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How often do you see the opportunity in every difficulty?


Today is September 6 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you see the opportunity in every difficulty?” People who navigate the chaos deal with difficulty different than others. They realize challenges are a part of life. Instead of letting an obstacle stop their forward progress, they find the opportunity in every difficulty. One historical example of this occurred the night of April 29, 1849, when The Hannah, a brig transporting immigrants fleeing the famine in Ireland, sank in the Gulf of Lawrence. Encountering heavy winds, the brig struck an iceberg punching a hole in the hull.


Captain Curry Shaw, along with his first and second officers, fled in the only lifeboat leaving the passengers to fend for themselves. To escape the sinking Hannah the remaining crewmen helped the passengers onto an ice floe next to the bow. The passengers viewed the very object that caused their tragic event as a potential life-saving strategy. They climbed onto the ice floe and waited for help to arrive. The Nicaragua under the command of Captain William Marshall appeared the next day and rescued the 127 survivors.


An example when people failed to viewed opportunity amidst a difficulty occurred 63 years later. On April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg in the north Atlantic and sunk in less than three hours leaving just 705 survivors from its 2,200 passengers and crew. While the Titanic’s passengers and crew used 16 lifeboats and waited for the Carpathia to rescue them they ultimately failed to utilize the iceberg as a mean of survival like those from The Hannah decades earlier. As Tony McCaffrey and Jim Pearson wrote in the December 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review “imagine how many more might have lived if crew members had thought of the iceberg as not just the cause of the disaster but a life-saving solution.”


These two historical events exemplify the quote “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” The quote, interestingly enough, is often wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill. An earlier point of origin for this quote comes from a 1919 speech by Bertram Carr who was the Mayor of Carlisle, England. Carr addressed “The Fifty-First Annual Co-operative Congress”, a gathering inspired by social reformers and the cooperative movement and said “The past history of an old walled city such as this leaves its legacy of ideas antiquated and out of date. These, as expressed in tangible form, are an embarrassment, and hinder the wheels of progress, but we view these, I hope, in the spirit of the optimist to whom every difficulty is an opportunity, and not as the pessimist, to whom every opportunity presents some difficulty.”


Writing in Inc. in July 2015, Jayson Demers wrote “You're always going to have problems in your life, whether they come up as personal issues, professional challenges, or flat-out bad luck that ruins your day. If you can train your mind to view these problems as opportunities for growth, you'll become far more adept at handling them quickly, efficiently, and with less stress.” One of the reasons why people choose to avoid seeing opportunities in each difficulty is the necessity to leave one’s comfort zone.


As Dr. Stephen Joseph wrote in a November 5, 2016, Psychology Today article “The truth is that staying in your comfort zone—particularly when you do so out of fear—is not always exactly comfortable.” When you avoid challenges, and intentionally avoid seeing opportunities in each difficulty, you then prevent yourself from having a new experience to learn about yourself. “To lead an authentic life,” Joseph suggested, “we need to take on new challenges that stretch us and give us more opportunities to be ourselves. It is not that the authentic person does not feel the same fear; rather, they are simply more willing to face their fear.”


Those who navigate the chaos remain true to their authentic self and seldom allow difficulties along their path limit where and how they see opportunities. Translating dreams into reality requires you to remain open to new experiences and cherish the challenges of learning about yourself. Amanda Kahlow is one example of someone who finds the opportunity in each difficulty. Kahlow is the founder, executive chairman and chief strategy officer of 6sense, an account-based orchestration platform. Aside from her role in 6sense, she is committed to inspiring women and girls to achieve their dreams. So, on top of her involvement as a board member of Girl Rising, Amanda launched a retreat in 2019 for women CMOs, the Empowered CMO Network, where like-minded women come together to share ideas and inspire others. She dubs herself a passionate, positive, spiritual warrior for women and girls, and has a mission to prove that educating women is the number one solution of our time, not the number one problem.


What is the strategy Kahlow used to navigate her life and career path? As she noted in a February 12, 2019, Forbes interview “I’ve always seen problems as opportunities — in fact, I look for them. Uncovering the real problem is the hard part, but solving it is easy.” Kahlow’s strategy goes beyond today’s reflection point of finding opportunities within difficulties as she seeks out problems, issues, or difficulties. Doing so allows her to create a solution, which in her mind, is far easier to do compared to identifying the difficulty. Decades before Kahlow sought out opportunities from difficulty, George de Mestral did so and ended up revolutionizing clothing.


Annoyed with burs and stickers always getting attached to his socks and to his dog, Swiss engineer George de Mestral decided after a hike in the Alps to look at the burs in his socks under the microscope to find out why they stuck so well. What he found is the tiny hooks in the burs that were allowing them to get attached to loop weave of fabric and the dog’s fur. This near-constant annoyance led to his invention of Velcro. It took Mestral decades to manufacture, perfect and distribute his product, but by the time astronauts were using it to get in and out of space suits, Velcro become a household name. It is important to note that finding the opportunity within his difficulty required George de Mestral to practice grit, determination, and discipline over many years.


If you are looking for the opportunity in a difficulty, be sure to remind yourself that doing so could take years and perhaps even decades. As mentioned in another Navigate the Chaos series post, there is no such thing as an overnight success. If you are having trouble finding opportunity in every difficulty you should assess your self-awareness to better understand why that is. Your personal growth and professional development will only grow when you are able to leverage difficulties into opportunities. If you want to grow as a professional you will have to grow as a person.

  • How often do you see the opportunity in every difficulty?

  • If you are not seeing opportunity in difficulty why do you think that is?

  • Do you have any role models who see opportunity in difficulty?

  • Who or what is holding you back from seeing opportunity in difficulty?

  • Have you considered the role fear plays in allowing you to see opportunity in difficulty?

  • How often are you afraid of leaving your comfort zone?

  • How often do you think about the connection between staying in your comfort zone and being unable to fine opportunity amidst difficulty?