Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Paralyzed With Fear

A while back, I was out walking and heard a small voice calling out, clearly very distressed. The voice belonged to a 4 yr-old boy who had climbed a woodpile in his backyard and had become stuck. Clinging to the side of the woodpile, he desperately wanted to get back down again but didn't know how, and he was scared.

I wanted to help, only there was a fence between us that I couldn't climb. The woodpile was at the back of his family's yard, and his parents were out of direct eyesight and earshot. Front access to his yard for me was four-block walk around to an entirely different street, one I was not entirely sure I could find even if I'd have felt comfortable leaving the frightened tyke for the time it would have taken to come to his rescue.

That left talking him down. It should have been easy - he was less than a foot above the ground; one short step down would have put him safely on solid footing. The trouble was, clutching onto his perch as tightly as he was, he had no way of seeing down to the ground to know how close he really was. He was convinced he was quite high up and that to let go would be a dangerous move. The strength of his convictions became readily apparent when the volume of his wailing increased each time I tried to persuade him to take the step. Even getting him to calm down enough to talk was tough.

Ultimately, his mother did hear him and came to his rescue herself. I like to think that my presence was somewhat helpful in that it was probably the louder cries resulting from each new attempt of mine to propose grave mortal danger that drew her attention. The whole event makes me wonder sometimes, though, how often we're absolutely sure that a thing cannot be done and that it would be horribly risky to even try... and in that certainty we are more wrong than we can possibly imagine.

Fear is paralyzing. There's no doubt of that. And even when the fear is justified, that kind of paralysis rarely serves us. So what do we do? What steps can we reasonably take to move beyond that fear and closer to, rather than farther from, safety? And is there a way we can teach ourselves to hear and trust the counterintuitive signals that lead us to that safety when so much else around us is screaming Danger?

If you have thoughts on dealing with fear, send them my way; I can be reached at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com. In the meantime, I'll share some of my own coping mechanisms that I've found to work in upcoming entries.

Sometimes, solid ground is closer than we realize.

Friday, June 13, 2003

Creating Luck

When I was a kid, I was fortunate enough to spend time living on a lake. It was a particularly good lake for waterskiing but only if you got an early start in the morning. Near the beginning and the end of the school year happened to be some of the best conditions because of the combination of the weather and the fact that other people mostly had school in mind instead of skiing. Going for a quick pull before school was not necessarily the norm (no one planned it) but if you were awake, had eaten breakfast already, homework done & clothes laid out - short, if you were prepared - when the airhorn sounded... well, you just might have a chance to sample perfection for a half-hour or so and start the day out right. There was nothing like early morning sun on my back, wind in my hair, and the smoothness of the water that time of day.

Why does this matter in the context of this column?

The point is, are you ready for whatever opportunity is right around the corner or perhaps even staring you in the face? Are you even ready to recognize such an opportunity?

There is a project providing scientific proof of a sort that is starting to get some attention that we do create our own luck... and that staying optimistic and keeping a broad focus that makes it easier to spot a variety of opportunities (even those that come disguised as disasters) is an important component to that process. For more information on the Luck Project, go to www.luckfactor.co.uk, recently written up in Fast Company.

For die-hard pessimists, the same can be said about disasters. I carry water with me on desert hikes and matches on hikes in areas with wetter climates. What sort of preparations have you made in your career to be ready for whatever difficulties or opportunities may come your way?

My favorites include:

* Keeping a running list of the projects I'm working on and the skills I'm developing and the results I've achieved
* Using this and other information to keep my resume updated at least once a quarter ("whether I need it or not")
* Staying in contact with a variety of individuals in and outside of my industry
* Making sure I'm doing as many favors for the people I know as they're doing for me
* Add new people to my list of contacts with each new project, job, or role that I'm involved in
* Regular mental run-down on of how happy and satisfied I am with my work, what drives me right now, and where I feel like I'm really making a difference
* List of skills I want to add - these I either make time to add or are the first things I jump into in the event of having unplanned time on my hands, such as happens so often with unemployment.

What it comes down to is this... Some of the most important turning points in our lives, good and bad, don't bother to announce themselves in advance. That means we've got to be ready for them before they arrive.

How do you stay optimistic? What personal disaster recovery plans do you maintain on a regular basis? Send your suggestions to me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com and I'll share the best ones here.

Just know that when that airhorn blows, you've either got your swimsuit on already or you get left on the dock.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

"I Don't Know. It's a Mystery!"

Today I wrote something on my white board that seems to be a useful sentiment under a variety of circumstances. It's a line from the movie, Shakespeare In Love, written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.

The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster...
...Strangely enough, it all turns out well...
I don't know. It's a mystery.

The fact that it is such a mystery is incredibly unnerving to most people. It takes an enormous amount of discipline (along with some good experiences in the past to bolster faith) in order to hang onto this notion that it all turns out well.

The question, is, when the uncertainty and the usual pain that comes with it is nearly overwhelming, why shouldn't we just give into it? Why bother with summoning up heroic levels of gumption to guts out the tough parts?

The reason is very simple; more often than not, our beliefs - through no particular magic, by the way - become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I'm thinking gloom and doom, I pass it on to others around me. I undermine productivity (my own and others) rather than cultivate and nurture it. If I am so certain that things will not work themselves out, then my brain will automatically filter out any evidence to the contrary. It becomes a vicious cycle and if allowed to continue will result only in one more experience that supports the beliefs and subsequent behaviors that brought it about in the first place.

On the other hand, starting with a belief that things will turn out well makes us more optimistic. In our optimism, our brains begin working overtime to make that perception a reality, brainstorming new ideas, open to opportunities that might be missed otherwise, and creating an infectious atmosphere of success that helps bring others along too. As more success experiences build up, it's easier to believe the next episode of chaos will turn out well also.

So, what if a person gets stuck in the pessimistic view and does want to grab hold of the optimistic view instead, only they don't know how? First off, it helps to recognize that the discomfort of change is normal. It's called Limbo, and it's incredibly common to dislike this phase. If you are feeling a lot of distress during this period, it's completely normal - there's nothing wrong with you in that regard.

In fact, it's often a good idea to give yourself some time (do yourself a favor though, and put a limit to it) to really wallow in whatever self-pity or other negative feelings you might be harboring. Then get rid of it. Use whatever ceremony or ritual works for you to say goodbye to the grief and accept that whatever you have lost is now gone, so it's time to start looking for what's new.

In the process, just keep reminding yourself that it does get better... "Crisis, by definition, is self-limiting"

Face it, at some point, it either goes away, or becomes chronic. In either case, it doesn't feel nearly as ugly as it does now. If it becomes chronic, we find other ways to cope.

Next, focus on what CAN BE. Create a realistic idea of what you can do now, either short term or long term, that is completely in line with what you've always wanted to do. Expand your thinking... what have you wanted that didn't seem possible before? Is there something about where you are now that actually minimizes your risk? For instance, one person I know decided that what he'd always wanted to do was work with special needs dogs. During a period of unemployment, he realized that even if he wasn't getting paid to do that sort of work, it beat sitting around the house waiting for the phone to ring. With no risk at all, he could step into his life's dream, at least for a short period of time. And in the long run, who knows what sort of opportunities can open up for a person who's fully involved in something they can feel passionate about?

Do you have other suggestions for how people can move successfully through the chaos of change? Email your ideas to me at techsurvivor@soaringmountain.com and I'll share the best ones here.

Create a future that excites you by starting with your thinking.