December 10, 2018

How To Recognize Opportunities That Others Overlook

By: Gary Schoeniger
Photo By Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

Learn How to Think (and Act) Like an Entrepreneur

Part 2/8

I’ve spent the past two decades exploring the mindset and the methods of everyday entrepreneurs – the underdogs and the misfits whose only advantage in life is in the way they think. In this second post of an eight-part series, I’ll explore the underlying logic and the cognitive strategies that enable entrepreneurs to recognize opportunities that others overlook.

On the surface, entrepreneurs often appear to be endowed with super-human traits that somehow enable them to recognize opportunities even within the most opportunity constrained circumstances. Yet when we look beneath the surface to examine their mindset, a deceptively simple logic begins to emerge. (My first book, Who Owns The Ice House, Eight Life Lessons From An Unlikely Entrepreneur, which I co-wrote with Pulitzer nominee Clifton Taulbert, was written in part, as a case in point.)

So what exactly is a mindset? Simply put, a mindset is the underlying beliefs, tacit assumptions, and thought processes that influence our behavior. We acquire our mindset slowly and subtly over time through socialization and life experiences. Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist who studies how people make decisions in complex and demanding real-world situations, describes a mindset as “a belief that orients the way we handle situations — the way we sort out what is going on and what we should do.” He goes on to say that “Our mindsets help us spot opportunities but they can trap us in self-defeating cycles.”

Much of our mindset operates beneath our conscious awareness, yet it is enormously influential when it comes to driving our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Over time, our mindset tends to become a fixed way of thinking (hence the term mind-set) and comes to rely on prior knowledge, and preconceived ideas, habitual patterns of thought, and mental shortcuts to guide our decisions. In other words, our mindset draws from the past to navigate the future, much of it occurring effortlessly and automatically, without conscious awareness.

So what are the underlying assumptions that enable entrepreneurs to recognize opportunities that others overlook? Having interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs, there seems to be one commonly held assumption that drives their behavior which is an assumption that, by solving problems for others, they can empower themselves. This is the deceptively simple logic from which all other entrepreneurial attitudes, behaviors, and skills arise. It is also the underlying logic that enables them to recognize opportunities that others overlook.

From this perspective, entrepreneurs learn to see problems as opportunities, they approach every problem, frustration, or unmet need they encounter as a potential opportunity. They learn to see the world through an empathic perspective, rather than focusing on their own needs, they shift their attention to the broader world around them to understand the needs of others. They become observant, asking themselves, why are we doing it this way, what is missing, and what can be improved? They learn to think like detectives working to understand not only the functional but also the social and emotional aspects of human needs. In other words, while the rest of us are hunkered down trying to get through the day and do our jobs, entrepreneurs are looking for problems to be solved. And, while this may seem simple (and it is), it is a departure from the way most of us have been taught to think.

Selective Attention (A Gorilla in Our Midst)

By contrast, most of us have been trained to work in established organizations where the “useful thing” has already been determined by others and we are expected to fulfill a predetermined role in exchange for our pay. From the moment we entered school we were taught to obey others, to memorize facts, and to follow rules. Slowly, over time, we become socialized into an industrial era paradigm and, without realizing it, we develop an employee mindset – a deeply held assumption that someone else will determine what is useful and we expect to follow the rules.

In his book, Seeing What Others Don’t, The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, Klein describes the challenge many organizations face – the more they rely on rules, the less likely people are to have insights. “In many cases, organizations are preventing insights by imposing too many controls and procedures in order to reduce or eliminate errors. Organizations value predictability and abhor mistakes. That’s why they impose management controls that stifle insights. When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights.”

Simply put, our minds tend to see what we are trained to see, focusing on the things we deem to be important while blocking out the rest. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as selective attention or inattentional blindness. You can see a great example demonstrated in this brief video. By focusing on avoiding errors and following the rules, we overlook the opportunities that exist within any set of circumstances. By focusing only on our own needs, we blind ourselves to opportunities that are often hiding in plain sight.

The psychiatrist R.D. Laing once said, “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” Very often it is not the lack of opportunities that keep us stuck, rather it’s our inability to recognize the opportunities that are hiding in plain sight. There is no mystery to the entrepreneurial mindset, nor are entrepreneurs endowed with superhuman traits. If you want to learn how to recognize opportunities that others overlook, shift your range of focus to figure out what other people need. And by doing so, you will begin to recognize the gorillas in your midst.