Taking Advantage of Life’s (Few and Far Between) Inflection Points

A new book about the wit and wisdom of Harvard Business School Professor Howard Stevenson, written by longtime friend Eric C. Sinoway, examines life's "inflection points" and how to use them to best advantage.

Editor's note. Although he doesn't officially hold the title, Howard H. Stevenson is considered the father of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School. After all, he invented the definition most in use today: "Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled." A new book explains Stevenson's wit and wisdom from the view of a former student and lifelong friend, Eric C. Sinoway, president of Axcess Worldwid in New York.

This excerpt from Howard's Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life's Work, published this week, discusses how one should grasp those few "inflection points" that present themselves to change our lives—if we recognize the opportunity.

Howard Stevenson is the Sarofim-Rock Professor of Business Administration.

Slingshot Round the Moon

From Howard's Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life's Work

By Eric C. Sinoway

Howard's Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life's WorkOne day not long after I first started working at Harvard, Howard and I were walking across the campus toward the Charles River. It was the kind of early April day that, while still chilly, held the promise of frostless mornings and slowly budding trees. The weather seemed to be hanging on a pinpoint, waiting for a nudge that would push it from winter to spring.

I loved these "walking meetings," which we had begun when I was a grad student and continued through our years of working together at the university. While we sometimes had a specific piece of business to discuss, more often we had no agenda. We just talked about whatever was on our minds, from the psychological to the philosophical to the entrepreneurial. It became an escape from the everyday; a bit of intellectual therapy for both of us. Since Howard was then one of the most senior administrators at Harvard, I never had to explain to colleagues or bosses why I regularly took time to meet with him.

On this particular morning I was telling Howard about my friend Michelle, whose boss had unexpectedly announced her retirement. Michelle is an extraordinarily creative and hard¬working woman who was a few years behind me at college. Her boss, the head of their department, had been a mentor and champion throughout Michelle's time at the company. Michelle had worked for this boss for almost ten years and credited the woman's support and wise counsel for her own continuous career progress.

Despite Michelle's success, she felt that her future was uncertain now that her professional champion was departing. It was unclear whether her boss had retired of her own volition or had been forced out—or something in between. All Michelle knew was that on an otherwise unremarkable Friday morning, she had been told that her boss was leaving in a few weeks and that the company was "reconsidering the entire department's role and structure."

Normally decisive and confident, Michelle was caught off guard. She felt frozen, with no idea how long the organization's review process would take, how extensive it might be, or what it might lead to for her. For the first time in her career, she didn't know what to do.

As I shared the story with Howard, a bewildered look crept over his face.

Michelle's plan, I explained to him, was to keep her head down and wait to see how the department might be reshaped. After she learned what opportunities would be presented to her as part of the potential reorganization, she would decide what to do next. After all, at this point she didn't know if she'd be "downsized," "realigned" into a job with less authority, "morphed" into a different professional path at the company—or even "supersized" with a promotion. What she did know was that the economy was weak and she had invested ten years at the company, so she was hoping for the best.

When I finished the story, Howard shook his head, kicked a pinecone out of his path, and grumbled, "Wasting a good opportunity."

"Her problem is that no one has clarified what her options might be," I explained.

Howard stopped and gently poked me in the chest, "No. Her problem is that she doesn't recognize the opportunity staring her in the face."

It was classic Howard, looking at the world from a unique perspective: where almost everyone else would see a problem, he sensed an opportunity; where most people might have en¬dorsed Michelle's "sit tight" approach, he saw reason for thoughtful action.

"She's waiting for someone to decide her fate for her," Howard remarked. "She doesn't realize that she's being given a gift."

"What kind of gift?"

"An inflection point," he said. "In Michelle's case, it's coming at a moment in time when the structures are removed and the rules are suspended. A moment in which she can reflect in¬wardly about what she wants, and then act to redefine the situation in such a way as to help her accomplish it."

Howard motioned for me to sit on a bench with him under a huge oak tree.

"Inflection points change the way we think about things. They present an opportunity that only occurs periodically. And they possess a kind of latent motivational en¬ergy, which, when recognized and harnessed, can unleash potential that one wouldn't seize otherwise."

