Years ago, when I was still in college and Massachusetts was still a colony, Barry Manilow came to talk to my classmates and me in our chilly Boston classroom. Manilow, who for all his lack of street cred has had a blockbuster career in what used to be called the music biz, shared business and career advice interspersed with commercial breaks: jingles he had written ("Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there"/"I am stuck on Band-Aid [Brand] 'cuz Band-aid's stuck on me") that he now engagingly sang for us at the piano.

As far as his business advice, I clicked with one line in particular: "If someone asks you if you can do something, say 'absolutely!' Then scramble like hell to figure out how to do it before it's time to start the gig."

At the time, and at different times in later years, I found this to be useful advice in business. It's along the lines of what, these many years later, Seth Godin preaches with his "Ship It" mantra, and it's important-important because specific opportunities tend to knock only once or twice, and when you respond to opportunities with "that's not my bag, baby!" you take the risk that the door you don't walk through may never be open again. So it may be better to be open to opportunity and learn all you can before (and, if necessary, on) the job, or to collaborate with others who can bring their expert resources to bear, along with yours, on the issue.

But there's a point in the growth of a business career (or of a brand, or of an organization) at which Mr. Manilow's advice, which on the surface sounds so expansive, paradoxically becomes limiting. Because if you continue over the years to refuse to focus, you ultimately restrict your chance to grow as a company, as a brand, as a leader. If you can't sustain your own confidence in a single (and, with luck, singular) vision enough to hone, develop, and sell that vision to the world, your brand will never be the business equivalent of Miles or Dylan. You'll always, to continue the music metaphor, remain the cheerful sideman or woman, ready to play in all styles, as long as the money is good.

So in the end, I think I come right down on the fence (ouch!) on this one. The value of Manilow's advice-to try everything, to accept every opportunity and then work like hell to live up to what is required-fluctuates in value over the course of a career. At the beginning of, or at a lull in, your career, it is phenomenally valuable to be open to everything that comes your way. (Ditto for the beginning of a business venture and during a business plateau.) And be especially open to those opportunities that can be thought of as "better-than-lottery tickets": things with a truly unlimited, though unlikely, payoff.

But be careful, because a time will come in the growth of your career, business, or brand when Mr. Manilow's advice, if you continue to follow it, can limit you and drag you down. Once you've found your direction, it's time to focus as if your life depends on it. The life of your business, actually, might.

Published on: May 12, 2015