Who takes advantage, who creates advantage

This political season brings to mind a particular insight into creativity that I’ve been helping my Duke students make their own for the past few years.

I start by asking them to raise their hands if they like being taken advantage of and of course no one does so we talk about why that is. The general conclusion is something like: “When someone takes advantage of you, you haven’t just been defeated, you’ve been abused or disrespected.”

I’ve been defeated a bunch of times; we all have. It’s pretty clear that the more you compete the more you win and the more you lose. Over the years I’ve found the best course is to learn what I can from my losses and get on with it.

But it still bugs the hell out of me when someone takes advantage of me.

Then I ask my students to consider why it is, when an opportunity comes along, that we say we’re going to take advantage of that opportunity.

Taking advantage of an opportunity doesn’t necessarily mean I got there first so I get to take the best for me and leave the rest for you, but it’s permitted if we agree we can take advantage of that opportunity. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll skew the numbers in my favor, or fix the odds at the table, or carelessly pollute the English River upstream from the Ojibway, but we would call that taking advantage of the opportunity.

I then ask students to discuss what happens when instead of taking advantage of an opportunity we decide will create advantage from the opportunity.

Creating advantage is a predisposition to cultivating it, developing it, growing it, by recruiting the best people you can find to help make the opportunity a best version of itself for all involved and for as many as possible.

Along with entrepreneurs and engineers my classes have always had a large number of student athletes—by the way, one of the best measures of Duke is how it attracts so many extraordinary young men and women who compete at the highest levels as full time students and full time athletes, and after teaching there for 14 years with about 3,600 students/65% student athletes, I assure you it’s so, across all the sports, including football and basketball—and they will point out that taking advantage is exactly what you want to do when you are engaged in an athletic contest.

If you see any weakness in your opponents’ game you must take advantage of it; your victory requires their defeat.

After we understand the nature of that specific application of our concept, I rely on my 30 years of experience either starting companies or assisting others start theirs to help my students fast track their understanding that entrepreneurial success is not about defeating the competition; it’s about avoiding competition. My most successful ventures were those that offered an emerging market segment something they wanted and couldn’t get anywhere else, where we owned the market because in some way we created it or at least shaped it.

We did that by creating advantage for our customers, and for employees, and for my investors, so that they all wanted the success that I wanted; the harder we worked for our dealers during my Cellular One days, the harder they worked for us.

The class discussion concludes with my urging them to be intentional about this, with discipline and practice, to find a predisposition to create advantage from opportunity when they can; we practiced the discipline in my classes to help them get started.

And if I were teaching my classes at Duke this Fall on being the most creative and entrepreneurial version of yourself you can be, I would ask if this view into the differences between taking advantage and creating advantage provides a useful perspective on how we want to consider our political leaders.

When you listen to candidates talk about what they have done with their lives and how they have done it, and what they intend to do with our lives and how they will do it, does it sound like they have been and will be taking advantage of problems and opportunities, or does it seem they are trying to create advantage as we face problems and opportunities?

We’ve had presidential candidates, and not so long ago, both Republican and Democrat, some outsiders and some insiders, who led with creating advantage agendas. Some were of heroic ambition.

How would you evaluate your present presidential preference using this creative principle as a measure of a leader’s intent?

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