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When Opportunity Lies at the Bottom of a Dirty Blue Trash Can

In the small, upstate New York town I grew up in, Thursday was recycling day.

Every Wednesday night, the town folk would collect all their bottles and cans from around the house to put on the curb in blue recycling bins, to be picked up the following day.

Dirty and cracked by years of abuse from weather and indifferent garbage collectors, the blue bins were, to most people, nothing more than an eyesore in our quaint town.

Yet to me, a 12-year-old boy of humble beginnings, never without necessities but often without luxuries, those blue bins represented opportunity.

Every Thursday, I’d wake up at four-thirty in the morning, get dressed, and head out with a pocket full of garbage bags.

My town was thirty minutes from the nearest grocery store, and most people were too lazy to make the half-hour drive to return their bottles and cans for the five-cent deposit.

Our brains work differently as children. We don’t consider what other people think.

We know what we don’t like and think of ways to fix those things without regard to outside judgment, criticism, or questions.

In my 12-year-old brain, every bottle and can was a little piece of opportunity.

Opportunity to NOT be the poor kid in the neighborhood. We forget, as adults, that opportunities are made of our own doing; opportunities are never given.

As a small-town 12-year-old, I saw the incredible opportunity in a couple of extra dollars.

I saw myself as industrious and entrepreneurial. The disapproving looks I received through the blinds of my neighbors’ windows told a different story.

But at twelve, I didn’t care. I saw opportunity at the bottom of every dirty, sticky, broken blue plastic bin.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

As the weeks passed, I began to see patterns. I knew who the drinkers were and who put their cans and bottles back in the cartons.

This made my stops at certain houses much quicker. I started to ride my bike through the neighborhoods after school just to plot out my course, so I could cover more ground on Recycling Day.

On a good day, I might collect three to four garbage bags full of bottles.

Dragging the full plastic bags behind took too much time, so I paid a friend a dollar for his old toy wagon, and collection numbers went even higher.

I was making twenty dollars a week at the height of my bottle-collecting career. At five cents a bottle, that’s 400 bottles a morning.

A twelve-year-old with twenty dollars in his pocket isn’t that impressive these days. But in 1994, in my small town, I was rich.

Do you think my friends made fun of my career when I bought them all bubble gum and baseball cards? Hell, no.

A couple of them even offered to go into business with me, and for a few months in the spring of 1994, I franchised my bottle collection business into a few neighborhoods I didn’t have time to reach on my own.

I saw opportunity at the bottom of a blue recycling bin, and what started as a way to make some pocket money turned into a business.

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No Exit for this Entrepreneur

After eight months of fat pockets and growing revenues, my neighbors began to catch on to what I was doing.

Blue bins in front of houses I used to bank on for large stashes of bottles began to turn up empty and, just like that, my first career ended.

It didn’t help that I also had competition: an adult in town figured out my game and began collecting bottles himself.

He had a car.

Game over.

Here’s the rub on opportunity:

Opportunities are made, not given . . . and often beget more opportunity.

By this time, I had gotten a taste of success and had already started another business. I had bought so many baseball cards with my bottle earnings that I began hustling them to friends and schoolmates for a profit.

If I had been self-conscious, I wouldn’t have been a kid walking cold streets at four-thirty in the morning collecting garbage.

I would have allowed public perception to stop me from creating income where it hadn’t been before.

How many future opportunities would I have missed?

A lot, I’m going to guess.

The Rub

I’m sharing this story with you because it’s one of the first stories I want to share with my son when he’s old enough to understand.

Don’t buy into this “You only get one opportunity” nonsense.

You get as many opportunities as you make for yourself.

“Opportunity” isn’t always sexy or popular. But “Success” has a way of washing clean the dirt of humble beginnings.

My son may never pick bottles from recycling bins for cash (I hope his opportunities involve fewer chances of bacterial infection).

But I know that, for an opportunity to be satisfying, he’ll have to make it himself.

Don’t romanticize opportunity.

We can’t wrap every opportunity in a nice neat bow and take it home to Mom.

In my case, opportunity was waiting at the bottom of a dirty blue recycling bin.

I just had to reach down inside and take it.

I hope you’ll do the same.

Yours in insurance,


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