RISMEDIA, August 5, 2011—People are regularly faced with adversity and unpredictable challenges. One of the key differentiating variables among us is how we handle and adapt to these events. Moreover, it can be incredibly easy to become distracted and unfocused, and, as a result, have difficulty maintaining the mental sharpness you need to work towards achieving your objectives. Likewise, lack of focus can inhibit your ability to quickly respond and adapt to change and adversity. Being prepared to make a decision, can be the difference between life and death.
Thursday, June 17, 2011, will remain indelibly etched in my memory. What started out as a normal work day ended in a manner that has eternally changed me and inspired me to share the story with others.
After an uneventful work day, my journey from Charlotte, N.C., to Washington D.C. was to begin with a late afternoon flight for a 24-hour business trip. As is typical during our summers in the southeast, severe thunderstorms were forecast for the late afternoon. As we were getting ready to take off, the flight was grounded for 30 minutes in the middle of the runway because of the bad weather. Once we did take off for what was supposed to be a 50 minute flight, we hit unusually rough turbulence. We went into holding patterns as our pilot was unable to land the plan in the midst of the rapid-fire lightning that lit up the sky all around the plane. We’d drop, and then gain altitude. The plane shook randomly and violently causing passengers to become fearful. The eerie silence that permeated the cabin was occasionally broken by the screams of those unable to contain their fear. People held hands, attempted to text friends and loved ones, and prayed for a safe landing.
Flying as a passenger on a flight like that, with your life entrusted to an unknown pilot, is one of the most frustrating and helpless situations I can imagine. You simply have no control over the situation and must accept that the pilots and the airplane mechanics will see you through safely. Upon landing, passengers clapped, cheered and, thanked the pilots. I felt relief. Little did I know this was only the beginning of my journey over the next 12 hours.
I departed the airport for a dinner meeting in Northern Virginia with an old friend. Our conversation was productive and stimulating. My friend and I caught up as though no time had passed, and although there were years of life changes and business items to discuss, our conversation predictably focused—as a result of my harrowing flying experience—on the theme of living life to the fullest, spirituality, staying focused on priorities, and helping ourselves and others fulfill their potential.
By the end of the night, I was mentally and physically drained. Thanks to heavy rain and lightning, I crawled into a cab, drenched to the core, but looking forward to the comfort that awaited me at the hotel.
After an uneventful start to the drive, we were suddenly confronted by a man intent on malice. He stepped off the sidewalk and walked directly toward our car with both arms fully extended, pointing a gun at us. My taxi driver, Lee, in this pinnacle moment of life, froze, panicked and stopped the car. I will never forget the violent vision of the man with the gun pointing at us. Nor will I ever fully comprehend why he didn’t shoot us, because with the taxi stopped, we were two fish in a barrel.
They say that in moments like this, time stands still. I will never forget waiting to hear the gunshots. I will never forget how it felt to wonder if I’d be alive the next morning.
Here I was in yet another situation, on the same evening, feeling as if my fate was completely out of my control. Sitting in the back of a cab, I realized that I essentially had two choices: jump out of the taxi and run, or; duck down and do everything in my power to convince Lee—who was literally frozen with fear—to put his foot on the gas. I quickly assessed my risk and made my choice to stay in the taxi. I yelled and pleaded with the driver to put his foot on the gas and go. After a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, I was able to convince Lee to jump on the gas and leave the scene before any shots were fired.
After safely escaping, Lee and I had some quality bonding time as we drove to my hotel and waited for the police. Ironically, my hotel was the Washington Hilton—where Ronald Reagan was shot.
As Lee and I recapped the event, we also discussed our kids and other facts about our lives and agreed we would forever be connected by this night. He expressed strong gratitude towards me for helping him unfreeze and move forward.
I don’t think I slept much the next few nights and I spent a lot of time reflecting on the day and sequence of events. More than ever, I continue to be convinced that everything in life happens for a reason. The key is what you learn from it and how you apply this information in a constructive way as you move forward. In the blink of an eye everything and anything can change.
