Imagine having to choose which of your children to feed. When the resources are tight or nonexistent in your household, you sacrifice yourself first and then must look into your kids’ eyes and decide who will eat and who will go hungry.

A Johns Hopkins University study in early 2017 discovered that among 1500 extremely disadvantaged families living in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio, teenagers go without food twice as often as their younger siblings.

This is our America…land of opportunity…for some. But is there opportunity for all?

Brene Brown writes in Braving the Wilderness, “Perspective is a function of experience.”  We often compare what we witness to that which we have encountered. Think of the last time you or someone around you said, “That reminds me of…” or “That makes me think about…” It is easy to forget that two people can experience the same thing but process it differently. For example, after reading the opening paragraph above, one person may reflect on their experience serving the poor at a soup kitchen while another person may have flashbacks to when they used food stamps to get groceries.

The way that we process the world around us and react to it is also influenced by our values. If we value independence, we may believe that people need to take care of themselves. If we value service, we may believe that it is our responsibility to help support others that are in need. The values that inform our thoughts and actions are largely influenced by the people in our lives both in the past and present.

We may have many relationships with others, from our families to our friends to our colleagues, classmates and neighbors. But we know most only at the surface. We often gather context about each other from casual conversations, brief engagements and gossip gathered by third parties. Rarely do we dig in, dive below the surface and explore the roots of someone’s values, perceptions, fears and aspirations. When we do, we often become attached because our growing awareness and trust for one another breeds vulnerability. Our vulnerability fosters a connection. When we truly connect with others, we let our guard down and expose our true authentic selves. We put ourselves out there, hoping that we don’t get hurt in the process.

Our longing for connection sometimes outweighs the risk. Sometimes, our need to protect ourselves prohibits an openness that cultivates relationships.

Imagine if we suspended our judgement of one another and simply focused on understanding each other’s context more. What if we replaced autobiographical listening with a greater sense of curiosity. We could adopt Stephen Covey’s habit of “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” We could step out of our own perspective and practice viewing the world through someone else’s lens. With greater empathy and patience, we could start to unlock opportunities for each other by making connections, challenging assumptions, and continually learning.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Everything we have learned in Outliers says that success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed…Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities – and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

Opportunities exist. Are we open to receiving them? Have we cultivated relationships with others that are rooted in respect, vulnerability and trust? Are we curious and open to experimenting with new ideas, pathways and connections? Are we focused on asking great questions?

In Braving the Wildness, Brown shares the process that she went through in preparing for and taking full advantage of her first opportunity to be interviewed by Oprah. She recalls telling her manager, “I’m doing that thing I do when I’m afraid. I’m floating above my life, watching it and studying it, rather than living it.” Back in her hotel room, she received a text from her daughter checking to make sure her mom had signed her permission slip for a school trip. It dawned on Brown in that moment that she needed to give herself permission. She writes, “I need a permission slip to stop being so serious and afraid. I need permission to have fun today.”

Have we given ourselves permission to seek out and seize opportunities?

Think of one thing that you want to do, that you need to do but for whatever reason you have not taken the first step forward. Now grab a Post-it note and write yourself a permission slip. Sign in and put it somewhere visible where you can’t help but see it. Follow Brown’s advice, “Set the intention. Follow through.” Leverage relationships with others to help you think through action steps, troubleshoot obstacles, motivate you and celebrate with you each step of your opportunity journey.

Gladwell writes, “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success…with a society that provides opportunities for all.”

The society that provides opportunities for all will not build itself. It will not magically evolve over time without each one of us stepping up and actively contributing and engaging. It is a society that requires all of us to play our part. It will require each of us to deepen our awareness of each other. With greater awareness comes greater action. Greater action spurs progress and opportunity.

I wish each of you a year ahead full of curiosity, authentic relationships and opportunity!