Bad things happen when you ignore warning signs

In January 2002, a lone man predicted a natural disaster that would impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Local expert Dieudonne Wafulah had been studying Mount Nyiragongo, a volcano in Congo, for 15 years without pay. He tracked the activity of Nyiragongo and another nearby, smaller volcano for signs of change. Although his equipment had been stolen and vandalized over the years, he persisted in his work.

Then, he saw it. Based on the patterns Wafulah witnessed, Mount Nyiragongo was about to blow. There had been a series of tremors in the earth some months before. Black smoke rose from the mountain. The lava pool inside the crater had shifted and was getting higher.

But these weren’t the first signs. Two years earlier, he witnessed the eruption of the smaller volcano. Since the two volcanoes were connected by a small fissure, the volcanologist predicted that it was only a matter of time before Nyiragongo erupted.

On January 8, Wafulah sent out an email to international authorities, alerting them of the situation. In response, the United Nations agreed to fund a survey team to take readings.

Wafulah also warned residents in the local newspaper that an eruption was coming soon. He had observed that there was 10 times more lava in the volcano’s crater than in 1977, when Nyiragongo erupted and killed hundreds. After a few earthquakes earlier in the month, he predicted that the eruption was only days away.

Wafulah was right. On January 17, 2002, Mount Nyiragongo erupted, pouring down three lava rivers that destroyed 14 villages. Over the next few days, the lava made its way through the city of Goma.

Unfortunately, many people either never received news of the imminent eruption or chose to ignore it. Tens of thousands of people were left homeless and 400,000 were evacuated. When Wafulah was asked whether the authorities and Goma residents would heed his warnings in the future, he responded, “Certainly. They’ll have to.”

Warning Signs Are Everywhere

It’s not just volcanoes that give off warning signs. In our everyday lives, there are often signs that act as precursors of future events. Signs which, if heeded, can help us avoid disaster.

When it comes to our health, our relationships, and work, sometimes we opt to ignore those small warnings until it’s too late. For instance:

Long-term health problems. A study from Northwestern University shows that the lifestyle choices you make in your 20s impacts heart health in your 40s and beyond. The research followed a group of participants, whose average age was 24 years old, and then checked in on them twenty years later.

The majority of people who maintained the five factors of a healthy lifestyle – lean body mass index (BMI), no excess alcohol, no smoking, a healthy diet, and regular physical activity – were able to remain low-risk for cardiovascular disease as they reached middle age. For those who followed none of the healthy lifestyles, however, fewer than 5 percent reached their 40s with low cardiovascular risk.

Crumbling relationships. When relationships of any sort end, it usually isn’t a sudden event, but rather a gradual drifting away. The other person becomes less available to spend time together. Or, you don’t feel comfortable sharing thoughts that you previously would have done without hesitation.

It isn’t obvious right away, and you might not be able to put your finger on it, but the signs are there. You can sense a change from the person’s actions, mood, or their body language. Even though nothing concrete has happened and neither of you have brought anything up, you can’t help but feel that something foreboding is on the horizon.

Failures at work. Research has found that most organizations do not learn well from failures. However, these failures, which are often warning signs, can prevent catastrophic failures down the road if addressed early. When the people within a workplace choose to ignore them, disaster arises.

For instance, on February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke up as it returned to Earth, killing all seven astronauts on board. A large piece of foam had fallen from the shuttle’s external tank, breaching the spacecraft wing. Investigations found that managers at NASA had known about the foam problem for years, yet downplayed the possibility that it was a serious problem. Had action been taken early on, this fatal incident could very well have been prevented.

Why We Ignore Warning Signs

The obvious answer would be to do something. Pinpoint the problem while it’s small, and fix it before it snowballs into a bigger problem. Still, there are valid reasons why we choose to stick our heads in the sand instead.

For one, sometimes there is simply nothing we can do to solve a situation. If a relationship is crumbling before your eyes, it can be nearly impossible to salvage what’s left. In the case of Mount Nyiragongo, the lacking infrastructure in the nearby villages made it difficult to inform locals about the impending volcano. Even if we know bad news is coming, the only thing we can do is prepare ourselves for the inevitable.

