The art of sailing in rough financial waters

Yesterday, I was talking to a young man who apologized for his loss of confidence.  He has had the spectacular privilege of being shipwrecked not once, but twice, in the grand drama of the 2008 financial crisis in the UK.

“Of course your confidence has been knocked”, I replied.  “But you’ve lost confidence in the world rather than yourself.  You just don’t get that yet.”

The earth is moving under our feet and I am seasick

The first time I went on a cross-Channel ferry,  I found myself suddenly feeling immensely ill, almost as if I had woken up in the middle of the night with food poisoning.  I was wide awake though.  I sat down abruptly, quite alarmed by the sensation of being critically ill.  Fortunately, my companions were experienced sailors and they realized the cause of my distress.  “We’re moving”, they said, very gently.  I would have worked it out eventually, but their kind words saved me from several minutes of worrying and the magnification of my physical discomfort.

I still get seasick, though I pride myself on my ability to puke neatly, to lie down quietly, and to take the discomfort without disturbing the rest of the party.  Yachting in the Caribbean last year, I resolved this has simply got to stop.  If I want to go on boats, and enjoy swimming in a warm sea, I have to learn to cope with ‘the earth moving under my feet’.

The unknown and the unknowable

I would rather not be made redundant of course,  and I would rather this had not happened to my young friend and many of his friends.  But it will happen. To many of us.

We have no way of knowing how long the recession will last.  This recession fits into the category of unknowable rather than unknown.  I learn all about it that I can.  I am collecting good explanations on the page Financial Crisis Visually.

But it is not knowable. Not even the experts know what is happening, or how long it will last.

So how do I cope with this ‘unknowableness’ and the equivalent feeling of being very seasick?

I need to plan for the very short term and keep lots in reserve.

  • What can I get done right now, today?
  • What are the wide range of choices of things I might do tomorrow?

If I can keep those two in balance, I’ll do OK.

A practical plan

Practically-speaking:

  • I need to spend some time every evening going over what I achieved each day, and adding it to my resume.
  • I need to be on top of my finances, to the last penny, and know exactly what I’ve spent and what I owe.  I also need to collect what is owing to me, promptly.
  • Then I need to list all my opportunities in a file or a loose leaf binder.
  • My fourth evening task is to pick out what I must do and will finish on the morrow.   I want achievements in-hand and on my resume.
  • Lastly, I leave plenty of time for the unusual and the unexpected.  About 80%.  That’s what’s needed in uncertain times.

It’s OK for me

Yes, I know. When we are facing a crisis, all of this feels like busy work. We just want it done.  We want it over.  Look at my posts from yesterday and last week.  I was in a blue funk myself.

But if you are in a ship wreck, the last thing you do is start swimming madly hoping to chance on another boat.  You must get clear of the boat that is sinking, but it’s best to get in a lifeboat with as much food, water and safety equipment that you can.

You can bring the sense of panic, or sea-sickness, down by sitting down every evening and doing the exercise I listed.

And if you miss a night, don’t beat yourself up. This is not a religious ritual.  It is a process which helps you get the results you want.   Get back to it the next day.

And let’s do it together

Let me know how to improve the advice.  When all is said and done, we are in the same boat, on stormy seas.

Plan for the near term, finish today what can be done today, put it on your resume, and keep lots in reserve.

See you on the beach!

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.

I am good at dealing with recessions!

or will be!

Professional responsibility can be demanding

In an earlier incarnation, I had a reputation for taking on the tough projects – multiple constituencies, vested interests, and consequences for everyone involved.  I loved that work.  It took listening, carefully; it took discretion; and it took carefully working through details to find solutions that others had missed and being very clear about the consequences we asked each party to tolerate.

During most of the time I did this work, I also taught at the local university.  Students were always surprised when I told them, usually to encourage them when they were losing heart over a project of their own, that there was a moment during every project when I felt the project was going to beat me.  There was always a moment when I had felt that this would be the one.

Running a small business is a lot scarier

Starting a small business took anxiety to a whole new level, and the question I ask myself, is why?  Why is worrying about cash flow so much more scary?

Is it because we are so much less in control?

Is it because the stakes are higher – if we mess up we may have to pack up the business?

Is it because running out of money assaults our middle class identity more severely than not acing a professional project that was regarded as difficult in the first place?

Is it because I have higher self-efficacy or self-belief in professional work?

Is it because professional work is for other people and I am less motivated to look after myself?

Psychological advice almost seems flippant

There is a lot of advice around for dealing with debilitating anxiety and I have dispensed a lot of it myself.

  • I like to be well prepared so I have no reason to be anxious.
  • I make sure I have a fall back position.
  • I remind myself of good times.
  • I value my social support – I know it helps.
  • And I make sure I get exercise, sleep, and eat sensibly.

The truth is is when we feel deep anxiety, it detracts from anything else.  We don’t feel prepared.  We don’t have a fall back position.  Good times in the past aren’t really relevant.  We’re on our own.  And now we, can’t sleep, can’t eat or eat too much, and exercise makes us feel like we will pass out.  And if we are really lucky, we have a full scale anxiety attack that looks like a heart attack to anyone watching.

Lao Tzu might have better advice

I pondered this problem for a day and equally pondered the inadequacy of our advice.  We are able to tell people how to deal with theoretical fear, not the real thing.

Then I stumbled on a saying on the Positive Psychology Daily News New Year blog (which is worth reading for itself – check out the Garbage Truck video and the Gratitude Chain).   About four authors down, Kirsten quotes the Chinese Philosoper, Lao Tzu.

Seek not happiness too greedily and be not  fearful of  unhappiness.

This is very much like Franklin Rooseveldt”s “there is nothing to fear but fear itself”, but it says more.  It does not suggest that we should dismiss negative emotions, or try to arrange our life to avoid them.

A full life includes the positive and the negative, all four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter, and we need to be competent in managing all of them.  To think of winter as the absence or negative of summer, distracts us from learning how to deal with winter, and more importantly, how to enjoy it.

The idea of happiness promoted by Losada’s work on the dynamics of happiness makes us think of emotional space that includes joy and grieving, linked together on a trajectory shaped like a three dimensional butterfly.  It is just as healthy to be in a place of grieving or fear, as one of joy and pleasure, provided it is a place we are passing through and approached  in a spirit of inquiry, inclusion and emphasis on what works.

After reading the Lao Tzu quote, the mental trick I found useful was to think of myself inside fear – not looking at it, but being inside it, looking at it around me.  That seems to restore a sense of what I am doing.

I have to get good at this!

It is not accepting unhappiness, which one reading of the quotation might suggest, but seeing myself dealing competently and effectively with negative situations.

I hope that this helps anyone else who faces perilous decisions this year!

UPDATE: For an HR Managers perspective on the Recession, I have written a summary on a new post.

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