How might you complete the following sentence? “It would have been better if…”

Got something?

Here are some ideas:

“… that business/initiative/project had been successful.”
“… I had learned to play guitar as a kid.”
“… so-and-so had wanted to be with me.”
“… I hadn’t lost all that money in the market.”
“… the election had gone the other way.”

Okay. So, whatever your version of that is… Is that true? Would things actually be better in those events? Would you actually be better off?

Maybe you’re someone who’d say: “Not so fast. Everything works out perfectly. If things don’t go the way that I wanted or intended, I trust that there’s a greater wisdom in it, or at least some greater opportunity. Besides, what would be the point of being at odds with reality?”

Or maybe you’re someone who’d say, “Don’t give me that hippy dippy new-age BS. Some outcomes are way better than others. Are you telling me we’re just as well off in the world with holocausts and Hitlers and such? Or me stubbing my toe just now? You gonna tell me all those things worked out perfectly?”

If you’re like me, you identify to some extent with both points of view. You hold the two in a paradox, which is to say you consider each perspective to be both valid and partial. You hold that there is some truth to each perspective.

This paradox, in its simplest form, might go something like this:

Things are perfect as they are
– and –
Some circumstances are better than other circumstances


Can you relate to the partial truth in each of these statements?

How about this related paradox:

I accept everything the way it is
I desire change.


I believe that holding these paradoxes — perfection and preference, appreciation and desire — is an advanced and worthy skill. When we can move through the world embodying both sides of these equations, we have both great joy and great power.

On the eve of my 30th birthday, I had a startup that was out of cash and was struggling to raise another angel round. I was $60K deep in credit card debt, and I had almost no income. I fully believed this was a crappy situation – that I’d be better off if my startup had gone differently, and if I had $60K in savings rather than debt, as well as a clear path forward.

Was it a crappy situation? Totally. Well, partially. It’s true, in a way, that a successful startup would have been better than an unsuccessful one.

But check out what happened: because I couldn’t afford to pay my office rent, I put an ad on Craigslist and subleased it to a tiny online marketing startup.

I took an interest in what they were up to, and after a few months, I joined the company. I helped them grow, fast. Within two years, I had my debt paid off and I was making more money than I ever had. Within five years, I was a Senior VP and stakeholder at what had become a nationally recognized ad agency, managing 8-figure digital strategies for major national brands, overseeing a department, and receiving top-tier compensation.

Now, you might say that this just happens to be a situation where an undesired situation led to desirable outcomes, and that there are plenty that don’t.

Maybe so. But I wonder if that’s always happening, on some level. Maybe, if we zoom the lens of history out far enough from any given (negative) headline, we see a (positive) trend line. The Chinese occupation of Tibet gave us the diaspora of Tibetan Buddhism. The Vietnam War unleashed a revolution of consciousness and creativity in the West.

Now, did the ends justify the means? That’s completely debatable, but in each case, we can probably agree there were at least some desirable outcomes.

Like the old farmer in the buddhist fable replies when the townspeople praise and lament his seemingly “good” and “bad” fortunes:

“Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

Another way of saying all of this is that I believe in the course of progress. The forces of evolution are strong and intact, despite – or as a product of – the swings of the pendulum in both directions. And as it goes for global events, so it goes for your life… from falling in love (or not) to stubbing your toe (or not).

Which is not to say I prefer to stub my toe. I don’t! I consider a pain-free scenario much better than a painful one. I consider a scenario with more goodness, truth, and beauty in the world a better scenario than one with less. I desire an end to war, I desire to generate wealth, I desire to be in love. I’m just holding these preferences and desires together with acceptance of circumstances, and curiosity about what fortunes may arise out of any situation. As a paradox.

You know what the number-one factor is that influences the degree to which desirable outcomes result from undesired circumstances? It’s you. Your mindset.

I find that when I’m bound up in being at odds with reality, desirable outcomes are hard to come by. They probably happen anyway, but they’re not easily available if my predominant state is one of lamentation.

When I’m in a state of acceptance and curiosity, however – when I’m looking for the silver linings, the ways to make lemonade – I tend not only to find them, but also to create them. Kind of like I did when I brought chocolate to my new tenants, the online marketers new to the area, as a gesture of relationship and regard for what they were up to.

From this standpoint, everything happens for a reason is true to the degree that we make it so – making the more accurate language maybe something like everything is opportunity, which is a phrase I actually prefer.

Q: “Does everything happen for a reason?”

A: “Everything is opportunity.”

One of the simplest forms that opportunity takes is the opportunity to learn. Learning to do things better in the future, or learning what really matters to us, or even just learning to accept that which we cannot change – these can be some of the gifts of circumstance. Great leaders understand this.

Have you ever experienced unrequited love? I have. If only she would see what I see. If only we could be together, things would be better. That was the experience at the time, which I still hold as valid in a sense.

And, as uncomfortable as it was, I learned a ton. My desire to be with each woman helped me to clarify what I wanted in relationship, and as a result, I had better radar for it going forward. I also got to look at myself and consider what I wanted to change, how I wanted to grow.

The same is true in business. Maybe even more so, because results in business tend to be more quantitative than in love. I’ve found that the most effective entrepreneurs and executives are the ones who treat everything as opportunity – who are most oriented toward harvesting the gold from every situation.

Here’s a practice to help you treat everything as opportunity.

Next time you find yourself believing my life would be better if things were a different way (if you didn’t miss that flight, or dent your car, or if that launch had gone well, or if so-and-so wanted to be with you), try this:

  1. Honor both perspectives. This means acknowledging that in a sense things would be better the other way. And, in another sense, maybe not.
  2. Honor whatever feelings come up around things being the way they are. It’s natural and appropriate to feel grief, pain, or anger when things don’t go the way we want. It can even be useful in that it can help us get in touch with our values. What do you care about such that this situation being this way doesn’t feel good? Is this a value worth upholding in the future? Do you feel even more clarity and more commitment to upholding that value going forward?
  3. Get curious about how this might work out just fine, maybe even for the best. Are there any desirable outcomes that you can imagine being more likely to occur following this undesired circumstance? With some part of your being – you don’t have to let go of the “this sucks” belief – see if you can get curious. Maybe there’s nothing apparent now. Sometimes there’s not. But allow yourself to open to the possibility that you’ll make something cool out of it at some point, whether or not you’ll even be able to connect the dots. Even if you can find this orientation with 10 or 20% of your being, you’re in good shape.

Let me know how it goes!