Holding On In A Crisis

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Distress may express itself in many ways. But if you can keep your eyes and your heart open, you will find that relief comes in unexpected forms, too.”

I scribbled this sentiment on my Facebook page after a particularly tough couple of days for some of my favorite clients.

Stuff was happening. Stuff they didn’t like, and couldn’t control. Stuff that has deep implications for what the future may hold.

I felt for them, I truly did. And as their coach, my biggest job was to challenge their assumptions. And to give them a couple of key things to focus on through their continuing trials.

Like, “you get to decide how you’re going to be in this world – who do you want to be?”

Like, “don’t let someone else’s drama affect your sense of purpose.”

Like, “do something today you can be proud of a year from now.”

Like, “you always win when you play to your strengths.”

I know that if, in the midst of chaos, you can hold on to who you are at your very best – and be it – you’re going to be fine. If, when challenged, you can hang on to your integrity, your kindness, your smarts – it all works out for the best.

And at the very least you can live with yourself a year from now.

Amazing things happens when you are true to yourself in the middle of crisis. Know what the best one is?

You draw like-minded people and useful things to you. Just when you need them most.

This sort of kismet-y serendipity becomes your regular portion when you are in alignment with who you’re meant to be in this spinning world of ours. So, sometimes it may feel like one door closes and all the windows stay shut, too. But when you’re in the right place doing the right thing something unexpected always shows up and points you to an utterly lovely house with all windows and doors wide open to you. And they’re open right at this very moment.

All you have to do is keep your eyes and heart open to the opportunities which come your way. Even the unexpected opportunities.

And there are going to be a lot of ’em.


[photo credit: Michele Woodward]

Talkin’ Bout My G-g-g-generation

Over the summer I got together with my old friend and White House colleague Gerry Koenig — we had lost touch and happily re-connected via LinkedIn, the professional social networking site. Gerry, once an Army helicopter pilot, now practices aviation law, and keeps his mind agile by reading interesting books.

He told me about a fascinating book, called The Fourth Turning by the late William Strauss and Neil Howe.

When Gerry mentioned that the book, written in 1997, predicted the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I knew I had to read it. And I did. And, I am seeing the nation’s current financial crisis through different eyes.

Strauss and Howe, historians, economists and experts on generational issues, looked back through American history and identified not only political cycles but generational cycles. Roughly each 80 years, in 20 year cycles, the country moves through a High period, which gives way to an Awakening, which turns into an Unraveling, and then into a Crisis.

Strauss and Howe identify four distinct generations that have repeated over time: Hero, Artist, Prophet, Nomad. According to their research, a Crisis features the Prophets (Baby-Boomers) entering elderhood; Nomads (my generation) entering midlife; Heros (the Millenials) entering young adulthood; and, those entering childhood — the new Artist generation.

In other words, the conditions are exactly right exactly now for our country to enter Crisis.

Back in 1997, Strauss and Howe wrote: “Based on recent Unraveling-era trends, the following circa-2005 scenarios might seem plausible…Economic distress, with public debt in default, entitlement trust funds in bankruptcy, mounting poverty and unemployment, trade wars, collapsing financial markets, and hyperinflation (or deflation).” Sound familiar?

How about: “History offers even more sobering warnings: Armed confrontation usually occurs around the climax of Crisis. If there is confrontation, it is likely to lead to war. This could be any kind of war — class war, sectional war, war against global anarchists or terrorists, or superpower war.”


Before you start quoting lines from Ghostbusters (“a disaster of Biblical proportions! Real wrath of God stuff! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… MASS HYSTERIA!”), let me assure you, the nation has faced Crisis before –and will again — and we’ve emerged into a new High. All is not lost.

In the Crisis, America will want change. We will want the stability of a strong government that works. We will favor personal sacrifice. We will want to be more self-sufficient. We will want solutions, not more of the same. We will demand that our leaders reflect these national values.

What does this mean for you? For your career? For your business? For your kids?

