?

As the summer vacation season quickly draws to a close, I am reminded of the scores of African-American students, young and old,  who will descend onto various places of higher learning to either begin or continue their journey toward that mythical destination known as  “a profession,” in the hopes of finding the elusive career vs. an ordinary job.

Yet before any one of them can realize a true profession — let alone a career — they must learn a critical lesson that is unfortunately often not taught to these students, yet is what often determines who among them will achieve success (whatever that success might look like) and who will know the soul-numbing, joy-stealing ache of failure.

What is this critical lesson that is often withheld from our best and brightest?

It is understanding the dynamic yet subtle relationship between opportunities ( for example, university vs. trade school) and options (for example, UCLA or USC vs. UTI or ITT), while having the courage to consciously make choices instead of simply going along with what you’re handed — that is, letting someone else choose for you.

In this piece we’ll examine the former — opportunities vs. options. The latter — conscious decision-making — we’ll leave for another time.

Opportunities are best defined as “a set of circumstances that make it possible to do something,” while options are best defined as “a thing that is or may be chosen.”

So based upon the definitions, we see that while opportunities contain options, options don’t necessarily contain opportunities. It is very important that young African-Americans who are pursing professions understand this subtle yet important difference. You want to make sure everything you are doing drives the creation of opportunities rather than options. Success is more often than not the result of given set of circumstances (opportunities) that allows you  “to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” as Winston Churchill once said.

It is opportunity (not options) that explains why Michael Vick was able to resume his professional football career, while Allen Iverson basically has been exiled from professional basketball.

Options only give you the chance to choose between what “you will have;” Google Iverson and see what he had and lost as $200 million buys a lot of stuff.

Opportunities give you the chance to create more opportunities. As Sun Tzu noted, “Opportunities multiply as they are seized,” thus they enable you to choose what “you will be;” Google Michael Vicks’ 60 Minutes interview and hear him describe what he has become due to opportunities from his incarceration and a second chance in the NFL.

When Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” he was referencing the power of opportunity, as it’s only through opportunity do you get the ability to make the kind of choices that impact the person you are or will become.

So for those of you who are starting your collegiate careers, think carefully about your choice of major. Psychology or sociology, often a favorite, might be interesting or even considered “easy” but as Ann Landers said, “Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work so people don’t recognize them.”  If I were you I’d be leery of anything “easy” as few (if any) opportunities await within.

To those who are already well down the path of a given major, look for ways to maximize your opportunities upon graduation. While often not easy nor convenient, changing institutions is often a way to increase your opportunities;  a psychology degree from University of Southern California (USC) carries with it more opportunities than one from Long Beach State (CSU-LB).

So I leave you with the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “It is not often that a man can make opportunities for himself. But he can put himself in such shape that when or if the opportunities come he is ready.”

So what will you be? For that, my friends, is the only question.

 Tre Green is a 25yr veteran of the IT industry who specializes in solving “mission impossible” for Fortune 500 organizations. When not adding to his frequent flier miles and preferred guest status Tre can be often be found at home relaxing with his motely crew of pets.