There’s a Big Opportunity Coming

Today marks 318 years since the last Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. We know the next one is coming, and that it’s overdue. By all available estimates, the next one could be the largest natural disaster in the history of the United States.

But we also know something else. Humans don’t do well preparing for an indeterminate disaster. Fear is a fine motivator when the deadline is certain, but fear won’t mobilize most of us to get ready what’s coming.

I’ve been reading about this earthquake and how we can prepare for the worst, but my better angels wouldn’t stop asking what may seem an impertinent question. How can we use this impending disaster as an opportunity? If we can blot out the actual occurrence itself — we may be able to focus instead on what precedes and follows it.

Training and performance are actually two versions of the same thing. They are continuous, separated only by an event. This continuity has been intensely studied in musicians, athletes, military, and first responders. Simply put, you cannot react in ways for which you didn’t prepare. (Not all preparation is conscious, so any surprises on the latter side of that continuity are solely from our lack of awareness.)

But what happens to the training for which you never need to perform? Not every sequence you practice ends up being used, but does that mean those efforts were wasted? Where does that excess reside? Can it be found before it is needed? Or is the event the only way to tap that “extra gear”? I believe it’s possible that excess training always give a residual benefit, even though it may not be easily measured.

In the case of a societal upheaval, which the next CSZ earthquake could produce, those residual benefits could add up to make a significant societal difference.

If training and performance are really one thing presented as two, our definition of “normal” is really two things, but thought of as one.

We think of normal in two different ways: status and slope. We talk most often about normal as a static state of being — status quo. But what we experience as normal has more to do with an acceptable degree change over time. For things to feel normal, the rate of change tomorrow needs to be roughly the same as it was yesterday.

We all like neighborhood stability, but we don’t insist that no one on the block should be allowed to move or die or add a room to their house. It feels normal, so long as the people who move in are roughly similar to those who moved out. We’d also prefer that everybody not add an extra room to their house at the same time. Slow change is normal — it’s the very definition of normal.

Now, add and combust.

After a cataclysm, we’ll all want to get back to normal as quickly as possible. We should be preparing and training now, so we can get back to that status quo. The speed at which we return to that point is where we may have an amazing opportunity.

If we can accept the rate of change as we race back to status quo as our “new normal,” we can continue improving at that accelerated pace. Once we’ve seen we can get better faster, why slow down after we’ve recouped whatever loss the disaster produced? Sustained improvement at a quicker pace would then be available to us. But better than that, it would feel normal.

Japan’s manufacturing juggernaut after World War II was the residual benefit from their post-war ash heaps. Many parts of Africa today have better cell phone connectivity than we do, because they never got wired with copper. Sometimes it’s true that the last shall be first.

In this case, the last and the first are both us (after and before the occurrence).

How can we train in a way that allows us to perform at a higher level, returning as quickly as possible back to “normal”? And what will we need to maintain that “new normal” trajectory of change for as long as possible?


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at