Start now. Especially my fellow Nomads. Move towards self-sufficiency — don’t borrow more than you can pay back. Grow your own tomatoes. Wash your own car. Incorporate a dose of self-sacrifice — trust me, 23 pair of shoes in the closet work with your wardrobe just as successfully as 112. Save five to ten percent of your income. Donate to charities you believe in. Build a business that really serves your best customers. Focus. Teach your children (and yourself) about money, budgets and prudent investing.

“With or without war, American society will be transformed into something different. The emergent society may be something better, a nation that sustains its Framers’ visions with a robust new pride. Or it may be something unspeakably worse. The Fourth Turning will be a time of glory or ruin.”

And so it is for each of us. A time of glory or ruin. We’ve had advance notice of what’s coming — what we do about it as a nation, and as individuals, is completely up to us.

Saying Goodbye

It’s hard to say goodbye. As Shakespeare so aptly put it, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” And in this life there is much to be parted from, often with much grief.

One man becomes suddenly, critically ill and must part with the idea of his youth and vigor.

One young mother loses her own mother, and must part with the idea of herself as someone’s beloved child.

One man parts with his wedding ring after his wife’s death, and lets go of the idea of himself as someone’s husband.

One woman parts with her home and possessions and adjusts to the idea that she won’t live independently for the rest of her life.

I’ve written about crisis and how it can change lives. Crisis forces a redefinition of who we are, and what’s important to us. Altering those fundamental views about ourselves is, no surprise, life changing.

Catalytic crisis requires us to move from the cocoon of “known-self” to “unknown-self”. Embracing the unknown is not something many of us handle particularly well… so, in the alternative, we cling fearfully, ferociously to our known-self.

Known-self may have worked for years. We’re comfortable with all the rules in known-self — and we can anticipate with confidence how we and others will act. Even if we know we’re unhappy in our known-self, at least we know what to expect! Who wants to upset the apple cart? But when clinging to known-self feels like pain, you will change it. Sometimes it seems it takes a crisis to show us just how ill-fitting known-self has become.

The prospect of unknown-self is murky, and for those with control issues, it’s precisely the unknowing that’s so hard. Parting with a definition that really doesn’t work should be, on its face, easy to do. However, parting with the known in favor of the unknown — that seems scary. It’s like emerging from the cocoon we’ve constructed as a worm and learning to live as a butterfly. None of the old rules seem to apply.

So, in those moments, remember: “parting is such sweet sorrow.”

When you say goodbye to something old that no longer fits, you open space for something new. It’s the opportunity for “new-self”. Which could be something nicer, better, happier. Could be something that helps you live more fully. Could be something sweet.

Be open to the opportunity for change that life brings. Welcome it. Because it’s your chance to flap your butterfly wings… and fly.

When To Quit

Every once in a while I have one of those weeks where it seems that every client is talking about the same thing. When that happens, I figure I’m getting some big old honking message.

And I have to write about it.

This week, the ubiqui-topic was “When do I quit?” And there seems to be variety in what it is people want to quit — quit smoking, quit a job, quit a relationship, quit worrying.

But how do you know it’s time? How can you be sure you’re clear, and leaving for the right reasons? What are the right reasons, anyway?

It’s time to quit when the person you are becoming is someone you don’t like. When you’re in a job, and as a condition of employment you are expected to fudge facts, shift numbers and lie to customers, you become a person who fudges, shifts and lies. Is that who you want to be?

A relationship that asks you to set aside your own personal goals, your own friends, your own hobbies — that asks you to nag, or to make excuses for another person, or to change your beliefs — who are you in that kind of relationship? You’re a person with no rudder. You’re a person with no self. Is that who you want to be?

It’s time to quit when you find that you love having the problem more than the problem loves you. If you find yourself talking about the problem all the time, stewing and fretting, worrying about it, analyzing it, turning the problem over and over in your head — is that who you want to be? Is that how you want to use your energy?

