3 Problems That Became Opportunities to Change the World
You may be tempted to think that when you reach a certain level, whether that’s in wealth, enlightenment or power, that your problems go away. If only you could get through this round of venture capital. If only you were wealthy enough to be the investor. If only you had the time to be healthy. If only you had the schedule to have a personal life. The list is infinite, but the problem is the same: you’re still seeing problems.
You probably already know on some level that problems are the constant roadblocks of life. You always have had problems and you always will. Even if and when you get to the next level of whatever you’re seeking.
So here’s the real key to happiness: Stop seeing problems as roadblocks and start seeing them as stepping stones. They’re the building blocks to a better life and a better you. They create better worlds.
Here are three examples of common problems that led to innovators creating a better world.
1. Problem: Infectious disease. Opportunity: Penicillin. As the story goes, Sir Alexander Fleming was trying to find a wonder cure for infectious diseases. This was less than a century ago and people were still dying at an alarming rate from infections that today we wouldn’t even think of being life-threatening.
After countless failures, he threw away his Petri dishes out of annoyance, then noticed a little later that the mold growing in his discarded dishes was killing bacteria. The bacteria became the subject of his study and the result was penicillin, which has worked to help eradicate an astonishing number of infectious diseases for more than 100 years.
The solution to the problem ended up being the thing he discarded. Let go of the attachment to your challenges and open your eyes to the new opportunities around you.
2. Problem: Burs in your socks. Opportunity: Velcro. 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, which you undoubtedly use.
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. He took a new look at a nagging problem and saw an opportunity to innovate thanks to the brilliance of design in nature.
3. Problem: Food spoiling. Opportunity: Refrigeration. You use your fridge every day, but less than 100 years ago, no one else had that luxury.
Think about the last time you went on a hiking trip. You packed up as many non-perishables as possible and hoped the fresh food wouldn’t spoil as you backpacked. Less than a century ago every day was more or less a hiking trip. Food had to be purchased and prepared daily, or quickly, to keep it from spoiling.
Refrigeration is such a simple luxury, yet the problem of keeping your food from spoiling solved a real problem and changed the world. It’s completely changed the way we eat, the foods available to us and the world at large.
Previous to the fridge, ice was harvested from frozen lakes and rivers and packed into subterranean ice sheds to keep food edible. Even after the icebox was invented, your food lasted a little longer but required ice block delivery that was hard to regulate.
There are many creative minds that led to the development of refrigeration as we know it today, but one of the first to experiment in artificial refrigeration was William Cullen in 1755 and later, Benjamin Franklin and John Hadley in 1758.
While the fridge has gone through many versions, from the ice block houses, the ice box, the Freon-loaded ozone-killing versions to the awesome options we have today, refrigeration was an innovation and constantly improved to change the quality of the world.
Frame your problems as opportunities for growth, development and improvement, and watch the magic happen.
Related: 10 Legendary Maverick Entrepreneurs
Matthew Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of YoungEntrepreneur.com. He is co-author, with his brother Adam, of Kidpreneurs and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley). He's based in Vancouver, B.C.