Every once in a while, shit hits the fan.

There are moments in business when it feels like the world is conspiring to get you to quit. Even with the best laid plans and upfront effort, things can still go wrong.

  • A client bailed on a contract without warning.
  • Your new product launch fell short of your expectations.
  • You get whacked with a large, unexpected bill.

Especially when you’re new to business, any one of these threats can feel existential. Self-doubt cuts like a knife. Maybe you just aren’t good enough to win at this game.

But if you stop and think, reality tells another story.

  • You’ve gotten new clients before - so you can do it again.
  • If your launch flopped, you can analyze what you missed and try again. Odds are, nobody even noticed (cuz hey, they didn’t buy).
  • You can almost always make a payment plan to take care of big bills.

If I had a nickel for every time I talked a friend or colleague out of their panic and back into reality, well, I’d have a lot of nickels.

Between my navigating my own challenges, and helping many other biz owners navigate theirs, I’ve earned myself a lot of practice.

But I never really thought about dissecting the practice itself.

That is, until I saw this video of marines training to escape from a sinking helicopter.

Why “Don’t Panic” is easier said than done.

I’ve been watching videos by Destin Sandlin for a while. He’s a former rocket scientist turned Youtuber, creating a fascinating venn diagram of educational science videos focusing on aspects of physics, engineering, and technology that help us understand the world around us.

But this video caught my attention in a way I hadn’t expected.

First, a warning that if you have extreme fears of drowning, or airplane crashes, you might want to skip watching the video and go straight to my takeaways below.

In this video a group of marines learn how to survive a helicopter crashing into water.

As much as I like Destin’s videos, normally I’d skip this video. But something in the first few minutes of the video made my teacher-brain kick into overdrive, and I knew I had to start taking notes.

Because the problem appears to be escaping from a helicopter, upside-down, and underwater.

But as I watched the instructors quickly break the training down into smaller steps, I realized that the real problem they were teaching how to solve was how to overcome panic.

The goal was to get the trainees to learn how to overcome their natural panic instincts to survive in a much more high-stakes environment than the curveballs of self employment.

Even more mind-boggling: two of the marines didn’t even know how to swim.

By the end of the video, I was firmly convinced: successfully completing this training drill (and similarly, managing a far less dangerous panic situations) is not tied to a natural toughness or ability.

Managing your own “panic” reactions is a learnable skill.

So today, I’m going to try to teach you to apply the same lessons to your creative work, and business.

At the very beginning of the video, Destin and the marines learn about handful of things that can literally get you killed if you do them wrong. Thankfully, this kind of problem that doesn’t really exist in most creative work or business.

Then the group prepares to get into the water for their very first exercise. Each subsequent step of their training is going to hinge on this exercise. And according to our Youtube-host, it’s also the hardest step.

1. Figure out if the problem is actually dangerous

In a helicopter, the weight of the engines are on the top of the vessel. So if a helicopter crashes into the water, the whole thing is going be flipped upside down with you inside it. And one of of the unexpected side effects of being upside down underwater is that the air will leave your nose and sinuses, filling your sinuses with water.

Besides sinuses filled with water being painful and uncomfortable, it also triggers your body into thinking DO NOT BREATHE, OR YOU WILL BREATHE IN WATER.

Meanwhile, the marines are wearing safety regulators (similar to divers) allowing them to breathe underwater while they figure out how to get out of the wreck.

To safely escape, Destin and the trainees need to learn how to take a breath of air even though their body (and brain) is telling them not to. It’s very uncomfortable, but with a few rounds of guided practice, Destin is able to take that breath.

In your business, an unexpected setback can make it feel like it’s difficult to breathe.

But what are you actually worried about? And is it actually dangerous?

Are you worried about:

  • Money?
  • Reputation?
  • Not knowing how it’s going to turn out?
  • Something else?

Each person is different, and it doesn’t matter exactly which thing gets your blood pressure up. And honestly, no judgment here. We all have things that set us off.

The key is first knowing which things get that involuntary response for you.

Once you know your triggers, you can prepare yourself mentally (and with evidence) ahead of time.

For example, if you’re more triggered by money, you can look at the evidence in each of these panic-inducing situations:

Your client bailed.

  • Are you going to be able to pay your bills? Probably, if you make it known that you’re available for work!

Your new product launch fell short of expectations.

  • Did you lose a bunch of money creating that product? Hopefully not, because you started with a tiny product first
  • Are you going to have to land another client or go back and get a job? Maybe! but you’ve done that before, and you can do it again, while you figure out next steps towards profitability.

You get whacked with a large, unexpected bill.

  • Do you have to pay the entire bill RIGHT NOW? Maybe! but if you have a fairly clear payment record, most issuers/creditors will help you break a bill payment into smaller, more digestible payments.

And you might approach these situations differently if your trigger is your reputation.

