The Crow by peasap on Flickr!Let me tell you a pair of stories about opportunity.

When I was fifteen years old, I had a long heart-to-heart discussion with my parents. All throughout my childhood, my parents had told me that the door to college was open for me and that if my grades were good enough, they would help me go. What I learned, however, is that our family’s finances were simply too tight. My father had suffered a few extended layoffs from his factory job and his commercial fishing on the side wasn’t bringing in much money, either. In short, there was no money for me to go to college.

I didn’t take it well. I was very, very disappointed, and I withdrew. Prior to this discovery, I had a high school GPA in the 3.8-3.9 range, taking the most advanced classes I possibly could (and in some cases, even more advanced than that, as I skipped a year in the school’s math track). For the first half of my high school sophomore year, I basically gave up. I didn’t turn in a solid portion of my assignments, and I didn’t bother to study at all for any tests. While I never came close to failing anything, I did pile up a bunch of bad grades during that third semester of high school, dropping me far down the list in class rank.

One day, after watching me turn in yet another heartless and mediocre paper in English class, my teacher, Mr. Byrn, sat me down for a few moments before class. He showed me my line of grades in his grade book and flat-out said, “You’re better than that. You’re one of the best natural writers I’ve ever had in my class. You have an opportunity to do some great things with that mind of yours.” I told him that I wasn’t going to go to college, and he said, “The only reason you won’t go to college is because you didn’t try. If you want to go, you’re smart enough and you will find the opportunities you need. Just keep your eyes open and take care of your grades and you will go to college. Don’t worry about little obstacles like money.”

And I believed him.

I got very intense about my schoolwork for the second semester (and thereafter) and pulled my GPA back up to respectability. But, more importantly than that, I kept my eyes open for opportunity. I applied for every scholarship that came my way, and eventually, I netted a big one. I wound up with enough scholarship money to go to college.

Roll the clock forward several years, to a point in time when I was near my financial meltdown. As some of you know, I was once an avid player of Magic: the Gathering, a trading card game, and I still have some idea of what the individual cards and packs are worth on the secondary market.

One afternoon in March 2006, I was helping a friend of a friend clean out the back of a recently-closed coin and collectibles shop. In a cupboard in the back, we came across a box – thirty six packs – of a very old, early set of these cards. I immediately recognized that these cards had some significant value on the secondary market. A single pack of these cards can sell for as much as $200 on eBay.

Unsurprisingly, I got fairly excited about this find. I asked the guy I was cleaning up with what he was going to do with these things. He said he planned on having a lot of it appraised. I was honest – I told him that these cards had some significant value, plus they had some personal sentimental value to me (because just seeing the packs brought back some fond memories). He examined the box and noted that they originally retailed for $2.49 and offered to sell me the entire box worth for $4 a pack if I could pay him in cash right then.

The only problem was I didn’t have the cash. I couldn’t come up with the $150 he wanted for the box in cash right then, and the only friends I had who could easily loan me such cash either had adamant “no loans to friends” policies or had already loaned me money for other purposes. My checking account balance was too low and I didn’t have an emergency cash stash either. I asked him if he could hold onto the box for a little while and he said that he would, but a week later when I had the cash, he had already sold the box for substantially more than that.

If I had easy access to $150 right then, I would have been able to buy $7,200 worth of trading cards in one swoop. But because I was completely unable to take advantage of opportunity,

What’s the moral of these stories? Opportunity makes all the difference in the world, but even opportunity doesn’t matter much if you haven’t prepared yourself to take advantage of it.

In the first story, about my college preparation, I was ready to let the opportunity of college pass me by because of one little setback, and without a mentor to guide me in a sensible direction, I would have allowed that to happen. In the second, opportunity did pass me by, not because I wasn’t aware of it, but because I didn’t have the resources I needed to capitalize.

These stories together point towards a handful of truths about opportunity and how you can prepare for it.

Opportunities come along more often than you think. I have interesting opportunities all the time, from discovering trading cards in the back of a shop to simpler things like getting thirty pounds of Jonathan apples for free. The Simple Dollar itself was an opportunity, giving me a chance to spread my wings and write. Keep your eyes open at all times and many opportunities will come your way.

Mentors and strong relationships are the best things you can have to improve your chances at opportunity. Opportunities usually come your way through the people around you. That means if you surround yourself with good people, then inevitably good things will happen. One big key for me was finding a mentor who knows more about the field of battle than you do – I’ve done this several times in my life, starting with teachers during my school days and continuing to today where I’ve found a few successful writers as mentors. I’m also building a large network of friends in my local community.

Keep plenty of buffer in your checking account – that means actively spending less than you earn. Quite often, opportunities can be best taken advantage of by having an amount of cold, hard cash on hand. For example, if I had had $150, I would have been able to quickly snag $7,200 worth of trading cards. It was my own financial mismanagement that made it impossible for me to step up.

Don’t let little setbacks derail you from anything. It’s easy to give up because of a setback, especially one that looks at first glance to be devastating, like my news about college money. But did it really change the fundamentals? I still had the tools I needed to actually get into college – what I was lacking was an understanding of how I could get financial aid and scholarship money to help me attend. By getting past that one obstacle, I was able to keep on my path towards college and take advantage of other opportunities along the way.

Live an opportunity-heavy life. That means keeping a constant focus on your goals, having a large social network, and keeping your eyes open for situations that are strongly advantageous for you. If you sit at home, rarely contact anyone, and then feel as though opportunities don’t happen for you, it’s likely because of you.

Give opportunity plenty of chances to come knocking, and be ready to answer the door when it does.

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