Last night, safely and socially distant over FaceTime, a buddy and I got to telling old stories, and that sent us into fits of laughter. Rolling, snorting belly laughs from deep within. You know the kind. And it felt so good that I believe we both kept it going because it was such a relief to just laugh.
As we all know, there hasn’t been that much to smile about lately. And that got me thinking.
Sometime over the past 30-plus years of my career, someone offered me a question that, if answered, would help me act in a time of uncertainty. That question has come to be a cornerstone of how I lead my business and, indeed, my life.
It’s a simple question: What is it time for now?
Over the decades, I’ve seen airplanes slam into buildings, the global economy crash and contagious diseases like SARS and Ebola spread fear and trepidation. And I’ve asked myself, What is it time for now?
As the leader of my agency, I’ve lost clients who took 40% of our revenue with them; ended one partnership and begun another; overcome damage caused by toxic employees; shouldered others’ shock and sadness along with my own when a client was violently murdered; and—transformational to me as a leader—lost the confidence of my management team.
And through it all, I returned again and again to that single, essential question: What is it time for now?
It’s a little query with enormous power.
It breaks the frame of my routine and asks me to consider what’s changed, what’s new and what’s headed my way.
It is action-oriented, with a sense of urgency. Now can mean right this minute or in the next year, but whichever, it calls me to move.
It doesn’t judge. There’s no evaluation of what I’ve been doing, so I don’t need to bring any woulda, shoulda, coulda baggage into my thinking.
It opens the door to possibility. It is optimistic.
Enter COVID-19. Like nothing we have ever seen. Way more questions than answers. Fear spreading as fast as the virus. Do we close the office? Will clients pull back? What’s the best way to protect jobs? Where is new opportunity? Where do we invest? Do we hunker down? What, what, what do we do??
I don’t have any more answers than you do. But I have my trusty tool: What is it time for now? Generally the first few times I ask the question, I come up empty-handed. But I keep asking, and eventually clarity begins to emerge.
It was time to close the office. We made the decision late Friday, and suddenly a cloud lifted and the mood lightened.
So far, the clients are holding strong. I’m beginning to consider what might happen next.
We did hire. We converted two awesome contractors before closing the office because we wanted them with us, and we wanted them to have the security that comes from a job not just a contract.
Lay off? Nope. We’re busy and we’re aiming to stay that way. I’m not wasting a single cycle on that question. Better to put my time into ensuring we have business and new sources in the pipeline.
Those questions answered, what else is it time for now? Because when something unprecedented comes your way, your entire world shifts, and nothing seems the same. You have to build a new world view.
Here are some of the things it’s time for me to do now.
It’s time to mourn. My overriding emotional state is one akin to grieving. I can’t describe it better than C.S. Lewis did in his small but mighty book A Grief Observed, where he said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. … The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
I’m not sure what I’m mourning, but I think it’s the loss of security, replaced by the less-welcome knowledge that the global fortune really can turn on a dime. The idea is no longer hypothetical or the stuff of movies.
I don’t fear grief. I’ve learned that mourning helps us weave emotional trauma into our lives. It builds empathy and resiliency. It broadens our emotional range as people and as leaders.
It’s time to orient. With the alteration of the worldview as I know it, I fight feeling utterly lost. What I thought was true no longer is. What looks like one thing is in fact another. I have to find new ways of relating to the world around me.
For instance, I’m in self-isolation, so it feels odd that I can go outside. But I live in the suburbs where I incur little risk by working in my garden, walking the dog and saying hello to neighbors passing by.
This reminds me that I need to be on the lookout for where familiar patterns are holding me back and keeping me from seeing opportunity.
It’s time to bake a cake. Not a fancy one with layers and decorations but a plain one, the kind you bake in a 9-by-13-inch pan and eat with your fingers. I choose the recipe my nana passed along to my father when he lived with a bunch of bachelors. As a kid, I was allowed to make it unsupervised. It has a short list of ingredients I always have on hand. And, it’s chocolate.
All these things are helping me be open to what’s next. Fear, loss and being lost lock me up. When I name them, I tame them. I can replace them with new perspectives. Experience joy. And laugh. Always, belly laugh.