Business and Finance

Richard Branson: Don’t See Obstacles, See Opportunities

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One of the great myths of business (and cheesy old game shows) is that opportunity knocks. Opportunity does not knock on your door, you have to bang on the door yourself and keep knocking until you get in.

Another falsehood is that some obstacles are insurmountable. With the right attitude, application – and of course a bit of luck – anything is possible. An obstacle is defined as “a thing that blocks one’s way or prevents or hinders progress.” What if you flip that around and think of an obstacle as an opportunity waiting to be found?

Thomas Edison knew a thing or two about turning an obstacle into an opportunity. He showed this in all of his inventive genius, but also in how to recover from setbacks and push aside perceived obstacles. When he was in his late sixties, his huge West Orange New Jersey laboratory burnt to the ground. Rather than cursing his luck and panicking, he gathered his family and friends around to marvel at the fire and immediately began planning for the future.

Edison started rebuilding plans for a much improved lab, seeing the potential for improvement the disaster had presented. He said: “You can always make capital out of disaster. We’ve just cleared out a bunch of old rubbish! We’ll build bigger and better on these ruins.” There is good to be found in any situation – and usually a great opportunity hiding beneath the rubble.

Some obstacles can seem overwhelming. It helps to surround yourself with good people, who can help see things from a different perspective and shed light on the darkest of situations. What may seen impossible to you could be an exciting challenge for somebody else. Equally, you might be able to help them with a different problem. When the time is right, pool your skills, collaborate and you will achieve more.

Opportunities can be found in the most unlikely situations as well as on a larger scale. A good example that made me proud happened recently with our airline staff. A flight was delayed because of bad weather, which of course can be annoying for passengers. Rather than seeing the situation as an obstacle, some intrepid staff spotted the opportunity to have some fun. They quickly set up an ‘Airport Olympics’, encouraging our customers to join in a paper plane throwing contest rather than sit there bored. As well as stirring some competitive spirit, they jumped on the chance to put a smile on people’s faces.

Getting over an obstacle is hard work. Especially when starting a business, difficulties can pile up incredibly quickly. It is crucial not to get downhearted and pick off each teething problem one by one, rather than being weighed down by them all. There is no substitute for hard graft, but you need to give yourself the time and space to have a long-term vision, too. If you’re bogged down too much in the here and now of specific obstacles, opportunities will pass you by.

Grasping an opportunity is no picnic, either. They don’t present themselves gift-wrapped and ready to pick off the shelf. To quote that man Edison again: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” But there is nothing more satisfying than seizing a chance and turning an idea into reality. Most of the great achievements of mankind have started life as conundrums and been turned into triumphs by creative, determined people.

These people do not just overcome obstacles, they don’t see them. They see the potential in every person and every situation. Once you start looking for opportunities, it’s amazing how many you find. That’s how Virgin has spread into so many different sectors and markets. Opportunities are out there, why don’t you go grasp them?

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