You always find what you’re looking for in the last place you look.
Yes, that is a silly old joke, but its corollary is a mysterious paradox you’ve probably come across at one time or another: You only find the most elusive things in life when you’ve given up searching for them. It’s true of everything from lasting love and friendship to work you love doing or your true calling.
It’s not surprising that those who contact me for help are usually searching for something: a fulfilling career, business guidance, even happiness in their lives. What I find interesting, however, is that they’ve typically exhausted all other options and simply don’t know what to do or whom to turn to next.
They’re usually pretty desperate, but in my experience, that’s when something good happens. When you’ve searched everywhere, you’re completely exhausted and demoralized, and you’re ready to give up completely, that’s when you find what you were looking for all along.
When you’ve given up hope, given up your pride, let go of your expectations and are finally ready to throw in the towel or throw caution to the wind -- whichever comes first -- that’s when you’re most aware of what’s going on around you. That’s when you’re most open. That’s the key.
Open to what? Open to doing whatever it takes. Open to stepping out of your comfort zone. Open to lowering your guard and seeing opportunities you couldn’t see before. Open to giving up control. Open to the realization that you no longer have anything to lose. Open to seeing things differently. In short, open to anything and everything.
Silicon Valley is full of lore that features how this fascinating phenomenon leads to unparalleled success.
Stanford graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin had pitched their search engine idea to just about everyone in the Valley who would listen: Their professors, a who’s who of venture capitalists and every internet company that would meet with them. No luck. Nobody thought the world needed a standalone search engine company.
Considering that the pair were willing to sell their technology to Excite for less than $1 million shows that they were pretty close to giving up. It’s a good thing that the online service provider’s CEO, George Bell, passed on the deal. Soon thereafter, Page and Brin met former Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, who saw their vision and wrote a check for $100,000 to a name you’ve probably heard of: Google.
The young Steve Jobs spent years trying to figure out what to do with his life. With unresolved issues stemming from being adopted, he searched inside and out for meaning and inspiration. While working at video game maker Atari, the college dropout travelled to India seeking enlightenment. The trip did not go well, and while Jobs did come home a Buddhist, he also returned a more toughened and pragmatic man.
Months later, Jobs noticed that enthusiasts were buying kits and assembling their own computers, so he pitched his old friend and coworker Steve Wozniak on the idea of designing and selling circuit boards for those kits. When Jobs approached a popular computer shop to sell the boards, the owner instead wanted actual computers and was willing to pay big bucks for them. That’s how Apple Computer was born.
Every major career opportunity I’ve ever been offered came after I’d bottomed out, given up and let go. Decades ago, frustrated over being passed over for promotion to vice president twice and realizing I’d hit the ceiling where I worked, I finally threw up my hands and gave up trying.
Less than a week later, at a meeting with a friend at a big partner company that had been struggling with lousy PR as of late, a stray thought popped into my head and, before I could stop it, I heard myself saying that I thought their marketing sucked. To my surprise, he agreed, told me their veep was on his way out, and asked if I was interested. Guess who landed his first VP job a few months later?
Personal life is no exception. After several years of bad luck with relationships, I’d finally had enough and said, “To hell with it, I’m through dating.” That’s when I met the love of my life, now my wife of 26 years. No kidding.
Look, it’s not easy to give up control, especially when it comes to big, hairy, emotional life issues. But by their very nature, they occupy so much of our brain cycles that we get tied up in knots trying to make things go our way. When that happens, the only way out is to genuinely give up and let go. That’s the key to awareness and openness.
For more on what it takes to be successful in today's highly competitive business world, get Steve’s new book, Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur, and check out his blog at stevetobak.com.