Bumpy or Beautiful?

On a recent return flight to Denver, we encountered a typical summer afternoon of building cumulous clouds. The seat belt sign came on early. Our pilot must’ve asked for slight deviations from air traffic control, because he was skirting around the larger cauliflower-shaped clouds — the ones that create the most turbulence.

I used to fly airplanes, frequently in instrument conditions. One of the coolest things was darting around building cumulous clouds in the bright afternoon sun. But my seatmate this afternoon had different thoughts based on his expression and actions. Perhaps something like, “We’re going to flipping die!” He was a unique blend of animated Valium commercial and a devout Catholic, perhaps recently converted based upon the intensity of his prayers.

It’s all about perspective. I focused on the visual beauty and ignored the moderate turbulence. He concentrated on the physical sensation of his stomach elevating and descending in rapid sequence with his eyes closed.

We’re predisposed to view events in certain ways based on our genetic makeup and our experiences. Is it turbulence or cool-looking clouds? Is the customer complaint a pain in the ass, or is it an opportunity to learn something? Does the departure of your VP of Sales mean imminent revenue loss, or is it a chance to upgrade your team?

Our “natural” perspective isn’t always the right one for the situation. If you’re a successful entrepreneur, there’s a 90 percent chance that you view setbacks and surprises as challenges, not disasters. The real challenge comes when you ignore the brick wall rapidly approaching and treat it like a speed bump.

If your natural perspective is to view all deviations from plan as a disaster and a sign from above that you: a) have the wrong team, b) have stupid customers or c) had the wrong parents, that isn’t too helpful.

In my experience, the most successful executives are neither extreme. They don’t wig out with every surprise, nor do they try to ignore lurking disaster. This means that they must learn how to reframe issues to save themselves (and those around them!) from unwarranted optimism and apocalyptic thoughts.

Here’s the magic question that you should internalize and pull out next time you experience a surprise: “How else could I view this event?” It’s the equivalent of having another smart person on your team to help you synthesize information and create context, a trusted thought partner that you can call on anytime to temper your natural tendencies.

Physical discomfort from turbulence is hard to “think away.” But whether it’s a death sentence or a nice view out the window is largely within your control.

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