Standing on the football field in the fall of 2011, hours before a Baltimore Ravens game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, I reached out to shake the hand of former NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol and introduced myself.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Gerry Sandusky.
He snatched his hand back, a flinch reflex as if my hand were on fire. Before I could say, “Gerry with a G, no relation to the former Penn State coach,” Ebersol had disappeared into a nearby crowd of people, a safe distance from the awkwardness caused by the sound of my name, an identical sounding name as a convicted child molester. Problem.
Several months later, I stood along the rail at Belmont Park racetrack in the middle of a dozen reporters preparing to do live TV reports. Holding the microphone in my right hand I stared into the TV camera and delivered a live-tease to an upcoming story. “Triple Crown hopes arrive at Belmont. I’m Gerry Sandusky. That story, next.” I could feel the other reporters gawking at me. A conspicuous silence hung along the track rail. Problem.
A year later, I took my family on a trip to Manhattan. At the check-in counter, the agent asked my name. When I told him, his eyes unlocked from mine and scanned the room. He later admitted his instincts led him to look for police. Problem.
The sound of my name has caused plenty of problems. Still does. But it has also given me something marketing experts call “stickiness.” People remember my name. It catches people’s attention. It may have led you to read this article. Opportunity.
Look at the word “opportunity” and focus on the end of the word. The final five letters spell unity. My experience has taught me to believe in and look for the unity between problems and opportunities—even if it takes a little while for the opportunity to present itself. I call that probortunity thinking.
The inventor of 3M’s Post-It Notes used probortunity thinking. In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver set out to create a super glue to improve the adhesive used on 3M tape products. Instead, he ran into the problem of developing an adhesive that worked on paper only until someone pulled on the paper. The problem of an adhesive that didn’t quite work evolved into the opportunity to create a product that has filled office cubicles ever since.
The nature of the problem of my name changed dramatically once I saw the opportunities it could lead to. Along the way, I discovered four pillars that will support anyone’s search for opportunities in the realm of problems.
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Probortunity Pillar #1: Don’t Run; Don’t Hide
Accept the problem. Don’t ignore it. It’s there. So is the opportunity it will give birth to. But you can’t begin to see the probortunity until you stop denying the problem.
Probortunity Pillar #2: Choose Your Response
We always have the power to choose. You don’t have to like the problem–who does? But you don’t have to lash out at problems, whine about them or feel treated unfairly by them. You can choose to respond in a way that makes you feel better. It’s hard. I know. I chose not to fight everyone who called me a rapist. I chose not to return profanity to everyone who used it with me on social media. It was hard, very hard. Then I experienced a transformation: I learned the more I exercised power of choice, the stronger it becomes, and the stronger I become. Gradually, I became more powerful than my problem. You can too.
Probortunity Pillar #3: Change the Angle of Your Approach
If you keep staring at the problem you’ll never see the opportunity. You’ve made your peace with the problem; now ask yourself what you can change to see the situation differently?
In the third quarter of Super Bowl 47, the electricity went out in the New Orleans Superdome. Problem. We had no power for the radio equipment in our broadcast booth. Problem. My quick-thinking producer handed me a cell phone that he had dialed into the call-in number. That got us on the air. Opportunity. For the next 34 minutes while the TV booth remained in the dark, our radio ratings soared. Probortunity. When the lights came back on the problem went away—so did the opportunity. Our ratings went back down. Sometimes when your problems go away so do your opportunities.
Probortunity Pillar #4: Be a Lighthouse, Not a Courthouse
Once you’ve identified the problem, stop wasting time figuring out whom to blame. That’s the domain of courthouses, the domain of judges. Instead, ask what this problem can teach you and how you can use it for good. By choosing not to respond to every one who made an offensive comment to me, I ended up having a positive impact on people in ways I could have never imagined—and they did the same for me. A young man struggling with terminal cancer sent me a message on Facebook thanking me for showing him that he didn’t have to lash out at his problem. He said it helped him make peace with his cancer and enjoy the end of his life instead of fighting it. When he shared that with me, my notion of problems changed. What problem did I have? I hoped I might lift someone else and someone else lifted me. That’s the power of probortunity thinking.
Here’s the ultimate power of probortunity thinking: It’s available to everyone—just like problems. There is one big difference between problems and probortunities. Problems always find you. It’s up to you to find the probortunities.