How To Know When To Take A Madcap Career Chance

According to an old Chinese proverb, we're given three chances to succeed in life. If we use them wisely, we get another three. If not, I’m afraid that’s it. There will be no more.

An old Chinese proverb says that in life we're given three chances. If we use them wisely, we get another three. If not, I’m afraid that’s it. There will be no more. This is a story about seizing the day—and tomorrow, too.

It's True: What's Past Is Prologue

Way back in 1994, on a plane home from giving a talk in Montreal, Canada, the person sitting beside me began chatting about a country I’d never visited—Australia. It was somewhat strange in light of the fact that only just earlier in the day a middle-aged Australian man had approached me, asking if I could give his advertising agency advice on how to crack this new thing called the "world wide web." Bear in mind that this was 1994, the year Netscape was invented, the very year the Internet as we know it today was born. It was one of those inexplicable synchronicities: two different people from a faraway country approaching me in the same afternoon.

I hadn’t been back in Denmark much longer than a few days when I received a call from the Australian adman. He said he happened to be in Copenhagen and would like to stop by my office for a chat, if that was okay with me. When he arrived he explained that the concept of the world wide web was still preoccupying him. "Martin," he said, "how do you reckon we should handle this Internet thing at the agency?"

I found the serendipity of the situation hard to resist. I gave it a moment, took out a pen and scribbled a few lines on a napkin: "I hereby employ Martin Lindstrom to oversee all WWW activity for my agency. Signed, Glenn Williams." I passed the napkin Glenn's way. He took one look at it and said, "What a splendid idea!" And to my surprise, he signed it. The deal was done, and within a few weeks I was on a flight bound for Australia. My mission was to start up the online arm of BBDO in Asia and Australia.

Identifying Opportunities

As I emptied my desk ready for my new venture down under, a colleague asked, "How do all these interesting opportunities come your way? What do you do?" I didn’t know what to answer then, but I do now. Not only have I always had an eye open to adventure and opportunity, but I have always had a tendency to seize them the moment they occur. Herein lies the problem for many. Too few of us see the opportunities that are presented to us. Even fewer of us dare to meet them head on and run with them.

The interesting thing that I’ve learned over the years is, true to that old Chinese proverb, the more opportunities we act on, the more we get.  And that’s not all—the behavioral researcher and writer Paco Underhill, a good friend, recently asked me about the last time I applied myself to learning something completely new. I was surprised to realize 15 years had passed since I’d left college. It seems that we all too quickly fall into the comfort of our routines, and these, in turn, allow us to settle into comfort zones where very little that is new enters our personal sphere.

Not unlike some of the most innovative industries of our time that have got into a groove and rested on their laurels, we too get comfortable. Very few of us dedicate time and resources to evolve and educate ourselves. Even fewer set the bar higher to challenge ourselves beyond our area of comfort, and as another popular affirmation instructs: Life only begins at the end of the comfort zone.

How To Act Now—And Learn New Stuff

I fundamentally believe we should have at least three different bank accounts (if we can afford them). The first account is to pay the bills, put food on the table and a roof over our head. The second should be used for personal branding. In other words, to invest in your image and create a presence in your environment. This could be a website, a blog, or a personal vision and how you want to own it.  The final account should be dedicated to the sole purpose of evolving, educating and expanding your knowledge, insights and talent.

The more we’re preoccupied in our daily routines, the less time we spend learning new stuff. Even if it involves just taking the time to learn the finer details of the computer software you use every day. But that would only be a start.  I’m really imagining bigger and better than that.

I guess writing books for me is kind of my personal R&D budget. Quite some time ago, it dawned on me that I haven’t even begun investigating some of the crazy theories that swirl around my brain. Today, my R&D budget is all about that: conducting experiments and embarking on projects that may very well be plain crazy. Ideas, for example, like investigating health warnings on cigarette packs. How effective are they, or do they have the opposite effect of what’s intended, encouraging us to smoke more? After a $7 million study, I discovered that these warnings do indeed encourage more smoking. Another study revealed that the most powerful sound known to humans is the sound of a baby laughing. 

