Fear is a natural part of life. We all deal with our own fears every day, even if we chose to pretend we don’t have them. Often our fears are simple worries about our day to day activities. Sometimes our fears are paralyzing terrors that keep us from reacting. In order to reach sustainability in uncertainty we have to address the potential fears that exist in the situation.
The problem with uncertainty, is you never really know how it is going to impact you. For the duration of this series I have been talking about how to prepare for the unexpected. I have been using disasters as the example because we have a recent one to look back to, but it could be any uncertain situation that you are facing. The uncertainty of the situation all by itself is the first fear you have to identify. It exists. It may even be why you have followed this thread thus far. So, mark that one down as the first thing that makes you afraid of the situation. In the next post I will detail what to do to mitigate the fears we identify. In this post, I want to focus on being meticulous about discovering what it is that makes you afraid of the uncertain situations you may face. But, why?
As I started out, fear is natural. Fear can motivate action and give you the desire to resolve a problem. However, fear allowed to fester and ramble in you imagination will grow into panic. Everyone deals with panic differently. Some people shut down. This is my most common way of dealing with overwhelming fear or panic. It has been the most common outcome when I have allowed fear to progress to the highest level or I have continued to try to function after my stress factors have overcome my ability to function. To avoid panic, to avoid letting stress factors stack up and overwhelm me, I try to rationally think through what could happen.
If you take any emergency or disaster situation and I asked you what your initial fear is, you will probably say that you are afraid of death. Although death can be a result of emergencies and disasters, the reason this is the most common fear we identify is because it is the worst case scenario, and it is the easiest fear to manifest. In truth, there are numerous other stress factors underneath this one catch all fear. This is an example of how over generalization of a situation can lead to an overwhelming fear and a feeling that there is nothing to be done. I want to move beyond this generalization. I want you to get specific about what actually scares you about a situation. I want you to dissect the situation to create a list of everything within the situation that scares you. To do this, I want to use a tool that most people understand even if they don’t know how to do it. I want to make a plan.
This process of thinking through what could happen or planning is exactly what Dwight Eisenhower in particular meant when he said “In planning for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” He was not alone in this opinion, and that is what I have tried to make clear so far. There is no perfect plan for uncertain events, particularly disaster or emergency situations. I don’t want you to think the plan is the ultimate objective, because it isn’t. In fact, I don’t even want you to make it very detailed yet. Consider it a high level draft. This very act of planning introduces you to the unknowns or the unconsidered. Until you pull back the veil of the unknown, there is too much uncertainty for your mind to handle. In many cases this manifests as that initial fear or that worst case scenario. That initial fear can be so overwhelming on its own that many people simply decide to stop thinking about it. They experience a micro-panic when considering all of the possible outcomes, and they freeze or shut down and never go back to it. They replace a lot of small fears with one overwhelming, unapproachable fear of the worst possible outcome.
When I was starting to train teams to break their work down so they could create small testable parts and deliver faster to their customers, I often told them to focus on the “happy path” first. The happy path is the path in which everything goes right or follows the expected flow exactly. In uncertain situations— when you are trying to plan for them— take this same approach. First identify what the happy path looks like for your emergency. This does not mean the path without the emergency. It is the path that goes 100% as planned in the emergency. Write that plan down. Remember, keep it high level. As you write each step or situation and how you successfully handle the situation, identify the things at each step that make you afraid. Highlight them in that section of your plan. If it starts to become overwhelming, walk away and come back later. Give yourself a break. Trying to push through will shut you down because the stress factors that will continue to weigh on you until you can’t think anymore. Come back later, after you have walked away and done something pleasant. It is not always an unpleasant exercise, but for some who have never tried it or others who are going deeper, it can be difficult. Allow yourself to stop when it gets hard. If you don’t you may never finish the exercise.
With that skeleton completed you are ready to move to the next steps. You could, and should move forward with the “happy path” through the steps outlined in the next post because there is value in getting even that small slice of the plan fully defined and coming back to go deeper. Don’t forget to come back though, it is not enough to focus on the “happy path” and moving on can make you think you are done. No plan ever goes exactly the way we think it should. No plan is ever complete. If all we ever do is consider one option, we will be surprised or unprepared when it doesn’t work. As we iterate through the next steps we will identify things we missed or didn’t think about. Roll those findings into your next iteration.
Once you complete the cycle with one plan, come back and think through each step or each new step. Ask yourself what might go wrong in that step. For each thing that can go wrong, write a similar draft plan adaptation for that failure. How might your plan change to solve that failure? Each of these possible failure points may increase your stress over that particular step. That stress will manifest as a possible fear. If this is an area you are afraid of highlight it on your plan. Take each of these on through the next step as well, completely developing each one on its own. You can have steps that are so well understood or have such a low risk factor that they don’t act as a stress factor. They are not a source of fear you need to manage.
The reason I want you to take one of these deviations at a time, all the way through to the end, is two fold. With each iteration I want your plan to get better. I also want to limit your exposure to overwhelming stress factors. Just like we addressed one area at a time before, continue to limit how much you take on at once. Multiple stress factors acting on you at the same time will increase the possibility of overload and panic. I want you to take this a little at a time and complete each one so that you accomplish your goal of learning how to be sustainable in uncertainty.
In the next post I want to take your draft plan and discover how to deal with each of the noted points that cause you stress or fear. It is not enough to have a plan. In the next post we will look at using your plan to manage your fears and get to sustainability in uncertainty.