What Would You Risk for a Once in a Lifetime Opportunity?


Wheat Field [E-X-P-L-O-R-E-D]

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?

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  1. this would probably be one of my faves from your post man… career wise, i blew up three great opportunities, 2 came from call centers to manage operations and one with an american manufacturing company, to manage supply chain department globally… i gave up all three (in diff phases of my life), just to travel….

    and because of the risk that i took, im enjoying every single day of my life now, although it’s not as comfortable as my previous life… i believe there are great opportunities everywhere but we have to choose the things that will make us happy…

    • Those sound like some great opportunities. I can imagine how hard it would be for you to pass them up. I know that I’ve had to make hard choices in the past too, but I think following the one that makes you happiest is the best decision. It sounds to me like you made a good decision too. It might not be as comfortable as your previous life, but I think comfort can be overrated sometimes.

  2. Steve,

    That is a powerful story. I don’t know if I could have walked away from my employer if the were offering to double my current salary. The funny thing is he probably knew the value that he would add would be priceless. I wish I had the wisdom to determine my impact beyond the material things that I see. I guess to answer the question your title asks I would have to know what the opportunity was. I could have a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something I would greatly enjoy but end up causing more harm than good.

    If the perfect opportunity arrived I would risk it… all.

    • If the perfect opportunity arrived, I would risk it all too. While it would be extremely tough to walk away from an employer willing to double your salary, the chance to make such a huge difference in the world would be even harder to pass up.

      I wish I had the wisdom to determine my impact beyond material things too. That’s the hard thing about life. Sometimes, you just don’t know how much of a difference you can make.

  3. I have jumped after a once in a lifetime opportunity. While it did not always go smoothly, I would not have traded the experience for anything. Looking back, I don’t know how I had the courage to do it – quit my job, sell off everything I own, and fly to a foreign country on a tourist visa planning to start a new life. Now it looks courageous. At the time it simply felt right.

    The lesson I learned: Jump and let the details work themselves out on their own.

    • I think that is a good lesson. Sometimes you just have to jump at an opportunity and figure out how to make it work as you go.

      You definitely took a big opportunity. Starting a new life in a foreign country would be too scary for most people. I definitely think you should see what you did as courageous.

  4. Annette | Bucket List Journey says:

    I am a huge risk take when it comes to starting businesses or buying investment property. I spent most of my life believing that by acquiring “stuff” I would be living the dream. But, then I realized my dream is to live a simple life and experience the world. And now it scares the crap out of me to sell everything. Go figure.

    • I’ve never bought property before, but I have known several people who invest in it. I think that and starting businesses can be very nerve wracking. They involve a lot of uncertainty.

      I’m with you about stuff too. I never really wanted to own a lot of stuff before, but even now I think I have too much and want to simplify what I have. Yet even though I want to get rid of some things, I have a hard time clearing stuff out. It’s strange sometimes.

  5. What a well-written and thought-provoking post! You’re right about those opportunities Steve, they’re quite rare. I’ve taken 3 major risks in this lifetime so far. And even more in the future. What I’ve also learned recently is that sometimes when there’s no opportunity, you can make one yourself! Thanks for writing this!

    • Three major risks so far. That’s quite a few, but they seem to working well for you. I’m glad you had those opportunities to take.

      You make a very good point about creating your own opportunities. Even if you don’t have any opportunities in front of you, you can just decide to make one yourself. Looking back on some of the opportunities I’ve taken, I can see how I made up some of my own.

  6. I’ve taken some huge risks in my personal life. At the time, they felt huge for me but in the end it paid off. Like you said, sometimes you just get once chance. It’s better to take it knowing you could always fall back to where you started if the risk don’t work out.

    • Yeah, having a backup plan in case things go wrong has helped me take some risk in my life. I always make sure that if something goes wrong that it won’t destroy me. In fact, taking a chance on something that will be too destructive for you if it doesn’t work is a gamble and not a risk. I don’t think anyone should take gambles.

  7. I find Norman Borlaug just fascinating too. I remember studying dwarf wheat in school and how revolutionary it was. The biggest risk I took was moving across the country, but I had a job and so it wasn’t as big of a risk as it could have been. I hope that I would take a risk, but I guess until I face it I won’t know for sure. Great post!

    • I think moving across the country can be a big risk. I remember when I moved to Minneapolis and how scary it was for me. Now I consider the move to be a great decision though.

      I’m glad you know about Norman Borlaug already. I wish he was more widely known since his story is just so inspiring and interesting. His wheat variety really made a huge impact on the world.

  8. Hi Steve,

    I am new here. Your articles looks exciting and very related to what I am trying to do on my site.

    As for taking that risk; yes I would. I have come to believe that our place and mission during this life is to do as much good for life using our most special talents. First we have got to find that talent. Then we will have to put that to good use. Only by doing so will life benefit from what we are truly made for.

    I have a young family with two kids less than 4.5 years old. I am the sole bread winner now. Now, I am contemplating quiting my job soon and moving off to another place. My wife is a security freak and she can’t understand why all this risk. To me the most important gift I want to gift my wife and children eventually is the lesson of my example to live our true self in this life. Even if things mean uncertainty, we have to do it if it is the right thing for us. Life will find a way. Just like how Norman Borlaug was richly blessed after his life changing move.

    Thanks again for your great stuff here inspiring us all.

    • Hey Jimmy, that’s a great attitude. I believe one of my missions in life is to do as much good with my special talents too. I just have a natural desire to help people.

      You’re right that you just have to what the right thing. I’m a big believer in that life finds a way. Every time that I’m faced with a life problem, I just remember all the times that everything worked out just fine. You can’t let uncertainty make decisions for you.

      I hope everything works out great for you. Let me know how everything turns out.

  9. Like what I’ve learned in my senior year in high school, you have to sacrifice something precious to gain something else. I will be taking a big risk soon but I want to cover all my bases first before taking that leap as there are people who are going to be affected if I just think of myself.

    • That’s so nice of you to consider your closed ones. I am sure they must have been very supportive of your leaps of faith.

    • You make a good point, Ed. You have to think about sacrifice when you think about risks. If you want to get somewhere, you usually have to give something up. You just have to make sure that you’re not giving up too much. I’m glad you have the consideration to take other people into consideration in your risks too.

  10. By and large, I’ve followed my heart and my gut for much of the decisions in my life and I have no regrets. I’m not sure if I’ve missed any “once in a lifetime” moments yet but I’m super happy about where I am right now, so I’m glad about all of the decisions I’ve made thus far. I did go up to a guy in Florence, Italy and told him he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. He just said thank you. Nothing came of it, but at least I told him.

    • That takes a lot of courage to go up to someone and tell them something like that. I think the least he could have done was buy you a cup of coffee and chat with you. At least you can take pride in yourself for doing something most people would be too scared to do.

      I think it’s great to follow your heart. It’s probably why you’re happy where you are. If you keep doing that, you’ll probably have an equally happy future.

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