If You’re Stuck, Get Unstuck
The financial crisis of 2008-2009 put many organizations between a rock and a hard place. The COVID-19 epidemic has once again been creating these near-panic conditions. Businesses are tightly constrained because sales and revenue have declined or even crashed, yet they have to spend money to make money at some future point.
It’s a bit like a subsistence farmer who finds he’s had a bad harvest one year. He doesn’t get sufficient yield to store enough food for the winter, and, by early March, the only food he has are the seeds he needs to plant as soon as the weather allows.
Should he eat the seeds? Or will he try to manage a semi-starvation diet that may deprive him of the strength to plant and harvest during the growing season?
Are you caught in such a dilemma? If you accept that you are trapped by circumstances beyond your control, you will find that this is again a self-fulfilling prophecy. You need to go into an out-of-balance condition for at least some period of time to avoid these traps, but you need clear assessments and take risks to escape.
As the 2008-2009 financial crisis was unfolding, my co-author Mike Anleitner was discussing this with a 48-year-old engineer who was summarily let go from his automotive job. He was skilled, knowledgeable and hardworking, but his employer, facing economic disaster-lopped off 25% of their staff. Unlike previous reductions in force, most of those now without a job were top-level performers and weren’t pink-slipped to simply clean out deadwood.
It was a near certainty that none of the engineers in this man’s position would be able to find work in the area. And, it was equally clear that no one with a family was likely to be able to sell a house in the area anytime in the near future. Virtually every one of these people seemed to realize that, but they were reluctant to draw hard conclusions from their situations.
As difficult as it may be, Mike suggested that the engineer might have to temporarily relocate to another part of the country, find another job and live in a low-cost rental flat, and then see if he could sell his house and relocate his family if and when things change.
That would be a tremendous imbalance between career and family, but it would at least have the potential that balance could be restored at some point in the near future.
Two months later, this man was still unemployed and still living in suburban Detroit. He was, in effect, eating his seed corn. In subsistence farming, when trapped in a no-win dilemma, a farmer who does that is soon forced to abandon his farm and go somewhere else. He might even end up as a beggar or an indentured servant in some societies. However, he will likely die of starvation if he is adamant about hoping that good fortune will somehow rain down from above. He might die if he abandons the farm, but he is almost certain to starve if he stays and passively waits for assistance.
Few of us face such a draconian choice in life, no matter how bad things look. However, nearly everyone faces difficult decisions at some point, and it’s so easy, so seductive to simply sit still and hope that things will get better. That might happen, but that kind of outcome is far less probable than the situation getting worse.
If you do just sit there, you are stuck. If you stay stuck, you might still prevail. But what are your chances? 1 in 5? 1 in 10? One in a million? You really need to ask yourself a very tough and honest question: if you are likely to fail, do you want to let others dictate the terms, or will you at least take control and decide the terms on which you might fail—and on which you might actually avoid failure?
- If you find that you aren’t cut out for a certain task or job, don’t be afraid to ask to be reassigned. You may end up in a better place. If that doesn’t work, you should not be afraid of starting a discreet but structured search for a new position somewhere else.
- When it comes to health issues, don’t throw up excuses. If you know you must make a big change or face the possibility of illness or even death, you need to get over that as quickly as possible and start changing your behavior. In 2008, a cardiologist told Mike he needed a cardiac stent immediately. He told Mike he shouldn’t go home, or even try to walk to the parking lot; he could drop dead at any moment. Mike, who had no history of heart problems and only modest symptoms, was understandably stunned. He found himself passing through denial, anger and bargaining in seconds but anything less could have been disastrous. He got unstuck and was lying on a gurney in minutes.
- Don’t avoid something you really need to do because it isn’t in your comfort zone. In fact, if you are stuck in a serious situation, you almost certainly need to do something you’d prefer not to do. After Mike’s angioplasty was completed, he revised his diet and became more conscientious about exercise and his blood pressure. He constantly reworks and follows his plan, and his heart health improved measurably. His latest exam could not detect evidence of his heart attack. Like a novice skydiver, you have to jump out of the plane and trust your chute to open. You have to be ready to deploy the reserve, thought. You can have a plan B, plan C or even, as one of Rob’s friends says, “I’m up to plan M.”
- In a time of strict limitations on social gatherings, work and free movement—the kinds of limits that the COVID-19 pandemic imposed—think about how you can use time that was previously used for new and useful ends. Is it time to reach out to old friends on social media? Is learning more about an important subject possible on-line? If you are home with your family, can you play games that are both fun and intellectually stimulating? Can you exercise more? In some ways, these periods have provided a gift of time, a gift that will evaporate unless you are clear-headed even in times of extreme uncertainty.