10/23/2012 03:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Never Waste a Good Crisis

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Whenever there's a hurricane Katrina, a 2008 market crash, or a Deepwater Horizon oil spill, pundits hammer the point that we can't waste this tragedy. We have to use our collective fear, anger, and hope as motivation to prevent such and such disaster from ever happening again. Social Security was borne of the Great Depression, the United Nations came out of World War II, and the Environmental Protection Agency wouldn't have been created without growing awareness of various environmental crises.

But we rarely apply the same principle to our personal lives. When we're at our most scared and vulnerable, we often fall back on old habits. A breakup leads to binge drinking or going back to an old, unhealthy relationship. This is a shame. What I've learned reporting The Fear Project is that fear was designed by evolution as a motivator for change, a catalyst. That change could be freezing up, it could be moving backward to an old habit, or it could be a leap toward realizing a dream. Which direction we change depends on how conscious we are of the fear and whether we decide to consciously harness fear's energy for a positive outcome. If we're not able to observe our patterns with a little objectivity -- which comes with mindfulness practice -- most likely we'll freeze or fall back on an old habit. But if we can simply notice, "Oh, I'm afraid, this could be an opportunity," those terrified moments of vulnerability can be the most powerful moments in our lives, the ones that get us off our butts and move us toward the lives we want.

I'm thinking about this today because I'm reading ultra athlete Rich Roll's incredible autobiography, Finding Ultra. When Roll was 40, though he had a beautiful family and a successful career as an entertainment lawyer, he wasn't happy. He was 50 pounds overweight and addicted to junk food and television -- replacements for the drug and alcohol addictions he'd had to kick years earlier. But one night after devouring too many cheeseburgers and too many episodes of Law and Order, fear struck. He checked on his sleeping children then continued upstairs to bed. There were only eight stairs, but Roll was winded, seriously winded. "This is what I've become," Roll thought. It was a thought he'd probably had before, but for whatever reason, this time it triggered the fear that he might not be alive to watch his 2-year-old daughter get married. If he continued down the path he was on, there was no guarantee. Roll had been unhappy for years, but it was this brief moment of fear and the awareness that it could be used as a catalyst that changed Roll's life forever.

In that precise moment, I was overcome with the profound knowledge not just that I needed to change, but that I was willing to change. From my adventures in the subculture of addiction recovery, I'd learned that trajectory of one's life often boils down to a few identifiable moments -- decisions that change everything. I knew all too well that moments like these were not to be squandered. Rather, they were to be respected and seized at all costs, for they just didn't come around that often, if ever. Even if you experienced only one powerful moment like this one, you were lucky. Blink or look away for even an instant and the door didn't just close, it literally vanished. In my case, this was the second time I'd been blessed with such an opportunity, the first being that precious moment of clarity that precipitated my sobriety in rehab. Looking into the mirror that night, I could feel that portal opening again. I needed to act."

Within two years, Roll had become one of the fittest ultra athletes on the planet, gone vegan, and, in the process, was beginning to find out who he was and what he was capable of -- as an athlete, as man, as a father. Check out Roll's mind-boggling tale here.

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