"'Latent motivational energy'?" I'd teased Howard for years that he had a language all his own—"Howard-speak"—that people didn't always understand. "Latent motivational energy" was quintessential Howard-speak, and when I called him on it, he laughed.

"All right, all right," he said. "How's this? Latent motivational energy is another way of describing a situation's potential to spur you into action, when you wouldn't have acted before."

"In even plainer English," I suggested, "it's a much-needed kick in the ass."

Howard chuckled and said, "A kick that can provide a boost of career momentum."

He paused, then gave me a wink as he thought of just the right way to illustrate his point. "You're too young to remember this," he began, "but in the early 1970s the Apollo 13 spacecraft was midway between Earth and the moon when an air tank exploded and almost wrecked the command module. There wasn't enough fuel to stop its momentum and turn back for Earth. So the crew decided to let the moon's gravity do the work for them. Moving faster and faster, they orbited the moon once, used a single powerful burst of the engine to add to the momentum gravity provided, and, like a stone in a slingshot, zoomed back to Earth. They got home because they used the lunar orbit as an inflection point to change their trajectory and add the energy boost they needed."

"I remember that scene in the movie Apollo 13," I said. "It was riveting because you knew the slightest mistake would send them out into deep space."

Howard smiled. "Here on Earth, the opportunity provided by an inflection point is a lot easier to overlook or ignore—until the window for action passes. As a result, most people are like Michelle: they won't realize they're at an inflection point until it has passed. And if they do realize it, they'll often just react to it without constructive thought. They see inflection points as something that happens to them, something they can only respond to defensively. Like passive observers in their own lives.

"Very few people see inflection points as the opportunities they often are: catalysts for changing their lives; moments when a person can modify the trajectory he or she is on and redirect it in a more desirable direction," he continued. "Whether it's a new job, a change in a relationship, or something else, an inflection point is one of those periodic windows of opportunity when a person can pause, reflect, and ask: 'Self, do I want to continue on this path or is now the moment to change direction?'"

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    This is a very thought and action-provoking article.
    All of us are provided by nature occasions and moments when changes can be brought about in our life. We need to grab such subtle opportunities which lead to positivity and progress. This is a process which many fail to follow thereby missing the benefits which would accrue. A state of
    conscious watchfulness is what we need to develop.
    Fully alert and eager to grow people catch the inflection points for their progress.
    We need to understand our latent motivational energy
    which boosts us into actioned performance. Many a time, we are made aware of it by others whose suggestions/advices be examined for adoption after using our gut and commonsense.
    • Martin Koningen
    • Director, MAN Nederland Dealer bv
    How nice to read, and while reading I suddenly understand that I'm right now at an inflection point myself. I will certainly purchase the book, let's see if it can help me taking best out of it!


    Martin Koningen
    AMP 179
    • jwk
    • ceo, Arden Taylor Consulting
    The point that resonates with me as I read this piece - change.

    I believe that in order for change to occur you need a stimulus; whether that stimulus is hope-driven or most times pain-driven. The second phase is the how; developing the tools to change. And lastly, maintaining the change, which is probably the hardest phase - through discipline.

    Jean de la Fontaine, French writer and poet who lived in the 1600's said, "A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it."
    • Seena Sharp
    • Executive Director and Author, Sharp Market Intelligence
    This concept of inflection points also refers to companies. I refer to it as unexpected or unforeseen changes in the marketplace.

    Those companies that don't recognize or resist unexpected change also see it as happening TO them. This is their opportunity to move before their competitors, to satisfy customer's changing wants/needs (even if the customer can't articulate it.)

