Bad surprises – how to deal with them
As I continue to explore how best to coach executives dealing with the slings and arrows of their
outrageous fortunes, my solution du jour is simple: optimize how you deal with surprise. This holds
true for C-level folks, their assistants, their companies, their kids, their housekeeper, and anyone
else you’d like to throw into the equation.
Not to belittle tragic natural disaster events with an obvious metaphor, but you can bet something
is coming toward you, still unseen, that will shake whatever structures you have established in your
psyche and your world—your priorities, projects, and plans. It will be input that must be incorporated
into the totality of your life and work. It will cause you to have to reshuffle many of the meaningful
components of your day-to-day experience, as well as triggering realizations of meaningfulness
about which you were previously unaware.
You will have to recalibrate your significances and form a new gestalt. You’ll need to get your new
Your take on this change can range from exhilaration to devastation. But no matter what emotion
you have along that spectrum, there are two major ingredients for an optimal response: (1) actively
focused engagement, and (2) having a clear deck.
This is common knowledge and practice for good sailors. When I acquired my first boat, a veteran
skipper told me something very useful. He said, “If someone on your boat is about to hurl, give them
the helm!” Even better for equilibrium than just a visual focus on the horizon is to actually take command
of the vessel. The driver in a car never gets carsick. Surprise will rock the boat, so as soon as you
can, grab the wheel.
A second factor, however, is equally critical for stability—no residue. If you’ve ever been on a sailboat
in an unexpected squall, you’ll know that “ship shape” is not an idle phrase. One loose, unnecessary,
or out-of-place piece of gear can ruin your day, if not your boat. Martial artists train to clear their
mind. If you are jumped by four people in a dark alley, you don’t want a thousand unprocessed
emails lurking in your psyche.
When I’m not doing anything else, I’m cleaning up my backlog to zero—emails, paper, notes,
thoughts—all the collected and self-generated inputs that demand attention. There’s a surprise
coming toward me, too.
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