You won’t have the time and energy to pursue everything, so you need to be selective about which ones you go after. To make the best choices, focus on the types of opportunities that fit your personality and especially your strengths. One top ad agency executive I know—another C student—has especially high emotional intelligence and is good at forming strong, enduring friendships. As a result, he has pursued unexpected opportunities to meet new people and grow his network. Over the years, he has been even more active than I’ve been in joining industry trade groups, not-for-profit association committees, and men’s groups. His network of contacts is probably more extensive and more actively involved in referring potential clients to him than anyone I know.

When my son, Michael, graduated from college and was trying to decide what to do, I sat down with him and we talked about his strengths: his empathy, outgoing personality, and verbal communication skills. Clearly he would make a great salesperson. But Michael also was independent-minded and flourished when he was on his own. When an unexpected opportunity emerged—the chance to be an owner/operator of a hearing-aid distributorship— he grabbed it. Many young people might not see the chance to go into a business with a largely senior citizen customer base as an opportunity. They might not want to work in an environment where they lacked colleagues their own age or the excitement of a large, growing company. Michael, however, flourished in his new job because his strengths were ideally suited to the business. Customers loved his honesty and genuine warmth, and they trusted him enough to make a high-ticket purchase from him. Michael’s business has flourished because he found the perfect opportunity for who he is.

Sam Morasca, too, found unexpected opportunities based on his strengths. A former student athlete, Sam is also naturally gregarious and comfortable in group settings. It made sense, then, for Sam to gravitate toward team-based opportunities when he joined Shell. Rather than look for individual chances to display his expertise, he focused on joining teams and helping those teams perform better.

You would expect someone like Sam, who became Shell’s head of marketing, to have been promoted as a result of individual accomplishments, but Sam’s achievements were team based. It is to Shell’s credit that they recognized the value of Sam’s particular mix of skills and rewarded him for them.

Flip Filipowski was drawn to opportunities in the software industry that others shunned. Some of the ventures at which Flip has been incredibly successful were barely viewed as opportunities by others because they carried so much risk. Flip’s strengths, though, are his vision and his willingness to abide a level of risk that others might find intolerable. As a result, Flip was willing to go where angels fear to tread. He summarizes his philosophy as follows:

What helped me be so successful are the same things that get me in trouble: fearlessness, the ability to take on any amount of risk, the capacity to face that risk with no panic, and the willingness to persevere regardless of how many failures I have. The person who keeps coming back for more and never gives up no matter what the disaster is the guy who wins. Never ever give up, no matter how beat up you are

Given this strength, Flip always seems to find unexpected opportunities with high downsize risk and high upside potential.

The following exercise is designed to help you assess your strengths so you can recognize unexpected opportunities that might fit you well:

business success

Start out by listing all your major strengths and weaknesses on a piece of paper. Try to limit each list to five or fewer items and focus on ones that have some bearing on your career (you may be a great tennis player, for instance, but that probably won’t influence your career direction). Do not confine this list to traditional academic terms, such as math, science, and so on. Strengths can include everything from an ability to develop and maintain good relationships, to being highly empathetic, to having a knack for problem-solving. After creating your list, do the following:

• Translate your strengths into potential job or career terms. For instance, if one of your strengths is an ability to think on your feet, such a strength might help you as a salesperson. List at least three potential jobs/careers for each strength.

• Translate your weaknesses into potential job or career terms. For instance, if you’re not a good communicator or relationship builder, you won’t make a very good salesperson. List all the jobs and careers that seem ill-suited to you, given your weaknesses.

• Based on your translated strengths and weaknesses, create a list of internal and external opportunities that might come your way and that you should be alert for. Remember, these should not be limited to traditional job offers but include everything from assignments related to your current job, to industry association memberships, to workshops and seminars.

• Based on your weaknesses, create a list of activities and assignments that make no sense for you to pursue.

PASS ON THE MONEY, TAKE THE EXPERIENCE

When considering unexpected opportunities, eliminate a money-first attitude, at least during the first ten years of your career. I know that money is important, and you’re going to have A student friends who are being offered jobs upon graduation from MBA programs and law schools that pay unbelievable amounts of money. Resist the temptation to take high-paying jobs just because they’re high paying. If you don’t, you’ll regret the decision down the line. If you gain the right experience early on, you’ll have more than ample opportunities to make up the pay gap with A students.

It took me a good ten years before I made decent money in my career. At Heinz, Edward H. Weiss, and Rhodes Pharmacal I received low to middling salaries. Even during my early years at Eicoff I received a relatively low salary. If, however, I had missed any of these experiences, I would never have earned what I earned later on in my career. Like many young people, I didn’t know the exact knowledge and skills that would help me further my career, but I did know that all three jobs offered great learning opportunities. If I had had a crystal ball and could see that I would be a CEO, I could have targeted jobs that allowed me to gain conflict resolution, negotiating, and a variety of leadership skills. In lieu of this crystal ball, I had a sense that being on the client side was a good idea, and that Rhodes Pharmacal would give me a chance to do everything—purchasing, human resources, selling, operations, financial. I could have been paid two or three times as much to be a specialist at a large ad agency, but I would have learned half as much. The lesson is not to judge opportunities by their monetary value but by the potential value of the experiences to your career.

Art Frigo is a great believer of putting experience before money early in one’s career. As he says, “Early on, people make the mistake of asking, ‘How much does this job pay?’ They should be asking, ‘Is this job going to provide me with experiences that will lead me to the career I want?’

“After two years of working for experience, people start noticing you. At that point, you may receive an offer from a competitor for 15 percent more money. You say to yourself, ‘I could use the extra ten thousand.’ But an extra ten thousand dollars isn’t going to change your life.”

Art has a great rule of thumb for changing jobs. He believes that you should change jobs only when your growth—your learning and development—starts leveling off. At that point, he feels you should reposition yourself within the company in order to gain more responsibility for fresh challenges, or you must leave.

Focusing on the experience rather than the money is tough for many C students, but if you’re smart about gaining the right experience, you will find that you’re ready to handle bigger jobs for more money later on. In fact, if you’ve been astute about gaining the right experiences, you’ll be in a better position for many big jobs than those A students who have done well as specialists but lack the broader experiences most big jobs demand. Many management and leadership positions require a diverse range of expertise and experience, and if you’re always taking narrowly focused jobs, you’ll miss out on a lot of low-end skills (i.e., people skills) that you’ll need later in your career. You may be a great financial analyst, but you’ll be hopeless when it comes to negotiating a deal.

Be aware that unexpected opportunities often involve less pay than the expected ones. If you’re following a linear progression in your career, you do one job well and another company offers you more money to do the same job well. C students, though, may bounce from one unexpected opportunity to the next, and one job may involve responsibilities that aren’t even relevant to the next job. Recognize that you’re going to be climbing many learning curves, and while you may not always be well compensated for the climb at the beginning, you will be later on.