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Industry change: Impossible challenge or opportunity for success?

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There’s no doubt the industry is experiencing some turmoil lately. The U.S. Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule has created confusion and fear among some advisors about what the rule means to their practice and how they will comply.

The concern about the rule is so deep that many advisors have considered the idea of retiring or exiting the business altogether rather than deal with the headache and uncertainty of complying. Those who are planning to stick around are walking dual paths, preparing to comply with the rule in time for the quickly approaching deadlines while keeping an eye on lawsuits that could delay or overturn the rule entirely.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Mick Ebeling provided a kernel of hope and inspiration to attendees at the Insured Retirement Institute’s Vision annual conference last week in Colorado Springs. Ebeling is a Hollywood executive producer turned philanthropist who was found ways to change the world by understanding the fallacy of the concept of impossible.

He challenged attendees to think of something that is possible today that wasn’t impossible first. The answer, of course, is everything.

“Everything that surrounds us was impossible at one time,” Ebeling told attendees.

Take for example the 4-minute mile, he said. That feat was once thought impossible until Roger Bannister achieved it in 1954. Bannister’s record was quickly broken and now male runners routinely run sub-4-minute miles. Or take Mount Everest, he said. The world’s tallest mountain was widely believed impossible to reach until Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay summited it in 1953. Today, hundreds of climbers successfully climb Mount Everest each year.

“The second somebody does something, it gives everybody else permission to do it,” said Ebeling. “We’ve seen this time and time again.”

The point, he said, is that if everything that is now possible was once impossible, that means that everything that is impossible today statistically is possible in the future.

‘Crack that egg a little bit’

For Ebeling, the journey to understanding the fallacy of impossible started on a date night with his wife. The couple found themselves at a benefit art show for a local graffiti artist named TEMPT, who had been stricken with ALS. Ebeling set out on a mission to create a device from common materials like cheap sunglasses and copper wire that would give TEMPT the ability to communicate and even create art using only the movement of his eyes. The result was the Eyewriter, which received worldwide attention and acclaim.

Ebeling said he and his team benefitted from a failure to realize that what they were attempting to do was extremely hard, if not impossible. Instead, the team committed to the project first and then doggedly worked to figure out the details and overcome obstacles until they finally achieved their goal.

“If something is impossible, just crack that egg a little bit and it starts the ball rolling,” Ebeling said. “The concept of what I do is to look at things that are impossible and figure out how to make them not impossible.”

That concept led Ebeling to create Not Impossible Labs, which seeks to use technology to better humanity. The Eyewriter, for example is offered as an open source technology that anybody can benefit from.

Since their initial foray into doing the impossible, Ebeling and Not Impossible Labs have figured out how to 3D print prosthetic limbs to help a Sudanese teenager named Daniel, who’d lost both arms during a bombing of his village. Not only did Ebeling provide Daniel with new arms, but he taught villagers to use the technology so that they could continue creating prosthetic limbs that are desperately needed in the war-torn area.

More recently, Not Impossible Labs created a digital solution to help a ventilator-dependent ALS patient audibly communicate, and developed a walking device primarily out of aftermarket auto parts to help children with cerebral palsy train their leg muscles to walk. Current projects include leveraging vibrotacticle technology to use the sense of touch to enable deaf people to experience music, and developing mobile technology to create a network to help homeless youth and veterans access meals in restaurants that are willing to sell meals to them at off-peak hours at reduced prices, paid for by donors.

Among the interesting things that Ebeling learned during his projects is that brilliance is everywhere (including in a teenage intern who helped Not Impossible Labs solve a technical problem that had stumped expert team members) and that sometimes road blocks are actually ramps that lead to solutions.

What does all this mean for an insurance industry experiencing some degree of chaos? I would suggest that it means advisors and other industry players experiencing anxiety about the future should stop looking at the task ahead as impossible.

The Labor Department rule may seem like a roadblock — perhaps an impossibly large roadblock —  but could it be an opportunity in disguise? The only way to find out may be to take the first step, commit to taking on the challenge and then figure out the details.


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