The Invisible Ripple of Lost Opportunity
You are always creating ripples — here’s how to make sure they’re not silently ruining your life.
In 2007, I sat at a table for dinner with maybe fifteen other people as we slowly revolved — slow enough to be unnoticed by some and fast enough to make others nauseous — counterclockwise to view the stale surroundings of Tampa International Airport.
Our group was eating on the top floor of the airport’s Marriott hotel in a revolving restaurant. I sat next to a world famous author and strength trainer, his wife, and other business people. As everyone chatted, I mostly stayed silent.
I could make the excuse that I was a good listener, but that would be a lie.
My shyness and low self-esteem were creeping over the back of my shoulder and around my neck. In a moment, they’d position themselves for the kill.
It was almost 10PM and I wanted to slip back to my room and watch TV. I craved the crisp, bleached and perfumed room with a locked door. I wanted to watch the first episode of season three of Nip/Tuck. I’d already seen it and the episode was lame, a mere shadow of Season 2’s quality, but my addiction to television didn’t care about quality.
I excused myself and scuttled away.
Back in my room, I flipped on the television and discovered it didn’t have the channel FX, which broadcast the show. Ugh. My craving growled in protest and I searched the Pay Per View listings. I chose Mission Impossible 3 and fell asleep before the movie finished.
The rest of the dinner group probably moseyed to the bar on the bottom floor to keep talking, networking, and brainstorming. Some became friends, made deals, and made money. They got to bond. I got to fight to keep my eyelids peeled and eventually drifted to sleep as Tom Cruise’s character sprinted along rooftops in China.
Was it for the best? Who knows.
That’s the nature of chaos — you can’t measure it, let alone control it.
Malcom in Jurassic Park was right when he lectured the park owner on playing God (I guess I’m in a movie-referencing mood today). But I bet my decision to watch TV wasn’t for the best.
I bet my shyness and craving for television lost me opportunities, both for business and friendship. Not only that, but I bet the lost opportunities created further lost opportunities like a rock making ripples in a lake. Except, unlike a ripple through water, this one can’t be seen. This ripple can grow from a lost handshake to a lost conversation to a lost promise to keep in touch to a lost idea for a partnership to a lost business. Maybe a lost friendship.
I’ll never know what could have happened.
I have few friends, but I have good ones. Two friends have lasted longer than ten years in my life. Other than relatives, they’ve known me longer than anyone. Both loaned money to me. One loaned money to me before I went bankrupt. I never paid him back. The second loaned money to me after I went bankrupt. I did pay him back.
Both actions created ripples.
I’ve written about the struggle to pay one friend back and how I eventually succeeded. I’ve met key businesspeople through his introductions. I’m sure he’s praised me when I wasn’t around to hear it.
When I didn’t pay my other friend back, that created a ripple of lost opportunity.
He’s heavily connected to private investors. Gee, think he’ll ever recommend me as a good investment? For the past decade, no way. Maybe in the future. I’ve planned to surprise him less than 60 days from the time I write this, with the money.* He’ll get to choose whether to keep it or give it to charity.
When you do things, or fail to do things, you create an invisible ripple of opportunity and lost opportunity.
It’s a ripple because it’s not linear. When you drop a pebble the size of your thumb in water, it doesn’t create a single wave that moves forward the exact length of your thumb. It creates a sphere of waves that push outward, even under the water’s surface. If they hit the water’s edge, the waves reverberate and cross each other. Sometimes the water doesn’t have an edge in sight.
The ripples can reach thousands of miles across the ocean and smash into other continents, lap their waves against the shins of people who don’t speak your language and will never meet you or know you exist.
Ripples are exponential.
The ripple is invisible because you usually can’t see it or its effects. You can’t see someone warn others about you. You can’t see someone refuse to recommend you to others when a perfect opportunity manifests. To you, it’s invisible.
I wish someone had told me this twenty years ago but my head was lodged too deep up my ass to hear anything other than whatever heavy metal music I listened to, and my own bullshit.
Rarely will someone blink their eyes and think, “Huh, the reason why I’m not making enough money to retire early isn’t because of all the setbacks I’ve had but because of that one time I didn’t follow up and ask that person for help five years ago, truly listen, and later contact them with the results from when I implemented their suggestions…”
People rarely realize that because the ripple is invisible.
Now, I push myself to deliver the best work I can. Every time I write and publish a piece, I push to make it something more than “just good enough.”
I always ask myself, “would this be something I’d take time out of my day to read? Would it help me? Is that true for others?”
I also push myself to socially engage. F***, writing that makes me feel like a computer. Let me try that again. I push myself beyond the walls of my shyness and open myself to getting to know cool peeps. There.
It was so worth it — I’ve met great friends and the love of my life, my wife.
If you’re shy like me, do the same. Push yourself to be more aware of how you treat other people. You have a reputation. Are you known as a flake? How do you know? Do people think you’re reliable? How do you know?
Push yourself to fully unplug when you take breaks.
It’s easy for me to stop writing and grab my phone to check email. Instead, I step outside, gaze at the foothills, and let my brain take a few deep breaths in between mental chewing and swallowing. This way, when it’s time to dive back into something creative, I’ll be more likely to have breakthrough ideas, rather than slog through an average work session and wonder, “Why can’t I get the same inspiration that I used to?”
One caution: If you get too worried about missing opportunity, it can mutate into paranoia.
People get addicted to social media because of, in part, their fear of missing out. So, the answer isn’t to chase every opportunity. It’s to live so you can get those opportunities to chase. You decide which ones are worthwhile.
Everything you do creates ripples, and what people say about you creates more. Rocks are always getting dropped in the ocean with your name attached. You have a vote in what the invisible ripples say — do your best to make them ripples of opportunity — not lost opportunity.
*I’m now editing this and I’m meeting him tomorrow morning with a check.
Update as of the next day: He was thrilled to accept my check and promised he would pay it forward and loan the money to someone else working to invest in their life. He said that, even at 0% interest, he got an amazing return on his investment.
After dropping out of college, Nate Rifkin had dedicated himself to self-help and pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams. Yet he failed to achieve any of his goals. Worse, he spiraled into debt, drank every morning, felt lonely, lost, and hated himself.A few years later – after a brutal bankruptcy and a stint spinning signs on a street corner – Nate Rifkin had quadrupled his income, married the woman of his dreams, and found happiness and contentment. He's about to publish a book on how he did it. Read the first chapter here.