As I reflect on that day, one of my prevailing thoughts is that every one of us is faced with adversity and challenges in life, both personally and professionally. The key is how you handle these situations. Do you approach your challenges with calm, clear thoughts, or like Lee and many people, are you unable to think clearly or, even worse, panic? I’m far from a psychologist, but to me the key is mental preparedness. I couldn’t have ever predicted or planned for the event that occurred this particular evening, but the reality is you always need to be prepared to make an educated decision regarding whatever high-risk situation you may face in life because most of the time, we are not just passengers on an airplane. Most of the time, we do indeed have the ability to affect the outcome of our situation.
In my view, taking decisive action significantly increases your chances of improving the situation, whereas doing nothing exponentially increases the chance of a negative outcome. Are you mentally prepared to take control of your own destiny by making a choice? Despite his fear of driving a cab in a major metropolitan area, Lee had never prepared for how he would deal with a situation in which his fears were realized. In that moment, although he was at the wheel, he acted like a passenger on airplane. Yet, if we had continued to sit in the middle of the street without doing anything, our chances of survival would have significantly diminished.
To provide better insight into this subject I reached out to my friend Dr. Mark Goulston. Dr. Goulston is the author of the international best selling book, Just Listen, Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone. Dr. Goulston provided me the following paradigm to help explain the psychological process of mental preparedness and why it is so important:
Crisis Leads to “Break-In” – Breaks in your normal mode of thinking, feeling, and doing.
-Leads to Break-Down – The way you’re thinking, feeling and acting all overlap and are thrown into disarray.
-Leads to Panic Button – Makes you feel unglued. Often times a coach/mentor/someone you trust and have confidence in is required to assist you with getting through the challenge without panicking.
-Leads to Breaking Apart – Letting rather than fearing your thinking. Feeling and acting come apart in order to reconfigure your actions and reactions according to the present reality you’re facing.
-Leads to Break-Through – A new configuration of your thinking, feeling and doing aligns with your current and new reality.
-Which finally leads to Break-Out – Enables you to either effectively navigate your way through your current challenge and/or leave the others and/or competition in life behind who haven’t gone through this paradigm shift and process.
Dr. Goulston’s point is that you have to be mentally prepared to handle and adapt to crisis and change. If you are not prepared, panic can occur, which severely limits your ability to effectively react to situations. In this instance, Lee wasn’t prepared and he panicked, and he needed my assistance in order to adapt and effectively react.
I further discussed the notion of mental preparedness with two of my friends who are retired professional athletes.
The first, Ricky Rudd, was one of the premier drivers in NASCAR. Ricky shared that mental preparedness was essential each time he got into a race car. He broke down the process in this manner. Rudd noted that there was clear correlation between risk, intensity, and alertness. His alertness went substantially up when he got into the race car as a result of the risk and intensity of the situation. However, he was quick to point out that just because your perceived risk goes down you shouldn’t completely lower your alertness. Through experience and learned behavior, he followed this process throughout each race and then applied this in his daily life as well: See, Assess, Analyze, Process and React. He noted, “With each event you face, you only have one chance to make a right or wrong decision and you often have to be prepared to make a split-second decision.” He illustrated that often times his spotter would provide him information about a wreck in front of him on the track and he had to make a split-second decision based on his experience and assessment of the situation about what to do and where to drive. Not making a decision would typically lead to him wrecking as well at speeds often approaching 200 miles per hour.
The second, Adrian Murrell, was one of the top running backs in the NFL during the 1990s. Murrell pointed out that whether in life or on the football field you can never predict and prepare for every situation. However, he noted that it is essential to be mentally prepared and leverage your experience to make decisions with conviction. He illustrated, “Often times the play that was called by the quarterback didn’t work. The defense shifted their alignment and he had to make an instantaneous decision about which gap he was going to run, cut he was going to make, or person he was going to block. Doing nothing and freezing would lead to a disastrous result.” The key was leveraging his experience, not spending too much time overanalyzing the situation and most importantly, not panicking. He said the key was a constant state of readiness, focus and mental preparedness.
Life is an amazing gift and it’s up to you to be prepared and capable of making the requisite, hard and educated choices in a timely manner, sometimes in the blink of an eye, in order to reach your potential and achieve your objectives. As illustrated through my experience this one memorable night – and through those shared by Dr. Goulston, Ricky Rudd and Adrian Murrell – it’s essential to never panic and be prepared to make split-second decisions with conviction based on a combination of assessing the applicable variables and experience. Are you ready for this challenge because in the blink of an eye your life can change forever?