There are two ways to flag down ships. The first is to run up and down the beach, yelling frantically, while waving a flashlight.
The second is to stand still, and tall, and shine your light. Like a lighthouse.
And yet, in storms, we get so frantic and concerned about being able to get the boats' attention that we start running up and down the beach like maniacs, waving our flashlights. With our world in crisis, I've noticed people and organizations abandoning their posts to do just that: run frantically around, hoping to get attention.
I've watched people lose their way amid the rough waters and high tides. Does my job even matter? Am I now a homeschool teacher? Am I supposed to still wear pants with zippers, or is that a thing of the past? And I've seen organizations question how to stay relevant. How do we let our followers know we are here? How do we make sure not to lose customers? How do we stay at the center and top of mind?
When the water is rough, the last thing anyone wants to do is the exact thing we need to do the most: stand still, stand tall, and shine our light. How do we keep ourselves from running wildly up and down the beach? How do we become the lighthouse?
1) Stand Still - Don't outpace the storm
As someone raised in Oklahoma and accustomed to our infamous tornado season, I know the goal during a storm is to find a safe place and stand still. It is not to try to outrun the twister. The goal is to find shelter, stay informed, and remain calm until it passes.
That is to say, you let the storm pass you. You don't try to outpace the storm. And yet, during this current crisis, we all seem to think the goal is to stay one step ahead of all this. To keep up with its pace. To predict its moves. Maybe even to determine what our organization, or our lives, will look like when all this passes. And while I understand that financial projections and food rations are certainly necessary, it's also important to remember that you cannot match the storm's energy. You must stand strong and still.
When the university declared it was moving to virtual for the rest of the spring semester, I began to worry about summer and fall. I called a colleague to ask what I should do about a class I would be teaching in September--six months from now. Her response: "Have you figured out what you will be doing for your class this Tuesday?" Nope. I had let myself try to move further and faster than the storm, believing I could outpace it. The benefit of that to me is that it makes me (falsely) believe I have some control. The drawback is, if all goes back to (somewhat) normal in September, I would have wasted insane amounts of energy on something that will never come to pass. Energy, mind you, that could have been spent in the here and now. On the classes I currently have. And focusing on the classes I currently have, with the knowledge I currently have, and the skills I currently have, are how I will stand still and weather the storm.
2) Stand Tall - Don't fundamentally change
There's certainly a lot of pressure in companies to change their very essence to keep up with this crisis. You can watch as workplaces feel the gut punch of being called "nonessential" or scramble to change the way they function so they are not forgotten (or gone for good). The storm is raging, they say, so we must rage, too. Now, this isn't the collapse of Blockbuster--a sea change that was ignored until it was too late. This is a storm. And unlike a sea change, storms pass. This isn't to say the wake of its destruction won't be terrible, perhaps more cataclysmic than we can comprehend right now. But that's not the time to completely change who you are or what you do. Imagine if, during the storm, the lighthouse got worried, got up, and tried to choose another place to shine. The boats on the rough waters would not only be confused, they'd be less successful at finding their way home. It's okay to change some of what you do during this time, or reevaluate your efforts and practices, but if you fundamentally change who you are, or abandon your post, you'll lose the very boats that followed your light all along.
When the university moved all courses online, my only idea was to keep the same structure I always provide, but in a virtual setting. Given that my classes are discussion-based and rely on people sitting in a room and debating what we've read, I simply picked the course up and moved it to a Zoom call. My first virtual class meeting was surprisingly similar to our in-person classes, and I was warmed by the idea that the storm was raging, but we were all standing together as still as we could. But, I watched my brilliant colleagues--who are far more tech-savvy than me--start to produce beautiful and engaging online content. Using green screens and professional lighting in their homes, and special effects that I thought only happened in Hollywood. I started to panic. Then I started to Google how to set up a studio in my home, checked Amazon for cheap lighting kits, and searched for freelancers who could help me edit videos (should I ever learn how to make one). Two hours into this--me raging with the storm--I realized I had abandoned my post and was running frantically up and down the beach. Don't become who you aren't during a storm. Stand taller so the boats can see where you are.
3) Shine Bright - Don't focus on any light but your own
Most people worry more about what others think of them than what they think of themselves. And any time we start to worry what other people think, we are essentially running up and down the beach trying to mimic other flashes of light. It's also easy to see other points of light as competition. Because a storm and a crisis make us believe there is scarcity. I mean, look how people have acted about toilet paper. We become enemies of each other, or at least assume we are competing for the same thing. The same boats. In the case of organizations, it's competing for relevancy. How is my organization going to be more visible than another? How is my work going to matter more than someone else's? But here's the reality: the ocean is enormous, and the boats needing help to shore are endless.
I recently got caught up in everyone's light but my own. It was during the run-up to having our kids start school in this new virtual world. There were dozens of emails from the district, from their teachers, from the superintendent. There were videos to watch on social media, there were articles to consume about homeschool best practices. And there were fellow friends reaching out to see if we'd be on the Zoom call with the class later in the day. I was looking at every point of light except my own, and I started feeling insecure that my kids are still in their pjs at lunchtime. But all those new flashes are not my light. That's a lot of other light shining for me to see. And if any of that light helps some to shore, good. But at the end of the day, my little family has to do what it needs to do to weather this storm. To take in the light we can, and close our eyes when it's all too blinding. As it turns out, our light was about 30 minutes of school activities this morning, and ditching one of the class Zoom calls so the girls could play in the sprinkler.
In a storm, we can't see the boats. And that can convince us we must go to the boats. We must run up and down the beach and flag down our customers, or our students, and essentially, our relevancy. But during a storm (and in truth, even during calm waters), all we can do is stand still, stand tall, and shine our light, resting assured that's the only way to be when the waves come crashing all around.
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