Honestly, none of these hypotheses had much to do with my core business, and yet what I learned has become an essential part of what I do today. When I noticed how smokers looked at health warnings on cigarette packs before lighting up, I took a chance and decided to investigate this counter-intuitive notion. Had I not explored my simple observation further, my book Buyology wouldn’t exist.

The Future Is Unwritten

As we get older, we become more fearful of change. We are anxious about losing everything we’ve worked for. And yet the paradox of this is that we often lose it all when we do nothing. However, if we grab those (sometimes madcap) opportunities that come our way, the rewards are immense. Why don’t you try it?  The worst that can happen is you’ll be given another three opportunities. Not a bad payoff, if you ask me. 

[Image: Olly via Shutterstock]

Read more by Lindstrom: How To Identify Your Customers, Make Them Love You, And Keep Them Hooked

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, was published in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at

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  • Catherine Marsden

    On a personal level, this article reminds me that I need to keep re-inventing my skills and put the fear of failure in proper perspective. On an organizational level, it reminds me that we too often discard even bringing up new ideas for fear of risking the routine or status quo, "the known" .We both can stagnate that way. Thanks for the wake-up.

  • May Busch

    Martin, this was great.  Really great.  My three words to live by for the year (a la Chris Brogan) were to be Fearless, to have Faith that it would all come good, and to have Fun.  It strikes me that you have done all of that, seemingly instinctively, your whole life.

    And the 3 bank accounts - what a great way to focus on refreshing the pond, as it were.  Reading your work is part of my R&D and broadening of horizons.  Thank you.

    Finally, being of Chinese descent, I am going to find that story in Chinese!


  • Marc A Luna

    Great article. I would also add: challenge with yourself with new experiences (try a different food everyday, talk to 3 new people a day, try running that marathon you always wanted to do, etc.) When you expand your knowledge, insights, talents, and experiences, you are able to connect the dots!

  • April Rinne

    Enjoyable and inspiring article. For whatever reason - predisposition, circumstances and more - I have always sought to push myself beyond my comfort zone, because (as ML notes) that's where the real fun and learning are.

    However, if I've done my calculations correctly, ML was in secondary school when he gave that talk in Montreal (speech in 1994; left college 15 years ago, or 1997). Really? That would change my view to add precociousness to the mix of variables as well. Please clarify...

  • CO

    Brilliant and thought provoking.ML's piece was just the jab I needed.After leaving my previous job and trying a couple of other things with (unfortunately) very disappointing outcomes,I guess the only alternative for me is to just keep trying.SO

  • Dear Job Bitch

    Though I agree with the basic tenor of this piece, I'm mildly amused by this point in that there's no acknowledgement of the privilege and mobility that placed ML on that plane to begin with that enabled him to relocate to Australia at the drop of a hat. ML was already professionally successful (flying to give a talk) and male, and apparently had no personal obligations to negotiate a move around. I hope my husband would be very distressed if I pulled something like this.  It's a bit like saying "I recommend you go ahead and spring for that Cartier watch [provided you have the resources to do so]!"

  • Richard Blackham

    Great article very close to my heart. This is precisely what brought me to Denmark. I have since learned that stepping out of one's 'educational' comfort zone is what holds most Danes back from adventure. Having said that Denmark has given me opportunities I might never have found elsewhere.
    My own life experience has been in three distinct commercial markets across 3 continents and more countries than I can list here. By taking the opportunity of a lifetime during the lifetime of the opportunity I skipped from one 'career' to another to satisfy a longing to learn. None of it has anything to do with my History of Art and Design education and all have been a complete departure from each other as 'careers'. I haven't become ridiculously wealthy because of it but I have been at the right place at the right time and experienced events and places that are unrepeatable and iconic in recent history.Age doesn't deter me now from seizing new opportunities as I move into the next leg of my journey. See you around!