The myth of the last opportunity
Interview by Madeleine Dore
Art by Amelia Goss
The notion that whatever opportunity we are presented with may be the last can keep many of us feeling stuck – stuck in a job that makes us miserable, stuck with a client we have grown out of, even stuck in a relationship that has seen its used-by date.
A focus on such scarcity can leave us spinning in circles. While we are told to seize any and all opportunities, sometimes we hold on to those that no longer serve us, rather than trusting that our next step will appear – or something new is around the corner.
Debbie Millman is an example of how saying yes can lead to an extraordinary career – she is an author, artist, educator, brand strategist, and host of Design Matters podcast – but the ‘fear of the last’ has long lingered.
“I’ve always had this fear that this was the last opportunity for employment, the last opportunity for love, the last opportunity for creativity – and it’s just not true,” said Debbie Millman when talk about letting go of the career trapeze.
“It’s just this perpetual lie that I’m trying not to tell myself as much anymore.”
What’s love got to do with it?
This belief may be why people find it difficult to say no, or quit projects, ideas, commitments that are either crowding their schedule or no longer teaching them.
In the Dear Sugar episode The Power of No, Oprah Winfrey also spoke about the tyranny of the last.
“There is always this innate fear that if I say ‘no,’ I'm going to somehow be discarded, or dismissed, or unloved.”
If Oprah Winfrey can possess the fear that if we don’t seize an opportunity everything will be discarded, so can many of us.
What is driving this grasping, even for those who outwardly have the ability to create any opportunity they dream of for themselves?
As Oprah touches on, often when we fear, we fear the loss of love – that without this job, we will lose a feeling of accomplishment or admiration.
It’s the uncertainty that scares us. If we don’t know that we have something lined up for the future, some guarantee, it make sense that our reaction would be to scramble and say yes to the next thing.
This makes believing that there will always be new opportunities particularly difficult when you’re not quite sure where it is you hope to end up.
Beginning to trust as an antidote to fear
Often we need a little fear to propel us forward. As Descartes wrote, “When hope is so strong that it altogether drives out fear, its nature changes and it becomes complacency.”
There are many instances where it makes sense and is financially necessary to secure the next opportunity before saying goodbye to the current, but we can equally acknowledge in ourselves the difference between strategic quitting, and clinging due to fear.
For Debbie Millman, knowing the difference was about acknowledging a scarcity mindset and becoming more self-reliant.
“When you realise you can rely on yourself – that no matter what– you can rely on yourself, you’re not as worried about a bleak future.”
Developing self-reliance means that when we do quit something that is no longer serving us, we create room for something new.
The work of social psychologist Carol Dweck seems to prove the adage true that when one door closes, another opens.
In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Dweck explains the difference between having a fixed mindset about our character, intelligence, and creative ability, and a growth mindset.
“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”
On the other hand, “This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments –everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
A growth mindset is about acknowledging that our potential is unknown and embracing that, It’s impossible to plan or foresee what can be accomplished by putting one step in front of the other.
When we cultivate a growth mindset, not only do we expand how we see the possibility in ourselves, but we see the possibilities of the world around us. We stop thinking of something as the last, and look forward to the next.
We begin to trust ourselves and that there will be something, just around the corner.
In the words of Kuan Yin, “There is no right or wrong path. There is only the path that you choose. Whatever you choose, there will be many opportunities for you to grow and expand.”
Want more insights on the creative process?
Sign up to the regular-ish newsletter for the latest interviews, musings, experiments and interesting links.