Seven Lessons to Turn Challenges into Opportunities

Professor John Anderson was a Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. In his science lab, he used to demonstrate the working model of a Newcomen steam engine. The Newcomen engines were invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. They were used in Britain primarily for pumping water out of mines.

One fine morning in 1763, the professor noticed that the model engine needed repair. A repairman was called for. During the repair, the technician was astonished to observe how little work the engine was capable of. He realized that there was an ample room for improving the efficiency of the engine. The name of the repairman was James Watt, and he is the central character of this story.

For more than fifty years after their invention, no one had found a way to improve the Newcomen steam engines. These engines worked on a simple principle: a jet of steam was used to drive a piston inside a cylinder in one direction; the cylinder was subsequently cooled down with water to bring the piston back to its initial position. The cycle could then be repeated, thereby converting heat into mechanical work. 

Getting back to the story, when James Watt observed the low efficiency of the Newcomen steam engine, he decided to improve it. Taking the task as a challenge, he spent the next two years conducting experiments with water and steam in metal vessels. Eventually, he realized that cooling with water after steam had done its work was causing significant energy loss and hence lower output.

In order to reduce the energy loss, Watt decided to redesign the engine skipping the cooling water injection & introducing a condenser. The function of the condenser was to collect the condensed steam so that it could be available for the next cycle. This was a simple yet ingenious improvement.

By the end of 1765, a twenty nine year old James Watt had built his first small-scale steam engine featuring a separate condensing chamber and a steam jacket. Winning his first challenge, he had brought the required improvements in the efficiency of the Newcomen engine— the improvements that no one had been able to figure out hitherto. 

James Watt would go on to bring about further improvements thereby upscaling the design to build a commercial steam engine. Soon afterwards, the Watt steam engines replaced most of the human and animal labor in coal mines. As more and more engines found their way into ever more applications, the Industrial Revolution kick started. For his contributions, James Watt is still regarded as the most important figure behind the industrial revolution.

When presented with a challenge, many of us view it as a burden. However, just like Watt, you can turn your challenges into opportunities. The following seven lessons will reveal how to do that.

Lesson One: Practice Spotting Opportunities

Opportunities stem from problems. If you are looking for opportunities, look for problems and ponder if you can solve them. It is also important to remember that opportunities tend to be fleeting—they might not appear at the right time for you, and you may think you are not prepared for the opportunity. However, if you wait for too long, they will disappear. Once you spot an opportunity, be prepared to grab them and do not be afraid of failures; each failure takes you closer to success.

Lesson Two: Start Taking Small Challenges

Before embarking your mission impossible, you can start with smaller challenges. For example, if you normally take the lift, start climbing the stairs instead, or try waking up fifteen minutes earlier than usual, or reduce your phone screen time by half an hour. These small victories will make you a habitual challenger and will prepare you to take on bigger challenges in life.   

Lesson Three: Modify Your Language

A valuable step towards transforming your challenges into opportunities is to change the way you look at your problems. For instance, stop calling them problems or issues; start describing them as challenges. It may seem meager but just by changing the terminology, you will start feeling more eager to solve your problems. Rather than viewing them as setbacks, you will start treating them as opportunities.

Lesson Four: Be Ready to Embrace Change

Most of us can overcome simple problems that we are familiar with; we know their solution, so we can solve them. However, if we don’t know how to crack your issues, they become challenges. For instance, imagine you are driving alone, and your tire gets burst in the middle of a highway. If you have a spare tire and you know how to change it, you can solve your problem. You will still be frustrated but at least you know how to deal with the situation.

On the contrary, if you don’t know how to change a tire, this becomes a challenge. You would seek someone’s help, but this also presents an opportunity to learn a new skill. Thus, in a way, challenges are synonymous with change. Humans don’t like unpleasant changes in their routines; that is what makes challenges fearsome. To accept new problems as challenges and transform them into opportunities, start embracing change.

Lesson Five: Keep the Change Sustainable

I was with a friend a couple of weeks back. I had my breakfast in the morning, but he took some herbal juices saying he was following an organic diet plan. By afternoon, he was starving.  Guess what: we had our dinner together and it was mainly junk food. Though he had a diet plan, it wasn’t sustainable. As we talk about embracing the change, it is imperative to keep the change sustainable— gradual and repeatable— i.e., activities that can be repeated over and over without too much stress.

Lesson Six: Upgrade the Change Gradually

While it is necessary to keep the change sustainable, it shouldn’t be too small. Starting small makes it more likely to be sustainable but then you need to upgrade gradually. You may start with one pushup a day but if you are still doing a single pushup on hundredth day, you shouldn’t expect any visible difference in your body. Yes, you have succeeded in keeping it sustainable, but you should upgrade the change gradually (not drastically) until you find an effective balance.

Lesson Seven: Remain Persistent in Your Efforts

Perseverance is probably the most underrated attribute when we talk about confronting challenges and availing opportunities. Assuming you have accepted an obstacle as a challenge, you are ready to transform that challenge into a growth opportunity, and you have even chalked out a sustainable plan to overcome the challenge; you would still need to be perseverant with your efforts. I take my leave for now by sharing a saying from I Ching, “Perseverance is favourable”.


One thought on “Seven Lessons to Turn Challenges into Opportunities

  1. Pingback: The Man Who Never Gave Up: Seven Lessons from Colonel Sanders’s Entrepreneurial Career | Seven Lessons

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