I’m no stranger to chaos. A little girl in 1994, I survived the Los Angeles earthquake in a cramped and condemned apartment building. We were rescued from there and sent to an open gym, FEMA “shelter” for the next two months and remained homeless for the next six. I know intimately the mental toll uncertainty, and the fear it breeds, can have on the human soul. Unsure of what will come next or even where you’ll be in six months time you feel driven to emotional exhaustion.
Under the weight of chaos, however, it is possible to tap into unknown reservoirs of courage that can water our most resilient selves and empower us to lead with a forceful yet quiet confidence. Over the course of my storied life, I’ve found four principles that have helped me to find courage even in the most chaotic of times. While none of these are new, when examined through the often foggy lenses of chaos, they reveal a clearer path forward.
I thought that the earthquake (and it’s many aftershocks) were traumatizing, but when I walked into the gym I realized that this saga had just begun. Row after row was lined with cots and cheap plastic bags filled with whatever precious belongings people could carry as they fled. Everyone looked disheveled and worried. What would become of us all?
The only glimmer of hope came in the form of two mobile picnic bench tables, complete with old coloring books and broken crayons. It had been loosely designated a “kids area” and my sisters and I were thrilled at the idea. It was difficult to make out the kids at first, all the faces seemed to blend into one giant stranger, but after a time we identified a handful of kids about our age. We waved “Hi” and made connections that would last for years. We laughed, cried and chatted with all the kids in the shelter, they became our closest friends.
I desperately needed these moments to converse with like-minded people, ones who shared my unique perspective and could empathize with my concerns. Our chats nurtured a sense of community and provided emotional release, helping me process my confusion and fear.
Knowing that, I’ve done something similar during our present uncertainty. I’ve joined weekly Instagram chats with Lauren and the gang from Join the Officials. These informal talks have provided a safe place for laughter and tears for which I’m deeply thankful. More recently, I’ve also hopped on the weekly calls with Jeremy and the Leader Assistant Community. There I’ve gained important insights into the state of our broader profession and felt a real sense of solidarity with people I’ve never actually met.
It takes courage to communicate during times of chaos. We’re vulnerable in a unique way; we have little if any clarity about what lies ahead. It can be difficult to know where to start. Finding time to connect with others can increase our emotional bandwidth by allowing us space to diffuse our own tensions and provide relief in knowing we’re not alone. It can also help embolden us to do the same for others because connection is a renewable resource.
Over time, we settled into life at the shelter, we got used to the smell and the public showers, sort of. Although you never get used to the fear of sleeping with strangers. At night, when the lights go out and the darkness reveals a primitive unease from deep within. We found ways to manage, scooting our cots together in an attempt at tribal closeness.
A few weeks passed and my birthday was now only days away. Growing up “dirt po” as my dad called it (we were too poor, he’d joke, to afford the extra o and r) meant I didn’t have many expectations for my birthday. I was content with a song and maybe a single slice of cake if the budget permitted. I assumed this year would pass with no more than a verbal acknowledgement that it was my birthday, I found solace in our relative safety and comfort.
I was moved to tears when days later, volunteers from the Red Cross pulled together to throw me the best birthday party of my little life. The morning of my birthday folks set up decorations and party themed cutlery. We indulged in the most marvelous cake and I was gifted a hardcover copy of Alice In Wonderland that would inspire my life-long love of reading.
I’m not sure those volunteers knew my name, but they came. Not a one of them had ever seen me, but they came. Somehow, they found a way to allow the state of collective chaos to nurture their character. These wonderful people led with a selfless kind of love that can transform people’s lives. During times of chaos when confusion reigns, we must reflect on the essence of our own character. We must seek out and do the work that nurtures the best part of ourselves.
The shelter was a place for us to lay our heads, a wall between the most vulnerable and the elements. Suffice it to say opportunities for entertainment were scarce. It was up to us to find ways to press pause on the mental stresses we were surrounded by. We had to get creative, and we did. We found opportunities in what would have previously seemed the most mundane of things. We stretch ourselves in ways that only desperation can. We invented all manner of songs and games. We opened a nursery full of babies made of donated sweaters and t-shirts. We learned how to turn every piece of junk into a recycled treasure and create hours of stress-relieving fun.
Admittedly as a child this was likely much easier than it is for my adult self. The mom with a fulltime job at a tech company and three children 6 and under looking to me for unconditional love, support and playtime. But I’ve learned that indulging in creativity promotes really important habits that can relieve stress and help us problem solve. To help trigger new ideas, (that can help us solve complex problems), experts advise that we examine our surroundings. Our current circumstances provide us with an opportunity to do just that. We can employ our observational skills and even boost their development. Allow yourself 30 mins or an hour a day to sit with your thoughts and a journal watching your surroundings. You’re likely to be struck with a smörgåsbord of thoughts and ideas you’ve yet to consider.
Research has shown that when we have a diverse set of experiences can actually help to fuel creativity and innovation. In times of chaos we all find ourselves doing things we never thought we’d do. Each day brings something totally new. When left with few options we ask our brains to expand by imagining new combinations of things.
Emerging successfully from this time of global upheaval will require you to commit to tapping into these three fundamentals. And while your work will undoubtedly support others, ultimately this a commitment to yourself. Growing in these areas will empower you and more importantly equip you for the tsunami of change on the horizon. Many times after the storm has settled we no longer recognize the landscape. Like a seaside ravaged by the unstoppable power of a hurricane, our global economy will be transformed. The future of work has been foisted upon all of us, employers and employees alike. Candidly not everyone will make it. The graveyard of companies will continue to grow, those that remain will have access to an embarrassment of riches: thousands of qualified applicants eager to get back to work. What you choose to do with this time will prepare you for triumph or set you up for failure.
In this moment, today, commit yourself to growth.
To be clear, intentional growth doesn’t center on doing more. It is a mindset shift that allows you to focus on what matters. In the midst of intentional growth, we reveal to our most vulnerable selves that there is more in our world than fear and confusion. The covering of chaos can, with care, transform into a rich soil nourishing hope and creating space for unencumbered development.
What I invite you to consider is what this looks like for you on an individual level. How can you apply these four principles to your family and work-life? Being alert instead of fearful means we choose to focus on what actions we can take. Applying creativity and character to the way your living during this moment of global chaos is likely to establish foundations for long term success that go beyond this moment in history.
I’ll be speaking at the e2 Conference hosted by Admin Gurus and sharing more in-depth skills for Assistants.