I was about 100 feet below the ocean surface that morning. Everything was going according to plan. I’m checking out the beautiful colors of the coral reef, watching a moray eel slither in and out of his cave and just enjoying the tranquility and majesty of the underwater water. Then suddenly, in a split second, the airflow from my regulator (the part delivering air from your tank to your mouth) stops. I am out of air. I can’t breathe. Just like that. I’ve got to get myself out of this mess and there’s not a lot of time to waste. My life depends on it. If I start panicking, I’ll likely try to gasp for air but swallow water instead. I somehow need to be calm in the face of imminent danger. (Easier said than done of course.) The clock starts ticking…
I immediately turn toward my dive “buddy” (you’re always supposed to dive with a partner) to share his air but he’s not there. He’s nowhere in sight. The clock continues to tick. I quickly attempt to clear the regulator but it won’t clear. Still no air flow. The clock is ticking louder. Or is that my heartbeat? Wait… I know. I’ve got it. It must be my tank. Somehow it accidentally got shut off. I reach around to adjust the valve but it’s already all the way on. I’m running out of options. If I shoot straight up to the surface with all the force I can muster, I might just make it before I black out. But I’ve been down at depth way too long and I’ll definitely get a really bad case of the bends (an excruciatingly painful and potentially life threatening condition from de-pressurizing too quickly). It’s a race against time. And I’m running out of it. Louder and louder and louder she sounds. Tick. Tick. Tick. I can’t hold my breath much longer so I brace myself for the worst and begin my ascent…
The National Underwater Accident Data Center estimates that about 20% of diver deaths are attributed directly to panic. Add to that another 22% of fatalities which can’t be linked to any specific equipment malfunction and you’re talking about panic attacks likely being the number one cause of scuba fatalities. Not faulty equipment. Not lack of air supply. Heck, not being eaten by a shark. Just pure panic.
Panic (noun): Sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior.
Sound familiar? Have you experienced this? Unless you’ve been living under a rock your entire life, we’ve all experienced it. That moment of intense uncontrollable stress. The pressure so thick you can cut it with a knife. The body’s response is instantaneous – cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline are immediately released into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. It’s the fight or flight response. Your heart starts pounding. Your blood pressure rises. Your pupils dilate. Your muscles tighten. Your breath quickens. Your palms get sweaty. You know the feeling. It’s that moment of impact. It’s do or die. You’re in survival mode and you have a split moment to make a decision. There’s no time to think before acting but it’s too risky to just act without thinking. The two must go hand in hand. And quickly. Time is always the enemy.
The question isn’t whether you’ll ever experience these intensely stressful moments. It’s how you’ll respond in such scenarios. Do you become paralyzed with fear or do you take action? Does the world become blurry and overwhelming or does it become crystal clear and manageable? Are you a victim of your circumstances or are you in control of your circumstances? Do you have a sudden panic attack or do you demonstrate grace under pressure?
As an entrepreneur you face such scenarios all the time. You’re in desperate need of more capital. The bank account is in the red zone. Maybe if you’re lucky you can make it stretch another 90 days. You’ve exhausted your entire list of investors and you’re down to your final pitch. It’s all or nothing. The future of your company, your employees, your livelihood, your dream is all on the line. How will you respond?
You’re walking into a Board mtg. But this is not your typical, quarterly, run-of-the-mill Board mtg. It’s an emergency Board mtg called by your lead investor in order to address the significant downward trend in sales this last quarter. Your biggest competitor is eating your lunch and your head of sales just quit on you. They’re not happy to be there. And you know they’re not happy with you. Will they blame you? Will they reprimand you? Will they fire you? You know the buck stops with the CEO and that’s you. How will you respond?
After months of development, you finally release your new product into the marketplace. But things don’t go well at all. The take rate isn’t anywhere near what you expected. And those who bought are already complaining. The UI is difficult to navigate. And the product keeps crashing. Customers are demanding refunds. And the press only adds fuel to the fire. Scathing stories come out from every which direction. The product doesn’t work. It doesn’t live up to expectations. It’s overhyped. It’s vaporware. Your credibility, your integrity, your honesty, your business acumen are all openly called into question. Right in the public eye for the entire world to witness. There’s no hiding. So how will you respond?
Such intense character-defining moments aren’t just for entrepreneurs. Business executives, surgeons, trial attorneys, fire fighters, police officers, marines, airline pilots and air traffic controllers all face these situations on a regular basis. So do customer support reps, sales reps, engineers, building contractors, teachers, nurses, restaurant managers and a host of other professions. And you don’t have to be in a high pressure job to experience the feeling. How about that really violent turbulence during your flight. How about the sound of an intruder breaking into your house in the middle of the night. How about seeing a shady looking person in a sketchy neighborhood heading straight in your direction. We’ve all been there.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to really prepare that I’m aware of. I should say there’s no way to truly know how you’ll actually respond in the moment of crisis until that moment of crisis occurs. Sure, you can run through all the mock scenarios you want. You can practice dry runs until the cows come home. But when the building is on fire and you can see the smoke and can feel the heat, the evacuation may not look nearly as calm and orderly as during the annual fire drills.
So back to my underwater adventure… As I begin my risky ascent to the surface, suddenly a sense of calm permeates my body and I stop my climb. Somehow, someway at 100 feet under the surface and with precious seconds remaining until I black out, everything becomes crystal clear. It’s like the world slows down and I am able to become hyper-focused on just the task at hand – my survival. That’s it. I couldn’t see or think about anything else. Not the coral reef. Not the ocean. Not my dive buddy. Not my family. Not my breath. Not my death. And then the answer comes to me.
[Note: When you dive, you’re always supposed to carry a secondary regulator, commonly known as an octopus, to be used only in emergencies. It’s hooked up to the same air tank as your primary regulator. During training, it’s taught to be used as an emergency air supply for your dive buddy in case they run out of air. So we train using our dive buddy’s octopus but not our own. After all, if you run out of air, what good would your own octopus do for you when it’s pulling from the same tank?]
So in my moment of clarity, what if I hadn’t actually run out of air? What if it is just a malfunction in my primary regulator but there is still plenty of air left in the tank? Then the octopus might just work. It’s my only hope at this point. So without a second to spare, I reach for it, pull it up to my mouth, and attempt to take a breath. And it works. I finally begin breathing again. Problem solved. Crisis averted.
Maybe not every day. Maybe not in every scenario. But on that day, in that situation, in that moment… I was able to display grace under pressure.