The $3,500 commission check you were expecting won’t be coming. The customer canceled the order.
The $15,000 salary increase your boss promised when he hired you will be only $5,000. “Times are tough,” you are told.
And the plumber’s promise that he’d have your toilet fixed by day’s end was just a pipe dream. You need a whole new septic system.
There is nothing like a bad surprise to ruin a good day. Or three or four of them to ruin a good month or a good year.
I once knew a very successful entrepreneur who had to face, in a single, six-month period, the theft of his best three clients by a top-salesman-turned-traitor, the death of his father, and the embarrassment of learning his wife was having an affair with his next-door neighbor.
His business eventually recovered and the neighbor moved to another state. But it was too late for my friend. He couldn’t take all the bad news. He killed himself.
We can’t control the things that happen to us, a wise man once said, but we can very much control how we respond to them.
A wonderful movie based on this premise was 1997’s Life Is Beautiful (which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film). It told the story of a Jewish man, Guido Orefice (played by Roberto Benigni), who, along with his 5-year-old son, was interned in a Nazi concentration camp.
Here was a guy in the worst possible situation. Yet he was able to rise above it and protect his son from the horrors around them by using the power of his imagination — something the Nazi guards could not control.
Guido Orefice was a fictional character. Most of us couldn’t hope to have the resiliency of mind and spirit that he displayed in this movie. Most of us are disappointed when bad things happen to us. Sometimes we feel angry. Sometimes depressed.
You would think that entrepreneurs would be good at dealing with bad news. They are, after all, willing to expose themselves to failure in the pursuit of success. But though they are risk takers, they are calculated risk takers. As a result, they live in a world where most things tend to go as they expect. When they are surprised by a disappointment, they can feel crushed.
I used to be that way. Very much so. But I realized over the years that I had to learn how to cope with disappointment. I tried all sorts of techniques that I read about in books about self-improvement. But I found only one thing that actually works very well and all the time.
That one thing is the infamous Plan B.
Plan B is the answer to the question: “What will I do if this doesn’t turn out the way I think it will?”
You make a sale. Your commission is $3,500. You begin to think about how you are going to spend that money — and then the Plan B question pops up: What if the sale falls through? What if this customer backs out?
You don’t want to have this thought because it seems negative. And yet you cannot deny that it is a possibility. So rather than pushing the thought from your mind, you take a moment to answer it. “If the sale falls through, I will take a deep breath and go on to make my next sale. Furthermore, I will not spend that $3,500 until it is in the bank.”
Conjuring up this Plan B doesn’t affect the outcome one iota. Chances are still just as good as they were that Plan A will work out and you’ll get your money. But if the unthinkable (now thinkable) does happen, you are already mentally prepared to deal with it. You have a positive thought already planted in your mind. And you haven’t done anything foolish (like spending the money before you have it) to compound the problem.
I use this technique for almost everything. When K and I book a flight to the Big Apple to visit our two older sons, for example, I consciously consider the possibility that the flight we are booking will be delayed or cancelled. I check on the next available flight — which takes only a few seconds. And I tell myself, “If the first flight falls through, I will not get angry or upset. I will simply use the extra time to get some reading done and get on the next plane.”
It’s amazing how effective this is.
I even used this technique recently when I hurt my shoulder wrestling. When it didn’t get better after a month, I made an appointment with my orthopedist. Going into the appointment, I hoped I hadn’t done any major damage. But just in case… I imagined what I would do if I had to have an operation.
I decided that my Plan B would be to use the recuperative time to get my heart and lungs in great shape. I planned an exercise routine that would include squats and sprinting and all sorts of resistance exercises involving my legs.
So when my doctor told me that my rotator cuff had torn loose and I needed surgery, I wasn’t terribly bummed out. In fact, I was sort of excited — if you can believe that. This bad news was just the opportunity I needed to get my heart and lungs in the best shape of my adult life.
It’s been four weeks since the operation. And though I can’t do anything with my left arm (it’s still in a sling), I’ve been exercising twice a day — once on my own and once with a trainer), working on my heart and lung strength and stamina. I’ve been sprinting in the morning and pulling my trainer around in the afternoon attached to a big rubber band. I pull him up and down the block, huffing and puffing. I’ve gotten my heart rate up to 175 — 20 beats faster than it was before the injury. When I get back to wrestling in six months, I’ll be a cardiovascular monster!
I did a similar thing about six years ago when I tore up my knee wrestling. (Don’t write to tell me I’m too old to wrestle. This happens to the young guys too.) I had to have my ACL replaced, and was going to be off the Jiu Jitsu mats for six months. For someone with my schedule (and addictive mentality), this could have been seriously unsettling. But I figured out a Plan B before I had the operation.
My fallback plan for the two weeks in bed (and on painkillers — which meant I couldn’t do any meaningful work) was to catch up on all the great movies I had never seen or seen only once. My fallback plan for the rest of the six months was to improve the strength of my upper body and to do a lot of reading and writing that I’d been putting off.
I watched 30 movies during that two-week period and read more than 50 books in the ensuing months. I also wrote a screenplay and a book that turned out to be a bestseller. I wasn’t wrestling, but I was enjoying myself.
Spend five minutes today thinking about your expectations — for your job, your personal relationships… everything.
Write them down. Then make a Plan B for every one. Ask yourself, “If this doesn’t happen, what is the best next thing I can do?”
Make sure all your Plan Bs are positive — things you can do that will improve your life somehow. Initially, it may be difficult to even imagine that some hoped-for event will turn out badly. But after you have installed a good Plan B in your head, the anxiety will subside. It might even disappear. And it will be replaced by a growing acceptance — even anticipation — for your Plan B.
Because some disappointments leave us with free time, you should keep a list of projects and/or tasks that you would like to do. (Have you been thinking about researching your family tree? Mastering a foreign language? Learning to dance the salsa?)
The more time you spend imagining how you can make these things happen, the more excited you’ll be about it. And then, when the time comes (and it almost certainly will), you will move from disappointment to anticipation in no time flat.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]