Every time a person hears an old adage, such as the one I used it the title of this post, his/her natural scepticism tends to shake it off as an obsolete piece of rambling from a bygone era.
Deference for time-tested wisdom only arises when a person experiences its effects first hand.
There is one noteworthy incident from my life in recent times that reinforced my belief that every difficulty presents a hidden opportunity, provided you search for it.
If you know me well enough, you probably would know I’ve published a few books – 3 to be precise. The first was a short story collection and the other two are books that help candidates prepare for a professional certification exam.
A little over two years ago, I had just received my PMP Certification. For the uninitiated – this is arguably the most globally lauded project management certification today (goddamn tough one to crack too– it’s not like a scrum certification you can breeze through with a weekend’s reading). The total cost of the exam and the tuition fee is close to ₹50,000 (US$ 555 + training costs that come to approx. ₹12,500). Fail the exam and all that money goes down the drain. Pass it, and most employer organisations will gladly reimburse you that entire fee – the credentials earn bragging rights for the organisation to showcase their project managers’ ability after all.
Towards the end of 2014, I had just finished 4 overseas projects in Africa and was back in my base location. I was going through a lean period and that’s when I decided to go for the certification. The certification, after all, directly supplemented my role and I was a perfect candidate for it. The business unit head I had worked under in Africa gave me the thumbs-up and the necessary approval. Unfortunately, I had to change my unit shortly and came under a new hierarchy. Nevertheless, my new immediate superior gave me his nod for the certification too, stating my new unit head would approve it, without any qualms.
After about 5 weeks of high-intensity preparation, I cleared the exam.
The crisis came when I had to get the certification costs reimbursed – the new unit head refused to do it and wouldn’t even reply to me. A loophole in the policy was spotted and I had become a victim of it. My immediate superior called me on the phone and the poor man apologised profusely (he had given his consent after all and this turn of events was unexpected). Half a dozen emails and calls of mine fell on deaf ears. The secretary called and said there was a budget shortage. After a while, I realised I was fighting for a lost cause and let it go.
At that point in time, I was practically living from hand to mouth. I had spent a large chunk of money to publish my first book and I was paying off a hefty student loan EMI since I had completed my overseas MBA only a year earlier. I had paid the PMP exam fee using a credit card anticipating a reimbursement right in time to pay off my card dues.
Was I upset? You bet I was! It was a substantial amount of money I had to squeeze out from my pocket unexpectedly.
Rather messed up. Don’t you think? So where was the opportunity, you’d ask.
A few months before I started preparing for the afore-mentioned certification, I had published ‘Kaleidoscopic Lives’ using a publishing firm based in Delhi. It was a book I had dreamed of writing for years and when it materialised I was gung-ho about it! But reality smacked me across the face when I realised I was duped by my publisher. That experience made me swear to never work with a small-time Indian publisher again.
In 2015, I was sitting and wondering how it went all wrong. My first outing as an author was a disappointment, despite my best efforts. And to top that, I had just splurged on a professional certification when I could least afford it.
That’s when it struck me that the two above experiences had left me with something useful too! “No failure, only feedback” – I remembered the words of my bald professor Nick Bate.
The sore experience with my first publisher led me to explore other options and I had learned practically everything about direct publishing through Amazon’s Kindle platform. The knowledge acquired would be invaluable were I to publish a second book.
Secondly, I had attained a valuable certification that thousands aspire for. I was already advising numerous people over the phone about the exam – at that time only four persons from my class of fifty who attended training had appeared and passed the exam. I personally knew many who had failed (including an acquaintance who fumbled twice).
A major issue faced by exam takers was how to approach the exam. They were often confused on what study materials to use, how to study, what to practice, how to schedule their day etc. It was the lack of a structured approach that spelt doom for many of them often.
I started joining the dots.
I had a fair amount of skill in writing. I had acquired some niche knowledge on a subject and knew how to go about preparing for its challenging exam. And I had a fair idea of indie publishing too! After talking with an author friend, an Aussie lady, I was convinced I had a golden opportunity and decided to put my skills to better use.
I burned the midnight oil and put in every free minute focussing on that one goal.
Months later, I launched my first book on the PMP Exam – ‘How to be a PMP Ace in 30 Days’, a value for money mini-guide for those who were clueless on how to approach the exam. The book didn’t take off immediately but gained ground slowly.
A year later I followed up that book with a question bank on the same subject and published it just a couple of weeks before I took my break from work for my wedding.
So what happened eventually?j
There were a lot of things that transpired in between, but to cut the story short – the tides started to turn in my favour.
Exam aspirants realised the value of those two books and started buying them. Some good word of mouth reviews helped. Meanwhile, I had gained some exposure on the popular website called Quora after responding to numerous questions on the exam topic, and at one point had become the #1 writer on the PMP topic too.
This February, 2 years since the time I obtained that certification, my book revenues finally touched what I had invested in the exam!
If somebody checks the bestselling list of PMP books on the largest e-tail bookstore called Amazon today, that person will come across a little-known author’s rather unassuming books featuring right next to the biggest books in PMP training – books written by Project Management stalwarts such as the late Rita Mulcahy, Jennifer Greene, Andy Crowe, Christopher Scordo and Aaron Ellis.
While every other name in that list runs a mini industry of their own, that little-known author still works at that same place he was working in before he turned author, and in his spare time, happily types away the occasional blog, like the one you’re reading now.
Looking back at that incident from two years ago, none of this would’ve happened if that unit head had simply approved my claim upfront as was expected. Life perhaps would’ve moved on eventless.
I never met that unit head ever and I moved to a different unit before long.
But, if I ever run in to that unit head someday, I’d introduce myself to him and tell him, “Thank you Mr. X! It is because of you that I published two bestsellers on Amazon, became a top writer on Quora, started commanding a following, and started earning a decent royalty from my writing.
He might ask with a puzzled look on his face, “Err, who are you again and what did I do?”
I’ll reply, “Oh, you wouldn’t remember my name; doesn’t matter really.
I’m just a guy who’s reimbursement claim you rejected a couple of years ago.
And that….really turned things around for me.”