“You never let a serious crisis go to waste.
And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity
To do things you think you could not do before.”
-Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff, now Mayor of Chicago

Here we are galloping towards Christmas, and I am still contemplating what life lessons I learned from being in the thick of hurricane Sandy and how these lessons can be applied to business – as well as life in general. What held me back from writing this article was the complete devastation that many people suffered from Sandy, including loss of all material possessions and, in some cases, loss of friends and loved ones. I’ve come to the conclusion that I must acknowledge these individuals and their suffering, yet still find some practical lessons that can be applied to buffering ourselves against the fickle forces of life.
It is through crisis that we often discover things that have lain dormant in us – tenacity, commitment, compassion, giving, resiliency and just plain old grit. Crisis can, regardless of race, income or status, bring people together. Crisis is a wake-up call!
Crisis can either make us or break us. For many individuals, crisis results in fatigue, exhaustion or defeat. Crisis can also be a time when some of life’s greatest lessons are learned.
John F. Kennedy once said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”
Much of who you are today has been shaped by how you have faced and dealt with adversity in the past, as well as serving as an indicator about who you will become in the future.
There are many things you cannot control but there are also many you can. We humans are given the gift of forward thinking, the ability to project ourselves in to the future and see alternate paths of choice. That doesn’t mean that we always to do it. However, if you choose, you can give yourself an edge on controlling what might seem uncontrollable.
Three years ago, my wife, Susan, had hip surgery and was in the hospital when a massive storm hit. In the freezing weather, we not only lost electrical power in Fairfield County, Connecticut, but found that most of the roads were blocked with trees and debris. Having camped in the backwoods and considering myself to be a hearty soul, I figured that I could sleep without heat. My shaking chills lasted about three hours before I got wise and called a friend for shelter. Shortly after that episode, I began to research generators but baulked at getting one because of the price. Then, last October, we got hit hard by a massive snowstorm and, unlike most of our neighbors, we, thankfully, only lost power for 12 hours.
After that storm, Susan put her foot down and made the decision to have a Generac self-starting generator installed for – as she said – her peace of mind. So, outside of a few fallen trees, we survived hurricane Sandy – sustained by propane power for a week, taking in friends who did not fare so well. My wife was forward-thinking in planning for a worst-case scenario. She is not a negative thinker but, rather, uses the possibility of the worst case scenario for strategic preparation. Susan likes to be organized – as I do.
Our brain is remarkably designed to project our imagination into the future and to recognize alternate paths of choice. Forward-thinking always incorporates lessons learned from the past in planning for the future. While some people get mentally frozen with fear and worry or simply procrastinate when they think negatively, others are able to be proactive and positively apply their imagination to formulate a plan. You may not be able to prepare for every eventuality, but you can prepare for many possible negative outcomes, both personally and professionally.
Here are some suggestions to help you prepare for a crisis:
Challenge the Arrogance of Assumption: The Arrogance of Assumption occurs the moment we assume that we are always correct in our opinions and refuse to consider other options and, therefore, remain blind to opportunity. We may assume that disaster could not strike us personally, that people do not change, that things will remain the same, that my values are your values or that our company or product is successful enough to endure without questioning or adapting to the times. And, on it goes.
Less than an hour ago, I heard on the news that the entire New York City area had been warned that a disaster of this magnitude, such as hurricane Sandy, would eventually strike the area. That warning occurred 30 years ago! Now the powers-that-be are talking about a criminal investigation. Obviously, someone in some capacity did not challenge their arrogant assumption, or the city would have better prepared to deal with it.
Talk to other people who have been through similar crises as you may going through and find out what they learned. Then consider how you can apply their experiences and those lessons to your life.
Challenge your assumptions!
Discover lessons and prepare by asking yourself questions:
If you have been through a personal or professional crisis, what did you learn from it? How do these lessons apply to you? Answer these questions:
-What was your situation prior to the crisis?
-What specially was taking place in your life, your family’s life or your business?
-What created the crisis?
-What exactly did or didn’t you do to make it through the crisis? That includes your thinking, your actions or both.
-What did you learn from going through the crisis?
-How do the lessons you learned apply to thinking forward?
Share your insight by telling stories: The most effective way of sharing your knowledge and helping other learn is by telling stories. Think about what you learned from going through a crisis – mentally, physically, emotionally or socially. Determine how you can create a story to share these lessons with family, friends or your team.
During a time of crisis a support network can evolve.
If you have had any doubts about who your friends are, a crisis can make that very clear. In fact, a crisis can do even more; it can help you identify a support network that did not exist before the crisis.
I am very big on the value of having a support network in place – long before a crisis happens. People in a support network don’t have to be your best friends but they are often people who are willing to help you out in moments of crisis, people who have your back when the going gets rough.
Don’t wait. Begin to build your support network today and, as I have suggested in the past, look around and discover whom you can help and whom you can be there for in times of crisis. Have a plan in place before a crisis happens and share your plan with your support network.
During a time of crisis the most important things – including relationships – will move to the front, and many of the things you thought were important will move toward the back.
Crisis is the perfect time for you to recognize what is important and what is not – because crisis can perceptually reduce the complexity of life to its basics. We are forced to focus on what is most important. It is an opportunity to reevaluate the priorities in your life, including your health, your material possessions, your job, your leisure choices and your friends. If you have been through or are going through a crisis, it is of paramount importance that you stop and reflect on what is most important to you. Do a reality check as to whether your actions are congruent with what you say is most important. If you are like most people, you will discover those things that have used up a lot of your energy, inner strength and time, invariably slide to the back-burner during periods of crisis.
Crisis is also an opportunity to re-evaluate the people in your life. If there has been a time when you have ignored, brushed off or simply have not been generous with your time, this can change in a crisis. Friends are rare and perhaps now is the time to let them know how important they really are. If you haven’t discovered it yet – strong relationships are ultimately the most important thing for your mental and physical health.
All the above suggestions are meant to spur you into action now. Think forward, prepare for crisis and you will live an exceptional life.