If you were visiting Libby, Montana years ago, you might have seen a bumper sticker that read, “YES I’m from Libby, Montana and NO I don’t have Asbestosis.”
An odd proclamation to be sure. But especially frustrating for one woman.
A woman who was donating her life to helping those in her town, yet was met with derision and resistance at every turn.
A woman, no different than the rest of us, who found an issue and decided to do something about it. And changed the lives of every member of her community. And a kid in Western New York, over 2,000 miles away.
There Will Always Be Fear.
I was 19. It was my third day on the job. The first two days were filled with thrown-together training presentations.
Then day three I was on my own. Tossed in and expected to perform based on those two days of training. Two days where the only real thing I learned was just how underqualified I was for this.
It seemed reasonable months ago. When I interviewed and accepted the internship. Before twenty contractors were staring daggers at me, daring me to do the job I was hired to do. And knowing full well that I wasn’t up to it.
It was important work. Environmental protection. Contractor crews were removing asbestos from schools and community centers. Our company was responsible for upholding environmental standards. It was my job to make sure every bit of this poison was removed safely and without incident.
It had all seemed so simple. But the reality of monitoring multiple crews of people more than double my age and many of whom didn’t – or pretended not to – speak English, turned out to be different than I imagined through the naive optimism of a college sophomore.
My third day on the job. And I knew I couldn’t do it.
And as I started to do more research on the job, one story captured my attention. It focused on a town in Montana whose people were struggling with various forms of lung cancer. All caused by asbestos. Horrific stories of people struggling to breathe and dying in some of the worst ways possible. All of which was a constant liability unless every fiber was handled and removed with the utmost care.
And the story had it’s effect. I was more worried and overwhelmed than ever. But it had another one as well. It showed just how one woman chose to handle them.
In the Face of Adversity, Persist.
In Libby, Montana, Gayla Benefield had a different job. She walked house to house, reading utility meters for the power company.
And as she was going about this job, she noticed that a surprising amount of her neighbors were home sick, many of whom needed oxygen tanks to breathe.
Soon her father passed away at age 62, after nearly twenty years of working in the town’s vermiculite mine. Years later, her mother’s health was rapidly declining, struggling with pneumonia and frequent hospitalizations.
And Gayla started questioning. Could her mother be suffering from asbestosis, the same fatal lung disease that killed her father? But how, since she’d never worked in the mine?
Gayla’s persistence eventually brought the answers she dreaded. Her mother was diagnosed with asbestosis, contracted from the dust that her father brought home in his clothing.
Gayla knew something was wrong. She kept asking questions. But the people of the town didn’t want to hear it. They told her that if something was really wrong, someone would have told them. They said that if this was really dangerous, the doctors would have said something.
And her warnings and concerns went unheard.
So she started digging. And she kept asking questions. And in the years that followed she researched thousands of company, governmental agency, and court documents.
The results were shocking.
The vermiculite pulled from the town’s mine, the material they proudly shipped all over the world for insulation and soil conditioner, was also laced with tremolite, the most toxic form of asbestos. And a known cause of multiple lung cancers.
And worse, the company that owned the mine, W. R. Grace, had known about the dangers for decades. Not only to the miners, but to everyone who breathed in the dust it created. Everyone in the entire town. And yet instead of warning people or investing in safety precautions, W. R. Grace chose to cover it up with political pressure and delay tactics.
There it was. Evidence of the danger. Evidence of the cover-up. Evidence further validated by more and more townspeople becoming sick and diagnosed with asbestosis and related cancers.
Yet people still didn’t want to hear it. Other than the victims and their loved ones, the general town members turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. In their minds, there wasn’t a problem. They said that every industry has risks and problems, this was no different.
They became so annoyed, they proudly displayed those bumper stickers mocking Gayla’s efforts.
And yet Gayla persisted.
She continued to dig and talk to anyone who’d listen, eventually gaining national news coverage and convincing the government to constitute a federal health screening in Libby. A screening which showed the mortality rate was 80 times higher than anywhere else in the country.
All of which spurred national assistance from the EPA, the start of a $600 million cleanup effort, and a rash of lawsuits that bankrupted W. R. Grace.
And through it all, Gayla persisted.
No Superpowers Needed.
“The superheroes you have in your mind (idols, icons, elite athletes, billionaires, etc.) are nearly all walking flaws who’ve maximized one or two strengths. Humans are imperfect creatures. You don’t “succeed” because you have no weaknesses; you succeed because you find your unique strengths and focus on developing habits around them.” – Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans
We often idolize figures like Gayla. We prop them up as the underdogs who valiantly fought and beat the odds. And propel the belief that they were some version of a superhero, fighting relentlessly every day.
