When my dad was in basic training for the army, every time they’d take a break, someone would yell out: Smoke ’em if ya got ’em!
(This was in the early 1950s, when it was assumed that the only reason someone wouldn’t smoke during a short break was because they’d run out of cigarettes!)
At the end of the 15 minutes (or however long the break lasted), it was back to basic training. The window of opportunity for cigarettes was officially closed, whether or not you’d smoked.
Although I’ve never been a smoker and definitely don’t encourage the habit, this line does make a great metaphor for other areas of life. I see it as a reminder to use the talents, skills, and opportunities available to you while you have the chance.
(By the way, if you’re put off by a military/smoking metaphor, you can think of this in terms of a business that allots its departments a “use-it-or-lose-it” budget — money that has to be spent before the end of the year, otherwise it won’t be accessible at all.)
Whatever metaphor you choose to think about, this principle can apply to many situations in life.
For instance, a world-class athlete (or potentially world-class athlete) might have only 10-20 years during which their body is capable of performing at an elite level. (The window is much smaller for some athletes, such as Olympic-caliber gymnasts, who seem to peak in their mid to late teens — and are generally “washed up” by their early to mid 20s.)
But you don’t need to have Olympic aspirations to experience this phenomenon. In everyday life, opportunities often present themselves for a limited time only. For instance:
- A job offer might be made…but then rescinded (or offered to someone else) if not accepted within a specified time frame.
- Romantic possibilities might present themselves…only to slip away if not pursued.
- You might have a flash of inspiration (such as an idea for a book, movie, business, invention, or other creative project)…but never follow through on it.
To summarize the lesson here in a five-word cliché: Strike while the iron’s hot! (Or, as Steve Winwood sang, “While you see a chance, take it.”) Because if you don’t, oftentimes that chance will disappear, the parade will pass you by, the window will close, the iron will cool off.
(How’s that for a parade of depressing clichés?!)
You might experience this as the waning of enthusiasm. Perhaps an idea that you were once passionate about no longer excites you — or at least not enough to actually follow through on it. You might find that you’ve moved on, you’re in a different place in your life, or you’ve lost the thread of a long-neglected idea.
Sometimes the proverbial window closes permanently, but sometimes it doesn’t! Sometimes you still could follow through on an opportunity or inspiration, but for one reason or another (or for no good reason at all), you just don’t. And that, I feel, is the even bigger tragedy.
This is where exciting possibilities enter the realm of the “would-bes”:
- Would-be books that never make it past the notes-and-ideas stage.
- Would-be services and contributions that never make it out into the world.
- Would-be creative expressions that never get expressed.
- Would-be realities that never get realized.
The good news, however, is that many cooled-off sparks can be reignited. Sometimes, giving an old idea or project your renewed attention can rekindle your enthusiasm for it. You might even find that the time away has given you a valuable perspective, new inspiration, or increased determination not to let the possibility languish any longer.
Other times, however, you might find that certain windows shut permanently:
- Someone else gets the same idea…and actually follows through on it.
- Changes in technology (or fashions or the general zeitgeist) render your once-cutting-edge idea passé.
- That wonderful person you had a first date with (but, for no good reason, never contacted again) has the audacity to go off and marry someone else.
But even these seemingly wasted chances can help you in the long run. If nothing else, they serve as reminders to pursue inspiring opportunities that present themselves in the future. And rest assured, they will present themselves! You will get new ideas, offers, and opportunities.
And this time around, you’ll be ready for them! You’ll pursue your passions. You’ll follow up on those leads. You’ll act on those flashes of inspiration.
You’ll remember that while some opportunities are always available, others aren’t — which makes it that much more important that you pursue them while you still can.
Or, as they used to say during my dad’s army breaks, Smoke ’em if ya got ’em!
Have you ever had the window shut on an opportunity that you didn’t follow through on…but wish you had? Is there any chance of rekindling that spark now? If not, what new opportunities ARE present in your life right now — and how will you act upon them?