  • Is your client going to smear terrible things about you all over the internet, preventing you from ever landing another client again? Probably not.
  • Does your launch failure mean you are a colossal public failure? Probably not, most likely nobody even saw you do anything in the first place)

The point here is to arm yourself with the knowledge of the evidence that the odds of this threat killing you (and your business) are vanishingly small, so long as you start breathing again and move forward.

2. Maintain your reference points

Okay, let’s go back to the marine training simulation.

Once learning to overcome their body’s resistance to take a breath, the trainees next job was to learn to stay in their seat.

Counterintuitive, right? The last thing you think you’d want to do in a sinking helicopter is stay strapped into your seat.

So why is this step so important?

Because the helicopter is top-heavy (damn propellers). So while it’s sinking…it’s flipping upside down. Whichever way you think is up…isn’t.

Disorientation, in this situation, can be fatal. Losing track of “up” can mean losing track of the exits, or the placement of safety equipment. Which can mean lost time, or worse.

As soon as you leave your seat, that reality changes, and it might be difficult or impossible to regain your bearings. There’s a great quote in the video from the trainer:

“Think about walking through your house, with everything upside down. You’re not going to know where the doorways are, you’re not going to know where anything is.”

And he’s right. Familiar environments become unfamiliar very fast as soon as you lose your frame of reference.

But as long as you are in your seat, you know exactly where you are, and where everything is related to you.

Your brain can yell and scream and panic all it wants, but your reality is unchanged: you are in your seat, and you know where everything is relative to that position.

Fight or flight? Neither. Sit tight. Find and maintain your points of reference.

When something suddenly goes wrong in your business (or in life), you aren’t suddenly a different person in a different place.

In that moment, you are still the same person in the same place. You’re probably behind a computer. In a chair or on a couch. Somewhere relatively safe.

Odds are exceedingly high that you’ll be fine, if you just keep your butt in your safe, comfortable seat and figure out what to do next.

3. Find one small step that gets you closer to the exit

Okay, let’s go back to the upside-down-underwater-helicopter-escape-drill, where the stakes are decidedly higher than most things you’ll ever have to worry about in your business or career.

If you were underwater and could see the exit hatch 10-20 feet away from you, what do you think you should do? If your answer is “swim towards the damn hatch as fast as possible” you’d be dead wrong.

Our trainees learn that it’s a really bad idea to try to swim towards the exit, because:

  • The water around them sloshing around in every direction, likely making it difficult to swim in a straight line.
  • Equipment or debris or even other marines might get in their way, or worse, fall and cause injury or knock them unconscious.
  • Swimming uses a LOT of energy, especially when swimming against currents. This uses a lot of precious oxygen as well, shortening the amount of time you have to safely get to the surface.
  • And my, uh, “favorite” part? The exit door is literally moving _while the helicopter itself is rolling on at least one axis (and possibly more than one).

So yeah. Don’t swim towards the exit.

Instead, the marines’ best technique for getting to the exit safely starts with a single, small step.

Shift yourself one seat closer to the exit. It’s a small action. It consumes a small amount of energy. It exposes you to the least amount of additional danger and risk.

And by repeating this single, small step, the marines are able to incrementally make their way to the exit hatch. And with each shift, they’re able to maintain their reference points.

The bigger the panic, the smaller the initial steps.

Think of this as the entire Stacking the Bricks thesis, applied to crisis management.

  1. Tiny wins are more likely and faster to be achieved
  2. Each small win creates information and insight that you can use in subsequent steps.
  3. Small, early wins increase odds of later, bigger wins.
  4. To achieve any sized win, look for the smallest, most achievable first step in that direction.

When panic-mode sets in on our business and creative work, these steps are the first to go out the window.

We thrash and grab for the nearest fix even if it has the potential to make things worse. We say things we don’t fully mean, and later regret. We rush our work out the door.

Instead, we need to stay anchored to reality and maintain our reference points.

  • Lost a client? What about reaching out to other clients who are happy, or past clients, to see if they are interested in a return engagement?
  • Launched a product with no sales? Step back and analyze what was missing? Did you have people ready to buy? Did you create something they wanted? Why would they buy now?
  • Big unexpected bill? How much can you reasonably afford to pay towards the bill right away, without putting yourself in serious financial trouble? Could you offer that amount as a payment plan?

These are a small number of the many things that can go wrong, cause panic and stress, and potentially ruin your day. But they don’t need to kill your business, or stop you from doing your own thing.

Survival isn’t a single step. It’s one small decision after another.

  1. Identify the threat and be honest about what you’re actually worried about.
  2. Maintain your reference points - who you are, where you are, what resources you have.
  3. Figure out one small step to get closer to resolution.

While there isn’t a boot-camp simulator you can go to, our daily lives provide us with plenty of opportunities to practice. Reality is the best simulator, after all.

Like the marines, your first few tries to will be uncomfortable and maybe embarrassing. But every time you go through a real-life “drill” you will get better. You’ll learn and gain confidence in your ability to recover.

The panic may never goes away entirely. But you will get better at surviving and getting back to doing your best work.

There's more where that came from

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