One of my favorite stories comes from an agronomist, Norman Borlaug. When he won the Nobel Peace prize in 1970, he was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the globe. But none of that would have happened if he had not taken one risk back in 1944 on a life-changing opportunity.
Risking it All
That once in a lifetime opportunity was to work at a research station in rural Mexico developing different seed varieties of wheat. This meant giving up a lot of things. Most notably he had to leave his high paying job at Dupont. The company even offered to double his salary to keep him on, but he refused.
Norman often put in twelve hour days working on farms in the hot sun. Local living conditions were poorer than he was used to and he had little access to good equipment. Eventually his effort started paying off and this “father of the Green Revolution” started producing higher wheat yields. All the extra food he created lowered prices which meant that even the hungriest person could afford to eat.
Soon he went on to replicate this plan in India, Pakistan, Sudan and other parts of the world.
What Would You Have Done?
If you were in his position, would you have moved to Mexico to work at a research station? That’s a really hard question to answer and you’d probably have to be in the position to really know for sure. But this raises an interesting point of what it would take for someone to risk everything they’ve gained on an opportunity like this.
It isn’t always so straightforward. After all, Norman had no idea that he would succeed as much as he did. For all he knew, he would go down to Mexico and have a terrible time and regret his decision. In fact, he was wracked with self-doubt for his first few years and often considered the move a huge mistake.
Moving Beyond Stability
The reason most people would have turned down this opportunity is because of the emphasis most people put into the idea of success. This focuses mostly on making a great income and providing a stable, comfortable lifestyle. Of course, this is really important. I’ve volunteered with poor high school students and I know what a stable life with enough money would mean to them.
But when you already have that stable, comfortable lifestyle, you really don’t need to go searching for ways to make it even more comfortable. How much better is your life going to become with more money if you’re already making enough to fulfill all your needs? Eventually you reach a point where you need something a little more meaningful in your life.
I think this is where Norman Borlaug was at when he decided to move to Mexico. With all his basic needs already met, he wanted something more meaningful. He also wanted a way to use his full potential. If you’re familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This would be the self-actualization stage.
You Don’t Get Once in a Lifetime Opportunities Twice
Once in a lifetime opportunities are rare. You don’t get many chances to do them twice which is why it is important to seize them when they come by.
For example, if you’ve ever seen someone you’re attracted to on the street and wanted to talk to them you only have one chance to do it. In this instance, there is relatively little risk involved. Still, your chances of seeing this person ever again are extremely low so you’d better take that opportunity while you have it.
If you live in the United States, you have access to volunteer programs such as the Peace Corps. Joining them means taking a bigger risk than most people are willing to accept, but the opportunity is still there. The experiences through this program would be unique and rewarding, but leaving what you have behind is difficult.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to move to Saudi Arabia. I knew that I would be risking the lifestyle I’d created here, but I’d also never get this chance again. So my wife and I made a lot of effort to make it happen. Unfortunately, due to family visa restrictions, we were unable to do it.
Find Meaning in Risk
The good news is that I doubt it will be the last once in a lifetime opportunity to present itself to me. I’m really open to new opportunities so something will eventually come my way. Besides, not being able to take an opportunity doesn’t mean disaster.
Even Norman Borlaug missed out on joining the military during WWII. He signed up, but was refused entry so he could work in a lab making various military equipment used in the war. Sometimes the chance to really demonstrate your full potential requires a little bit of patience. But if you ever want to realize your true potential, it will be worth the wait.
Would you have taken this opportunity? Did you take any big risks that changed your life?