Insurmountable Opportunity

I saw a very interesting and moving quote the other day. It was from Helen Keller. “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” Spoken by others, this quote may not have had the same impact on me. When I think of what Helen Keller was born to, it would have been understandable if all she saw were closed doors. Yet she saw only doors opening onto new possibilities.

Don Yaeger wrote a book about greatness and the true characteristics of champions. While the characteristic he was speaking of was inner fire, he led me to think more about how we can re-frame what might look like an insurmountable problem into an opportunity.

Problem or opportunity?
Problem or opportunity?

Nick Springer was an active youth who loved to play hockey. He contracted meningitis while hiking in the mountains. When he woke up from an induced coma he founded himself a quadruple amputee. Undeterred and with family support, he took up sledge hockey by duct taping a stick to the remaining portion of his arm, and recovered his joy of team sports. Friends introduced him to the sport of wheelchair rugby and from there he went on to win gold in the Paralympics in 2008.

The amazing thing is that Nick doesn’t look at what he has lost. He understands that he wouldn’t have what he has or have achieved what he has achieved without facing what most would see as an insurmountable challenge. “If I could trade never getting sick for all the experiences and all the memories, would I do it? There’s no way in hell. I’ve done things in my life I wouldn’t trade for the world.”

In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M in the United States, was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive, but instead he accidentally created a an adhesive with much lower adhesion … something that could stick to paper and be removed without damage. For five years, Silver promoted his invention within 3M, both informally and through seminars, but without much success. In 1974, a colleague of his, Art Fry, who had attended one of Silver’s seminars, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymnbook. The rest is history. It took a second person who had no attachment to the original solution to take a “failure” and turn it into a multi-billion dollar success.

Does some form of this principle apply to us at work as well?

When a customer presents a complaint to us, is it because we are not giving the customer what he wants, or is it because they are looking for more? Is a concern actually an opportunity to explore an expanded solution? Do we get too hung up with fixing the problem that we miss the opportunity that might be found by stopping and asking a few more questions? And by finding a solution to the customer’s true needs do we actually end up with a raving fan instead of a customer?

Problem or Opportunity?
Problem or Opportunity?

As a leader, we may be faced with a situation where a member of our team is dissatisfied with their position or their pay. As a result that person may be at risk of leaving the organization, they may be projecting a degree of negativity into the rest of the team, perhaps their job performance suffers, or some other problem. If we deal with this as a problem we are dealing with the negativity at play, and psychology suggests that when we address such negativity we actually may reinforce the behaviour we would like to adjust.

What if we re-framed this as an opportunity? Is there an opportunity to discuss their career desires and help them build a solid plan to get there? Is there an opportunity to give them new challenges and in the process solve a resourcing issue? Perhaps there are some underlying personal stresses that are causing this person to look for additional financial resources and by having a compassionate discussion we can guide that person towards other forms of aid. Now we are looking at bringing a positive energy to the forefront!

Maybe we can’t transform all problems into opportunities. But what’s wrong with approaching each one as if we can? At the very least it shifts our own thought process into the positive, and if we are working with others they are going to see that in us. But in the bet case scenario we may come up with a magical shift and end up with a treasure of sorts!

How about you? Do you have any stories of insurmountable opportunities?

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Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

11 thoughts on “Insurmountable Opportunity

  1. This post really has me thinking. In fund development in the non profit sector, many people fear donor complaints. At an organization I used to work for, we saw them as an opportunity to call them up, get to know them better and understand where they were coming from. Sometimes they would still withdraw their support but other times it was discovered that there was a simple misunderstanding, or the conversation led to other things they could get involved with or assist us with, etc

    1. Thanks for this thought Diana. Good sales people often use a firm of this principle as well. They know the sooner they can get a customer to say no, the sooner they can ask why and what it will take for them to say yes.

  2. In a situation where a customer or patient has a complaint simply asK “What more can we do for you? You want to find a solution to the problem but the opportunity lies in asking what services do you need that we can provide now or develop to benefit future consumers.

  3. Great post, I’ve worked in toxic environments where the staff’s negativity breeds more negativity. The ego feeds on pain and the cycle is hard to break. I try and approach all negative situations with a positive solution, it’s not always easy or possible but definitely worth trying 🙂

  4. Great post Ian — I tried commenting yesterday but see it was lost! (working on my iPad and sometimes, WP doesnt’ cooperate.)

    I believe that when I reframe something by changing my glasses — I see opportunity in every problem — if only the opportunity to see it differently and thus find a different path.

  5. There is actually a movement that questions the medical model of grief (which aims at getting a person back to ‘normal’) and instead uses a transformative model. This model accepts that the previous ‘normal’ has actually gone and uses the crisis as an opportunity of focusing on their changed world and transforming themselves into their new self. Whilst the model is based on bereavement, I feel it can be used for other losses and crises too. For example on being left alone, after a while of grieving my loss of companionship, I began focussing on living alone and embracing it. A world of opportunities opened up to me and I wrote about that in my blog. One reader commented that after her divorce she had been searching for another partner (unsuccessfully) for seven years. That was her ‘normal’, being married. That was what she was trying to get back. She never once contemplated facing living alone. She said that reading my post and seeing aloneness as an opportunity lifted a heavy burden from her shoulders.

    This was an insightful post and especially how you have applied this to the work environment. I could learn a lesson there 🙂

    1. Thanks for this contribution Elizabeth. I hadn’t thought of applying this reframing concept to something as critical as grief but I can see the parallels! Something more to examine!

      1. ‘Grief’ is a hugely interesting topic when you start applying it to any loss (job, promotion, pay cut, self-esteem). So much of the feelings associated with those losses suddenly make sense.

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