    In business, change is a synonym for opportunity....if you're open to it. If not, another company will seize the opportunity; it doesn't disappear.
    • Phillip Gelman
    • Principal, MoneyInTheTill.com
    I recall a story told me by one of my clients about the regional sales team of a major vendor. It appears that the regional sales manager had died suddenly. The sales force waited passively for Management to decide who to promote to the open job. The most junior salesman ASKED for the job and got it. Take action when you can and don't wait for someone else to decide how you will live your life.
    • Jack Slavinski
    • SVP, Technology Consulting
    Great perspective and critical personal growth enabling context. I've personally been in quite a few of these situations through my career and my belief is that I definitely grew and succeeded when I looked at it opportunistically. This topic is an important one to coach and mentor others with not only as business leaders, but also as parents, and start to infuse our children with this spirit and attitude at an early age.
    • Daljit Mirchandani
    • Managing Trustee, Gyan Prakash Foundation
    The concept of identifying the inflection point in my professional career came handy when I turned into a Social Entrepreneur . The challenge was to pursue the opportunity for development of an asset light frugal and scalable model of educating for the large population of under priviligeged children attending Government schools in India . The true challenge is the pursuit of this opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.
    Gyan Prakash Foundation
    • Kuldip Balasia
    • VP - Corp. Affairs, rasoi Group
    Really nice....gives one food for thought and to think in different direction
    • Nigam Raj Adhikari
    • Head, Nepal Operations, Sanofi
    A totally new way of looking at the things. I will definitely read this book. I am sure, this will help me identify the inflecting opportunities.
    • Anthony Santiago
    • Principal, AES Consulting & Business Services LLC
    Great article. These inflection points provide us with the opportunity to do something very different in our lives and in many ways, give us the necessary courage we sometimes need. We are given the opportunity to really think about what moves us, our passions, and don't often have these opportunities when we are head down, spending every waking moment doing the job right in front of us.

    Many thanks for putting this in words that we can all relate to and appreciate.

    Tony Santiago
    • Anonymous
    it is an excellent article which puts your thinking cap on.
    i would share this with my team members.


    • Jonathan Ager
    • Executive Director, Josephs Dreams
    What a great read! This book has given me a new insight to transition through this inflection point. After thirty years of marriage, owning four successful businesses. I was able to appreciate the mentoring information this book has given me.
    • shivram krishnan
    • Prof& HOD
    Adversity is often an opportunity. The best is brought out in a doctor who has to save a patient when the least resources are available. Adversities have brought out some great Jugaad the world over. How not to get overwhelmed by such times, is the question.
    • Alex Okounev
    • Founder, The Ormond Group
    I had what I considered a truly distinct pleasure meeting Howard on a number of occasions as I was applying to HBS back in 2003-2004. During our first meeting in Boston, in his office to be exact, and each subsequent time when we would briefly reconnect around the country, I was not only humbled but incredibly intrigued by his wisdom, advice and sheer power of his thinking. A brilliant man, a fantastic academic, a true professional and a thinktank in his own right. The book is a must-have.
    • Hemant Kumar
    • Founder, Healthuziastic
    I was recently at an inflection point and took a rather bold decision, which will change my trajectory significantly one way or the other.
    The thing that helped me recognize the inflection point was because I was keenly looking out for such a situation and I took action at the first possible point.
    I guess, we need to constantly look for vectors that can produce big change.
    • Dr. Mason Oghenejobo
    • Strategy and Portfolio Adviser, Seplat Petroleum Development Co. PLC, Lagos. Nigeria.
    Inflection points occur at the personal, organizational and societal levels. From my experience, I would argue that there are two types of inflection points - those that occur in a valley state (for example, when you have invested a great deal - maybe all you have and you are expecting a harvest but there are no returns; rather the investment turns southward with a tendency of throwing you deeper into debts, and those that occur at a plateau state - when things have been going well, you expect an improvement but suddenly things turn downwards. Inflection points that occur in valley states can be very devastating because you usually don't have the absorption (stay) power or agility or momentum to turn things up. In such cases, you require support groups - family, friends, business partners etc, to achieve a turn around. On the other hand, plateau state inflection points are easier to handle because the incumbent usually still has absorptio
    n power and some agility left as part of the momentum generated whilst moving to the plateau state. Yes, plateau state inflection points can become opportunities if properly handled. Overall, I would argue from my experience that continuous development and improvement of our personal potential and power (through, for example, continuous education, financial savings, personal/business networks, righteous living) can help us harness and benefit from the inflection points that life throws at us.