One of my favorite TV shows for a while was The Walking Dead.
The zombie apocalypse premise makes for such good drama because it poses the question, “What would humanity look like if civilization were to crumble to nothing?”
In times of crisis, some people might rise to extraordinary levels of virtue. Many others may descend to the darkest depths of depravity.
The Coronavirus pandemic we are currently experiencing gives us a real taste of that dystopia. Stock markets are tumbling, paper products are disappearing from store shelves, and we seem on the brink (or in the midst) of mass panic.
What can you do to remain calm in the face of crisis?
Of course, this question is relevant even absent the Coronavirus. Startup entrepreneurs face existential danger seemingly weekly. People endure crises in their personal lives and careers regularly.
What are the best practices when you are gripped by fear and entangled in anxiety?
1. Zoom out to the macro level
Up close, everything looks crazy. My kids like to freak each other out when they stare at their scalps up close. Zoom out to a normal level, though, and it’s just hair.
At the atomic level, electrons are whizzing about furiously. With our human eyes, all we see, though, are static objects.
I would imagine that from the International Space Station, life on Earth must look quite placid. From a distant exoplanet, our solar system must seem downright dull.
We must guard against our myopic tendencies by taking the long view on the things that matter. Warren Buffett has famously built the most successful investing career of all time on his ability to remain steadfast when others panic.
The Coronavirus in the US seems scary. Right now.
How must it have felt to have been trapped in Wuhan, China just 4 weeks ago? Post-crisis, the Chinese populace seems rather unfazed.
So when you feel yourself spiraling into fear, take broader context. See not the latest drop in your roller coaster life. See instead the amusement park of living, full of variety — exciting parts and boring parts, risk and safety.
2. Embrace the stress
Crazy, right? Who in the world wants to embrace stress?
In fact, a certain amount of stress makes life fun, and without it, we would actually be miserable.
I once played a round of golf betting a mere $1 per hole with my playing partner; prior to that, I had never played golf with any money on the line. The financial risk was, of course, de minimis, but the fun factor rose by 10.
I remember Serena Williams admitting in an interview that she feels butterflies every time she walks onto a tennis court for a match. The day she doesn’t feel butterflies? That’s the day she quits the sport. Because she’ll know then that there is no intrigue left for her in the sport.
When my Dad and I ran our family business together (and crap was routinely flying into the blades of every conceivable fan), my Dad would say to me, “I love stress!” I would look at him with incredulity, but all I would get back was his warm smile.
“Stress is good for us,” he explained. “I experience stress every day. I’m used to it.” At the time, I would find his reasoning completely unpersuasive, but I realize now that that my Dad preferred to own his stress.
Imagine getting over your need to avoid stress in your life and instead welcoming it in. Imagine dancing with Fear and seeing Apprehension as a good, rather than evil. Once you do so, you can quit worrying and instead roll up your sleeves and get to work.
3. Reassert control
Stress is one thing, but worry is another. Worry is the unproductive by-product of stress.
When I think of “worry,” I think of hand-wringing. What good does hand-wringing do?
Nothing. So the main thing to do when you’re feeling stress or anxiety is to take matters into your own hands and reassert control.
You only need 2 ingredients for asserting control: devising a plan and taking action.
If you’re worried about your business, employment prospects, your stock portfolio or even your health, come up with a plan and spring into action. There is no sense in just sitting there and wallowing in the enormity of it all.
And once you make your plan and take action (e.g., purchasing groceries, asking friends for supplies, making important calls relating to your business), then tie yourself to the mast à-la-Odysseus, and brave the storm. You don’t want to flip-flop between action plans once you’ve set one in place, especially the more severe the crisis. That said, it is fair to reevaluate your plan after a reasonable period. But know that our human tendency is generally to lose faith rather than to keep it.
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In writing up these thoughts, I definitely don’t want to come across as preachy and as minimizing the stress that is out there.
In life wisdom as in physics, for every morsel of advice, there seems to be equal and opposite advice. We are told “Stay the course!” but we are also told that “Only the paranoid survive!”
So I wouldn’t fault anyone for freaking out just a bit right now with the Coronavirus crisis.
But I would encourage you to wash your hands rather than wring them, embrace your family and your fears, and as you Zoom into meetings, remember to zoom out enough to see the lush forest from the prickly trees.
After all, I’m quite certain we’re still pretty far from the zombie apocalypse.