Other times, we pretend that a problem simply doesn’t exist. Even when we do acknowledge its existence, we figure the issue isn’t big enough to cause any real damage. Or we might simply shift responsibility as if we played no part in the events. In the NASA disaster, although staff members knew that the side foam was an issue, they dismissed it as inconsequential.

In the face of glaring problems, we figure that the easiest and best answer is to do nothing. Why? For a number of reasons:

  • We dismiss that gut feeling as paranoia or fear.
  • We don’t want to “blow the whistle” and cause trouble within a group setting.
  • We believe that the amount of work involved to fix something is too much relative to the risk of disaster.
  • We don’t want to ruin our reputations by admitting a previous mistake, so we pretend that the current problem isn’t really a problem.

And so, we deny. We deny that something critical is happening or going to happen. We hide the truth both to ourselves and to others.

Denial is a powerful defense mechanism. According to the American Heart Association, denial is a principal reason why treatment for heart disease is delayed. Even if we have the knowledge, the experience, or a nagging feeling that there’s danger, we cope by ignoring the pain.

When we’re faced with something overwhelming, we choose to adapt by pretending everything is fine. After all, it’s the easiest path to follow.

How to Be Proactive in Preventing Disaster

Change is uncomfortable. Though most of us say that we want change in our lives, the reality is that change comes with growing pains. We chafe against anything unfamiliar, even if it’s for the better.

So when it comes to change for the worse, we become especially resistant. But instead of running and hiding, it’s important to face the facts, difficult as that may be. How?

Here are three ways you can start being more proactive:

1. Reframe the way you think about failure

Failures are seen as an embarrassment, to be stored away and never to see the light of day. When our efforts fall short of expectations, we downplay the results. We avoid telling others for fear of judgment.

With these perceptions, it’s no wonder why we don’t want to talk or even think about failure. But what about this: the next time you fail at something, don’t simply toss your result in the trash and forget about it. Instead, turn it into a learning opportunity. Ask yourself, “What should I have done differently? How can I do better next time?”

From your failure, you figured out one method that didn’t work the way you expected. It was a necessary step you needed to go through to improve. After all, you learn just as much from your failures as you do from your successes, if not more.

2. Envision what will happen if you keep going down your current path

If you’ve picked up unhealthy habits, things may be fine for now, but they won’t be in the future. Like a plane that’s off by two degrees, a small mistake today can grow into a fatal mistake eventually. The trajectory you’re headed towards matters more than where you are right now.

Research shows that the average woman in the United States weighs 150 pounds at 19. Ten years later, that number goes up to 162 pounds. For the average 19 year old man, that 175 pounds turns into 184 pounds by the time he reaches 29 years old. Things creep up on you when you don’t notice them.

It’s important to envision what things will look like in the long haul if you continue down the road you’re on. Based on what you did today, would you pleased with how things turn out 20 years from now? A simple decision won’t make much difference today, but it compounds when you make the same choices day after day.

3. Look at the consequences of similar cases

No matter what difficulties or stressful events you’re going through right now, someone before you has been through it before. Whether you find those experiences online, in person, or in your own past, you can see what actions were taken (or lack thereof) and the results.

The consequences may not always be good. Other people’s mistakes can serve as a wake-up call and be the spark for big changes. I once watched a documentary where an enterprising woman shared what exactly caused her to drop everything and start over. She was working at an engineering firm as a recent grad when she noticed an older colleague had a countdown timer.

She asked him what it was for. He said that that timer was counting down the days until he could retire. It was then she realized that if she went down the same path, she could very well be spending most of her life doing something she didn’t enjoy. So she moved cities and eventually started her own businesses.

Understand the Past, Prepare for the Future

If you look back at a situation in your life, all the signs become obvious. You see all the little events that led up to one big event. You wonder why you didn’t notice it immediately before.

In the words of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; But it must be lived forwards.”

Some lessons are only learned the hard way with scrapes and bruises. But sometimes, with a little foresight, you can take painful lessons from the past and apply them to creating a better outcome in the future.

What warning signs are present in your life?

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