Today I was sitting here, thinking that my sabbatical is almost coming to an end – I have only about a month left of a twelve month study leave. And, yes, I do realise how lucky I am to work at a university that still grants study leave. Looking at my plan and what I have really achieved it struck me that my main achievements didn’t have much to do with my plan and a lot to do with serendipity. Also, although my talents, skills and knowledge were absolutely necessary for some of these to come off, they are by far not sufficient. These achievements needed opportunities, my ability to recognise these and the courage to ride with them.

This made me curious; so I started looking for cases that illustrate this and remembering ones that I already had spotted. This is some of what I managed to find.

The ‘Marxist Old Lady’

This story is about a Chinese lady who spent her life working as a human resource manager in a large state owned enterprise – Meng Fang Ning. Then, after retiring in 2005, she became seriously ill with cancer and went to live with her daughter. As it usually happens in such cases Mrs. Ning got herself a job: to look after her granddaughter. Apart from this she started playing the computer games of the child; and when it was time for the little girl to go to school there was not much left than the games.

This is when things started getting hard. Mrs. Ning was getting so obsessed with playing games that she was bad tempered and withdrawn. Her daughter started thinking that if her mother is to be spending so much time on the computer, she may as well do something more productive than play games all the time. This is how the idea of starting an online business was born; but there was a problem: Mrs. Ning was a very proud and long time member of the Communist Party. Eventually, she managed to reconcile her political and business values and today has a thriving online business selling snacks and health food all over China.

When she started her online business Mrs. Ning was over 60 and her knowledge of both business and the internet left much to be desired.

Betty and Beryl

Several weeks back, Betty Smith and Beryl Renwick won the Sony Radio Award for best entertainment programme. Now, there is nothing exceptional about that except the fact that they are two women from a small radio station and they beat people like Frank Skinner.

Nothing exceptional until I tell you that Betty is 90 and Beryl is 86 years old. Or young!  Or that they were talent spotted in a shopping centre several years ago and had never done anything like radio shows before; gosh they had never been on the radio before and I bet they even call it ‘the wireless’.

The ‘untouchable’ multi-millionaire

Kalpana Saroj is a woman who didn’t have a great start in life: she was born into a Dalit (untouchable) family in rural India; she was bullied at school; she was not allowed to enter her friends’ houses and she was married off at twelve to a guy ten years her senior. On top of all this, her husband lived in the slums of Mumbai and had a family that treated Kalpana as a slave.

Her first break was that she had a supportive father – when he visited her and saw her plight he simply took her back. This is highly un-usual in Indian culture; so back in the village people saw Kalpana as a failure. She learned tailoring and tried to ignore the situation until….

…it just got too much and she tried to take her own life. After that Kalpana decided to live her life and ‘do something big and then die’. She left for Mumbai to stay with an uncle and started a tailoring business which she gradually grew. Eventually she was asked to take over a company that was massively in debt – Kamani Tubes. She did and today Kamani Tubes is a business worth more than $100m.

What do these women share?

These women share four important things:

  • They have achieved something extraordinary.
  • They had the chips stacked against them.
  • They were offered an opportunity and they recognised it.
  • They had the courage to take these opportunities and be extraordinary.


What is my point, then?

As a civilisation, we have developed multitude of techniques for planning, management and selection. As individuals we spend considerable proportion of our lives planning, managing and disciplining ourselves or being planned, managed and disciplined.

What seems potentially more productive is to learn the art of spotting opportunities and to develop the courage to use them.