And we’re inspired and intrigued. Because these stories are meant to be inspiring and intriguing.
But it’s never the whole truth.
The truth is Gayla Benefield wasn’t necessarily a superhero. And she readily admits that she’s no saint. She’s just like the rest of us. She struggled and had doubts as any one of us would.
And while undergoing these same doubts and hesitations that plague us all, she persisted.
The difference that Gayla made wasn’t because she was predestined for success. It had nothing to do with superpowers. It was because when she was faced with rejection and failure, she chose to persist. She saw the obstacles stacked ahead of her and found strength in a purpose greater than herself.
Which, in the end, is much more inspiring.
We’re All Capable of Heroics, Even if We’re Not Always Heroes.
When we see people as heroes, it gives us an excuse to avoid following in their path. We can rationalize that we can’t be held to the same expectations. We can believe they’re predestined for this success, so there’s little point in us going through these same struggles.
As I read about Gayla’s story at the time, she was clearly impressive. And she’s a great example of determination and dedication to a cause she believed in. But the best part was that she could have been any one of us.
She was just someone who saw something wrong and decided to stop putting up with it. In her words,
“At some point, things have simply got to stop. You’ve got to put your foot down and say enough is enough.”
And as an impressionable 19 year-old kid who was struggling for some way out of the mess he’d gotten himself into, her methods gave me the vision I needed to handle these responsibilities.
Find your purpose. Hold your standard. And persist through it all.
I knew what was right. I knew what needed to be done. The only thing left was to do it. No matter how daunting.
I’d like to say that I was the picture of confidence and courage. That I managed the job with the poise of someone beyond their years.
But I didn’t. I still struggled. I was still filled with self-doubt and fear through every day.
But I also persisted. And I got through it. And I have Gayla to thank for that.
A Source of Courage.
Far from the vermiculite mine of Libby, Montana and the suburbs outside of Buffalo, NY, another inspiring figure was looking for her own courage.
Sara Blakely jokes that the self-help aisle is filled with advice to live courageously and believe in yourself, yet nowhere does it tell you how. Nowhere is there advice on just how to find that elusive courage.
Looking at Sara’s accomplishments, you wouldn’t consider this to be someone who struggled in that area.
After all, she would go on to turn an idea and $5,000 into a billion dollar company. She would take an aha moment from a party and create Spanx, an international brand.
And seeing her incredible success, it’s easy to think that she had everything perfectly mapped out her whole life. Or that she was predestined for these accomplishments.
But that would ignore the struggles she encountered and the courage she found to overcome each one. Like Gayla, Sara had her doubts and her fears.
While she was selling fax machines door to door, having those same doors slammed in her face, she was plagued with thoughts that this wasn’t the life she was meant to have. Other days she couldn’t get up the courage to go through one door. She’d sit in a park all day and then check back into her sales office hours later.
“I’d get kicked out of buildings all day long, people would rip up my business card in my face. It’s a humbling business to be in. But I knew I could sell and I knew I wanted to sell something I had created. I cut the feet out of those pantyhose and I knew I was on to something. This was it.” – Sara Blakely
But just as Gayla found strength in her cause, Sara was passionate about making a difference for women everywhere. Buoyed by this passion and a mindset where “the only failure is not trying,” Sara overcame repeated obstacles.
As Gayla’s efforts were met with derision and contempt, Sara dealt with her share of condescension from armchair critics.
And as Gayla persisted, so did Sara. When she couldn’t find a patent attorney to represent her, she researched and wrote her own. When she couldn’t get support from manufacturers or retailers, she cold-called relentlessly.
Eventually gaining the support and breaks that come with persistent, determined action. And creating a billion dollar enterprise in the process.
“Where I get my energy is: ‘How can I make it better?'” – Sara Blakely
Both Gayla and Sara had the same fears and self-doubt that plague each of us. The difference was that in response to each obstacle, they chose to persist. And when many others would have given up, they responded with action. And held their standard.
Be Your Own Hero.
“A strong belief in our worthiness doesn’t just happen – it’s cultivated when we understand the guideposts as choices and daily practices.” – Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
We’re inundated with success stories and highlight reels on a daily basis. It’s easy to look at these seemingly effortless successes and idolize their owners. And in the process excuse ourselves for not reaching as high.
Yet Gayla and Sara both show that we don’t need superhuman powers to be successful. We need determination. And persistence in the face of adversity. All of which are in our power.
As the great philosopher Amelie Rorty once wrote,
“It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person.”
Find your purpose. Hold your standard. And persist through it all.
Every one of us has that capability.