Catalysts for Change : Embracing Devastating Opportunities


The horrors and devastation in Haiti last week are fresh in all of our minds.   The images, stories, and painful details continue to wash over us, prompting a variety of reactions and stirring up ideas and plans and projects.  I’m reminded once again of a quote by my friend Nate Burgos of DesignFeast, which he wrote a few years ago as part of a manifesto.  I’m reprinting it here again, along with a slightly modified reprint of the original article it went with. 

“Disasters make change.They particularly defined 2005, from the Asian Tsunami to Hurricane Katrina.  They galvanized attention and simultaneously provoked a drive for innovation, whose essential value is betterment …. Bottomline: They incite change.  What lessons are afforded by disasters to innovators?   This manifesto aims to provide these essential, and reoccurring, truths that contribute to the quality of not only things, but also people and places. Disasters displace, but what is never displaced is the need to make life better.  This need, whatever the scale and wherever the setting, is shared by all of us, who possess the power to innovate.”

The quote excites me for a very simple reason.   I adore change. Really.   But at times I have a very hard time getting over my own hang-ups to pursue it.   Perhaps this is why I happen to have a very strange reaction when I hear of natural disasters or earth-shaking events such as the earthquake in Haiti last week.   My feelings are usually equal parts sorrow and devastation for those affected, and hope and awe at the new possibilities that have just opened up: a dual-edged sword.

Recharged by disaster not a feeling you can relate to?  Not by any means ignoring the pain, or the anger or loss, but still loving the chance for sweeping change. New levee infrastructures that New Orleans had needed for years, for example.   Or new relationships because old ones are cut off.  Sudden moves of home and family.   The chance to see humans reach out and really connect with each other.  Many friends and family living in Manhattan at the time of 9/11 spoke in awe of the ways people were able to communicate and listen to each other as the dust was settling.   Hearts and minds opened, neighbors hugged, and feelings shared that had never been spoken.

Pain and loss are truly devastating, but they also help us access parts of ourselves that we may never otherwise allow to come to the surface. The sudden death of one of my best friends, over 9 years ago, helped teach me to share my emotions, to empathize better, and to take advantage of what’s in front of me right now.  Live each day fully, and enjoy it for exactly what it is.  I would never have chosen that change, but when it hit, I knew there were to be huge changes as a result, and some of them would be incredibly good, despite the oceans of sorrow.

My point is simple. Plan all you want, but don’t forget to use what gets thrown in your path, regardless of how intense or tragic, and see what you can do with it. Opportunities can come in the oddest of packages, and you never know when they’ll hit.   Decisions made under sudden pressure are often the ones we were hoping to make, but never could quite commit to.   Things tend to get crystalized under extreme pressure, and there are jewels to be found if we’re willing to dig them out.  Use your opportunities.  All of them.