I fought a friend of mine last week.

We had been sitting on his porch watching the twilight come in. The day had been hot and beautiful, and the heat was visibly drifting off the sidewalks, and we were drinking lemonade and sharing a bowl of cherries. My friend said, lazily (we had said everything lazily for the last four hours or so), “Are you taking Krav again?”

Krav is Krav Maga. It’s a hand-to-hand combat technique developed by the Israeli army. They got the basics from streetfighting. It is brutal, unsophisticated, and deadly. On the first day of class, my instructor described it thusly: “Krav Maga is not a martial art. It is basically a method by which you kick the other guy’s ass.”

Yes, I told my friend. I’m taking Krav again.

My friend says he’s been taking Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

We sip our lemonade. We put the glasses down, and without talking about it, we move to the front lawn, where we start to spar, gently at first, and then faster and faster until we are fighting, really fighting.

Occasionally we stop altogether while I spend ten minutes figuring out how to break his choke hold on me, while he analyzes how I keep slipping his punch and landing a jab in his kidneys. At several points, one of us has to tap out to avoid a broken arm, an eye gouge, unconsciousness. We have grass stains all over us. Bruises are blossoming under the skin.

It’s nearly nine o’clock in the evening when we stop. We’ve both learned a few new things. We’re exhausted, and our lemonade is warm. We go inside and get beers and ice packs.

None of this was necessary. None of this was planned.

It was an opportunity we took.

Recognizing What’s in Front of You

Physical fighting isn’t the only way that people exchange and demonstrate their skills. I’ve seen similar exchanges between fellow business owners, particularly those who have entirely different business models, different approaches to the same problems.

One is an artist. The other a computer programmer. But they both have techniques and methods for handling the problems of invoicing, irate customers, business lunches. They talk. They exchange.

They make use of what’s in front of them.

A fellow human being with knowledge offers to share that knowledge. You take his knowledge and offer some of your own in exchange. It’s logical, and it’s easy, and it means both of you walk away smarter.

Most people I know in business find it completely natural to take advantage of this kind of situation. If they go to lunch with someone whose understanding of the world is valuable to them, there’s no way that lunch is ending without knowledge being exchanged. Why would you waste that opportunity?

We’re used to making use of the opportunity of knowledge. But we let so many others fall by the wayside.

Wasted Opportunities

I live in the mountains now. There’s no cell phone reception up there, and my place is small, fairly Spartan. There’s no room for a television or to have friends over for dinner, even if they were inclined to travel all the way up the mountain tearing up the car chassis on dirt roads.

When I first moved into this new place, I told myself this was a great opportunity. I had a writer’s retreat. I had been looking for one, in fact. I had wanted a place with no connection to the outside world, where I could simply write.

I’ve been there six months. I haven’t written a word at my desk. I installed internet, and a telephone. I wind up wasting a lot of time online. I deliberately, systematically destroyed the opportunity I was given: to create a sanctuary from the outside world where I could be alone with my thoughts and ideas.

Everyone I know has wasted an opportunity like this. Given an unexpected free hour, they don’t work on the project they’ve been wanting to come to fruition – they watch a TV show, bum around the house, play a game. They get the afternoon off and go to a movie instead of the gym, even though they’ve been promising themselves for months to make time.

The opportunity is in front of them and they let it go by.

My friend and I could have let the moment pass. We didn’t have to spar. We could have made idle chit-chat about where we fought and how the techniques were different and what we enjoyed about it. Then we could have gone inside and watched Jackie Chan kick someone else’s ass.

But we didn’t. We recognized the opportunity to learn something by trying our techniques against one another, and we followed it up.

So simple.

Recognizing Opportunity

Most of the time, it’s not stupidity that keeps us from taking an opportunity. It’s lack of awareness.

We don’t use that hour to pursue one of our greater quests because it’s only an hour, and the quest is immense, and an hour is for something small. Like a TV show. Like a nap.

The fact that the hour often turns into three never seems to occur to us.

It’s a habit. When you look for every spare moment you have to complete your quest, you remember that an hour is an opportunity. You remember what it’s for. Every time you find yourself near someone who can help, you remember to ask.

When you sit across the table from someone whose advice you’ve been wanting for months, you don’t forget to ask them. You remember that sitting across from you is an opportunity, and you seize it.

But when you have five hours to kill at the DMV, you forget that this is time you have been wanting. This is time you need for that project you’ve been working on, that big quest you will one day achieve. You sit there and seethe and check your email on your phone, but you don’t seize the opportunity you’ve been given, because you don’t recognize it’s there.

You have to remind yourself that what’s in front of you is an opportunity.

In my mountain home now, there are three words pinned to the wall: You could write.

I turned off the internet. If I really need it, I turn it on briefly, then back off again. It took me about a week to realize I pretty much never need to turn it on. Without the internet, once I get home there’s not much to do. I could read, I could cook, I could go for a walk, I could take a bath, or I could write.

So I write. Because that’s what’s in front of me.

One day, I realized I’d had the internet on for three days and never used it. I had gotten into the habit of looking at the time I spent in the mountains as time to write, not time to kill.

It had always been there, that time. I had just learned to use it for something that mattered.

Comments

  1. i have a particular pain for opportunities I’ve wasted – I feel as though I waste a lot of them – and more agonizingly, sometimes I feel I am looking at one and *wanting* to sieze it only to realize I don’t quite know how…that puts me into a very particular fury.

    Lost opportunities in my life are like swimming through a cold patch in a warm ocean. They tinge the realms of my melancholy with a certain light. and I can tell how much I am growing by how faint or sharp that light seems in my memory.

    You write about opportunity, the things that matter, and how to marry them in a way that slips the understanding of doing what I could be doing right in between the parts of me that take a perverted glee in seeing the moment wasted. It’s so much more gentle and dreamy in your words than the unromantic and undesirable harshness of the language of practical discipline – even if it is another way to say the same thing. it’s the right way to say it so i feel inclined to imbibe it.

    E.

  2. You really pointed your finger on something I’ve dreaded for months: My growing laziness.

    After finishing my exam in Media and Communication I was full of energy completely focused and felt I was using my time to the full extent. A year later I feel exactly what you describe; I’m not taking the opportunities in front of me.

    Is it my nowadays full time job which makes me lazy? Is it the long hours I work that make me find excuses for not working out (like I used to)when I get home? I think we humans when we feel “safe” and have structured our living we tend to relax. And probably too much. How to get out of this circle of safe and warm laziness?

  3. Great piece! You expressed so beautifully the struggle I have been working hard to overcome. Thanks for the encouragement to keep trying. The results will be worth it.
    I love the clean look of your blog. Very nice!
    Blessings, Anna Marie

    1. Thanks, Anna Marie. Reese of Design by Reese is the designer for this blog, and she deserves every plaudit I’ve gotten. We’ll be doing some redesigns in the near future, and I’ll be asking what you think.

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I grew up believing in stories the way some believe in God.

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THE LETTER: VIGNETTES AND VARIATIONS

Between each story I think a lot. I scratch out drafts, change words, decide to tell it through someone else's eyes. Every morning, I write out a sketch of what I'm trying to grasp, and over time it's taken the form of a letter.

These letters are personal, unpolished, and precarious. They're also where you'll first hear about new unfurlings as I create them. If this all sounds like your brand of whiskey, tell me your name, and give me a place where letters of this sort can be received.

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