Blog / Seeing problems as opportunities

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Last month, my friend, Paul Maurice Johnson, lost his battle to cancer at the age of 29. He left behind his wife and four year old son. During his funeral, we remembered Paul as a great friend and a man who possessed a remarkable ability to be optimistic about everything. Even through his daily challenge of being sick from cancer treatments, he constantly checked in with friends communicating genuine excitement and care for those he knew. Paul saw his problem of fighting cancer as an opportunity to inspire people to continue on in their own battles whatever they may be. I found it difficult to think my problems were a big deal when I talked with Paul. In the book Creative Confidence, an entrepreneur is defined as “someone who is always on the lookout for problems that can be turned into opportunities and finds creative ways to leverage limited resources to reach their goals.” Paul was an entrepreneur who uniquely used cancer as a resource to make the world a more joyful place.

Loss of life, especially at such a young age, naturally leads to reflection.  Upon hearing the news of Paul’s death, my primary contemplations focused on how it wasn’t fair that he only lived for 29 years and his wife and son have to live without him. Now, I know the common response is “well, life isn’t fair”, but should that statement be used to argue that nothing can be done about that reality? I will be the first to admit that I have often let circumstance drain me of my motivation to make the world more equitable until I had the chance to meet Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University.

Over the last twelve years, President Crow has led a hugely successful campaign to make ASU an excellent, accessible and impactful university. As a result, ASU distributes over 1 billion dollars in financial aid allowing more students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to get college degrees. Importantly, this increase in accessibility has not compromised the university’s excellence as demonstrated by the Wall Street Journal ranking ASU as the 5th best producer of qualified graduates and the number of faculty with the highest award in their field tripling during Crow’s tenure. Furthermore, staff and student volunteers boast well over 60,000 service hours per year and ASU’s annual research expenditures total more than $350 million. (I don’t have space here to include all of ASU’s accomplishments, so if you are interested you can read more here.)

Given the impact President Crow has had on higher education, there are a lot of interesting questions one could ask. However, my fellow Fellows and I only had thirty minutes with him, so we chose to ask him WHYhe does what he does. He told us that that he realized the world was not fair when he was a teenager and has been dedicated to making the world more fair ever since. The answer resonated deeply with me. He saw the reality of life not being fair as a chance to change the world. President Crow continued with an anecdote about his youngest daughter who is trying to figure out what she wants to do in life and how she, in a world of 7 billion people, can possibly make a difference. He explained to his daughter that when someone chooses a career that person is essentially choosing what boat to row in. He further expounded upon his boat metaphor adding that we don’t row by ourselves, but, rather, we join a boat with other individuals that row together towards a unified idea of better future. Together, we gain momentum.

I share these stories in hopes that they will inspire you as they have inspired me. Because of people like Paul Johnson and President Crow, I feel like changing problems into opportunities and rowing towards a better future with likeminded people. Will you join me?

Blog / Seeing Problems As Opportunities