There’s an underlying ubiqui-thought we need to address, friends, and it’s: “I should be able to make this work.”

Maybe you could make it work. If you were King of The Forest and could control all the elements. So, let me ask you — do you control your boss? Can you stop him from giving you an ASAP assignment — at 5pm on New Year’s Eve? Can you stop him from lobbing f-bombs at you? Can you stop her from excluding you from important meetings, or distribution of key memos?

Can you make your boyfriend sober? Can you single-handedly restore your spouse to mental health? Is it possible to string together the perfect set of words that will make your boss sit up and say, “By golly, you’re absolutely right! I’m a jerk! I am going to change 30 years of my behavior just because of what you said!”

Ah, folks can dream. But we know the truth: you only control yourself, and you only change yourself. “Making this work” often means adapting yourself to something that’s unhealthy.

And you become, over time, someone you don’t want to be.

“Yes, but…” is another tactic we use to stay stuck in an unhealthy situation. “Yes, but… when he leaves his wife, stops drinking, goes to counseling and gets a job, everything will be perfect.” OK. But for now, he’s with his wife, drinking, avoiding counseling and unemployed. That’s what’s real. The “Yes, but…” you’re waiting for might never happen.

And who are you becoming while you wait?

You and only you have the opportunity, and the right, to live the life you are meant to live. Quitting that which is unhealthy for you and moving toward that which is healthy can be really, really hard. But it’s the only way you become someone you really, really like.

When Times Are Tough

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for yours truly. I’ve faced a 3-D crisis: Death, Disease and Disappointment. A longtime friend died; a woman dear to me is ill; one of my readers has been given a scary diagnosis; and, someone didn’t do what he said he had done. All in all, a challenging time.

How do we get through crisis? How do we function when times are tough? How can we make the best of a bad situation?

Here are some tactics you can use when you face tough times:

First, don’t hurry through difficulties. I know, I know. Sounds counter-intuitive, huh? But finding a solution to a set of difficult problems may take time — and if you rush, you can find yourself applying the wrong solutions, which can completely compound the problem.

Second, accept the gifts difficulty has to offer. Another counter-intuitive thought? Not really. It’s only by fully experiencing the lows that we can fully experience the highs. I believe it’s impossible to live in bliss. Bliss is something that can be touched and savored in the moment — but it’s incredibly hard to sustain. Fully feeling sadness, hurt, vulnerability, disappointment and fear allows us to understand and learn. And to remember we’re only human.

Third, make sure you are surrounded by a team of people ready to help and support you. In my case, my team “floats” depending on what I need. Sometimes my team includes a lawyer (or two), an accountant, a teacher, a consultant or another coach. Sometimes my team consists of three wise women and two bottles of wine. The latter is infinitely more fun than the former, with no offense meant to lawyers and accountants who can be fun in their own special ways. In my “Thinking About Starting Your Own Business” and “Writing Your Own Personal Strategic Plan” workshops, I ask participants to inventory the folks they’ll need on their team to meet their objectives. It’s a good idea to identify your “crisis team” when times are good — so when times get tough, you know who to call. And, if you don’t know who to call, rely on friends, family and colleagues to give you good referrals.

Fourth, if your crisis takes you by complete surprise and you have that deer-in-the-headlights feeling — do this: think of someone you know who’s experienced your crisis before and pretend you’re her. “Carol would ask these questions,” you can tell yourself. Then proceed to ask all of Carol’s questions, which may prompt a few of your own. Our friends the mental health professionals call this “modeling” but you can also call it “surviving” — just until you have the information and strength to get going again.

Finally, remind yourself that you are a resilient person. You haven’t gotten this far without weathering a few storms, right? Reflect on other tough times you have faced– you made it through, didn’t you? You learned something. You made deeper connections with others. You grew stronger.

When times are tough, we are being challenged to our very core to dig deep and be the best people we can be in that moment. The good news is that tough times don’t last forever. And when they pass, our hearts are open to grateful living — and anticipation of the inevitable good times to come.