“I make my own opportunities” is a denial of opportunities

Posted on by

We often hear that people should “make their own opportunities” or that some famously successful person brags that she makes her own opportunities. This is entitled nonsense.

Etymology is certainly not destiny,1 but it can be illustrative. The origin of the word opportunity is the Latin ob portum, which means towards a port. It’s a seafaring term, used aboardship. Viewing the concept this way makes clear that opportunities are phenomena external to the subject’s sphere of control.

A ship cannot simply “make” a port appear on shore. Someone else has to have already built that port, has to be occupying it, has to be filling it with trade goods to exchange for what the ship is bringing.

Every success story is a combination of internal and external factors. Circumstances matter, as do individual choices. To deny this is to claim superhuman, supernatural abilities on the part of the subject of the success story. That’s not business theory or economic theory. That’s a fairy tale.

Opportunity, if the word is to be meaningful at all, must refer to external factors. Certainly, the subject of a success story can seek opportunity, identify opportunity, invest in opportunity. But, he cannot “make” opportunity. The opportunities are either there or they’re not.

To claim to “make” opportunity is to deny the preexisting opportunities, the external factors, that enabled one’s success. Usually, what people mean when they refer to “making” opportunities is investing in opportunities which already existed. These could range from the many socioeconomic and cultural privileges of birth to the unpredictable randomness of happenstance. “I met Bob Lucowitz at a conference, who happened to be a book agent for my next business partner,” and so on.

To deny the external influences of these factors, to misdefine opportunity as something that can be found or made, is to make a grave logical error. In scientific terms, it means you’re failing to control for other factors. Unexamined privileges become the “lurking variables” in one’s cause-effect analysis.

Very often, “make your own opportunities” is deployed less as well-meaning advice, and more as camouflage for unearned success. By denying opportunities as external factors, it denies causality between those external factors and success. The point isn’t so much “We succeeded because we made opportunities” as “They failed because they did not make opportunities.”

This is a common cognitive error known as attribution bias. By clouding the issue of causality, it can seem to justify both unmerited success and unmerited failure, and thus serves to undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of organizations and the economy as a whole.

Do not fall prey to the fantasy of “make your own opportunities.” Keep a strict and comprehensive tally of the internal and external factors of success.


1 Apologies to Wittgenstein.

Category: informational
Comments are disabled