When Disaster Strikes

Your doctor reads your EKG and says, “Holy Cow! I’ve never seen anything like this before!”

That “party girl” you woke up to New Year’s Day tells you she missed her period.

You left your bag, with all your IDs and banking information, on the subway.

Sometimes life dishes out these little disasters. How you react to them says much about your character and bears heavily on your ability to carry out a successful life.

The first time I lost my wallet, my first thought was doomsday: a highly skilled theft ring had taken it and already emptied all my bank accounts. That tells you I am prone to panic. K will attest to that. She has had to remind me on countless occasions not to panic, that “chances are everything will turn out fine.”

Having a positive disposition is very helpful when you are faced with a challenge – big or small. But I’ve learned that even bleak-minded people like yours truly can overcome their fears and respond to crisis positively by following a few simple guidelines.

My nephew is a lot like his uncle. Recently, he got himself into a bind at the college he goes to. He acted imprudently and broke a few rules. Now he’s facing disciplinary action. What had begun as a very promising college career at a great university has metamorphosed into a potential disaster.

He’s worried, he told me – so worried that he can’t think straight. He’s imagining Armageddon. Sleeping fitfully. Distracted at work.

I know how he feels. I’d feel the same way if I were in his situation. But I’ve had enough experience by now to know that you can’t give in to your fears. When you are faced with a threatening challenge, it’s difficult to push ahead. But if you don’t find a way to do so, your productivity can quickly shrink to zero and your life can be put on permanent hold.

You don’t want that to happen. So the next time disaster strikes you, follow the protocol I suggested to my nephew in an e-mail this morning:

1. Make friends with the devil.

What is it that is scaring you? It is probably some “worst-case” scenario that you keep running through your mind.

Some people will remind you that most of the time worst-case scenarios don’t unfold. That’s why they call them worst-case. “Don’t worry about that,” they’ll tell you. “It probably won’t happen, so get it out of your head.”

But such advice is useless to the person who has already got the worst-case scenario in his head. It is, after all, a very scary movie. And he’s the star of it. Not thinking about it is not an option.

The solution that works for me is to let the movie play itself out in its entirety. I allow myself to imagine the worst, vividly and in detail. And then I find some way to see myself living satisfactorily with that dire reality.

If, for example, I am imagining identity thieves stealing all my assets and leaving me in penury, I imagine myself being happy to go back to work and start over again. I run a mental movie of myself waking up the next day and starting a new business on the change that is in my pocket, and gradually rebuilding my wealth and a successful career.

By letting the bad movie play out and giving it a happy ending, you can exorcise the fear and return to an emotionally positive state. Only by finding a way to “accept” the worst can you find the peace to take positive action.

Chances are things will not turn out as you have imagined, but if they do you are emotionally prepared for them. You won’t panic. You won’t cry. You will move forward according to your plan.

2. Look for the silver lining.

Every disaster has a silver lining. Even terminal cancer does. You have some amount of time to organize the end of your life and say your goodbyes. You wouldn’t have that chance if your fate was to get run over by a train.

Identify what is good about a bad situation and spend some time thinking about that. If you do it sincerely and repeatedly, it will bring you some emotional comfort.

Eventually – if you are very successful at doing this – you may even find yourself feeling grateful for the problem.

3. Develop a plan.

You need a plan to deal with the problem. The plan should be multi-leveled, since you can’t know how the situation will play out.

A good disaster plan should deal with at least three eventualities: worst case, bad case, good case. Articulate each one clearly and in detail. Then find solutions to, or at least responses for, each of those details.

4. Take action.

Making friends with the devil, finding a silver lining, and developing an action plan will make you feel 100 percent better – and you can do all that in a matter of hours, days at the most. But that improvement in your emotional state won’t last unless you start acting on your plan.

Action – as in all other areas of life – is critical when you are faced with disaster. The moment you start moving your response plan forward, you’ll be making progress and lessening the chances that things will end up really bad.

You’ll feel better about yourself the moment you start, and will continue to feel better so long as you are taking positive action.

[Ed. Note: Setting goals is important – but knowing how to get back on track when something goes wrong is critical to your success. You can learn more proven techniques for accomplishing your goals from your own personal success mentor. ] [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.]