The Space Between: How Gaps Lead to Greatness
There is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in
that’s how the light gets in
Nobel prize winning writer Octavio Paz once described poetry as “the crack, the space between the words.” It is the kind of saying that drives literalists crazy. I mean, who even notices the space between words? And who would give meaning to this emptiness? Of course we already know the answer: the poets do.
But not only poets. The ability to notice “gaps” and see the worth of “empty spaces” is a talent possessed by the greatest achievers – artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs among them.
For years as a soccer coach, I implored my players to “read the field.” It was arguably the most difficult thing to teach. How to dribble at speed around a defender or execute a full volley are difficult skills, but infinitely easier to master than the art of knowing how to see and use the space on the field.
Good players are acutely aware of the locations of the other players at all times, but great players notice the “gaps” and the “spaces.” These empty spaces are the places where the best players make surging and dynamic runs, and where the most brilliant passes are made and received.
The empty space is where all the possibility lies. And it’s where most games are won or lost. Gretzky didn’t skate to where the puck was; he skated to where the puck was going to be. He could see and use space like few others. So can the best quarterbacks and the best receivers. And so it is with so many other top athletes.
Successful entrepreneurs have this same ability. Typically their trajectory begins when they notice a gap. Where some see nothing, they see a space for a better or more engaging product or service. They can find a niche, even if it’s small. Think about companies like Uber and Netflix and Hotwire and Tesla. The founders of these businesses were acutely aware of “what didn’t exist” and recognized the magic of that empty and open space.
So, here is my contention. The finest artists, athletes, entrepreneurs - and dare I say the most innovative thinkers and problem solvers - have fostered an extraordinary skill: the ability to see that which is not there. They quite literally notice things which are invisible. Empty spaces. Gaps. Cracks. Voids. Niches. Hollows. And they see in these places the space to move, to grow, to build, to create, to add, to contribute, to win.
A Zen proverb says “Nothing is everything. Formlessness is form.”
As we think about the kinds of skills and competencies we want to foster in our children, and as we think about the challenges that await them as they brave an ever shifting future, we would be wise to ask them to attend to more than just “things,” but to the “space between things.”
Which is really a way of saying that we ought to promote the idea that empty spaces can be ideal places for hopes and dreams to take root. A crack in the pavement is all a seed needs to burst through and flourish.
While this sort of “vision” seems extraordinary, I do believe we can teach people. It is a matter of “scanning our surroundings” in the right way. Think of a busy parking lot around Christmas time. What are you are looking for as you drive slowly around? Are you not looking for an empty space? For the gap between the parked cars?
Imagine if you applied this same sort of logic to other aspects of life? What if you regularly scanned for the open spaces, even the small cracks, while playing on a football field? Or opening a restaurant? Or improving a product? Or offering a service? See what I am saying? This is the age of Doggy Hotels and Gluten Free Granola Bars. Niche, pardon the pun, is BIG. But you have to find it first.
So, whoever you are, and whatever your environment, fostering the capacity to see the “space between” may well put you on the path to greatness. Of course, the greatest space of all is that which exists inside our own minds. So let us put it to use, and learn to identify those spaces where opportunity beckons, while we ask ourselves, what potential is waiting to be realized? What possibility longs to be born?
Lao Tzu On Empty Space
Thirty spokes meet in a hub.
Where the wheel isn't Is where it is useful.
Hollowed out clay makes a pot.
Where the pot's not Is where its useful.
Cut doors and windows to make a room.
Where the room isn't, there is room for you.
So the profit in what is is in the use of what isn't.
—Taken from Ursula LeGuin's rendition of the Tao Te Ching