In his inaugural speech of 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the nation as it was being consumed by what is now known as the Great Depression. One of his most memorable statements from that now-famous speech is, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." What you may not know, though, is the full context of that declaration: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
FDR certainly had it right about that crisis. He realized that economic conditions -- both bad and good -- are influenced by the psychology of the times. FDR also knew that the psychology of panic that was overtaking our country during that economic crisis would prevent it from taking the action it needed to recover quickly.
The Great Recession
This recent economic crisis has been dubbed the Great Recession. But, contrary to what FDR said, in today's economic climate there appears to be more to fear than fear itself. What we know now is that the psychology of fear, negativity and panic spread like an epidemic across our country and around the world. We witnessed a race out of the stock market, investors withdrawing money reflexively, knee-jerk reactions from politicians and hasty and poorly thought out decision-making by policy makers.
The Great Recession As A Laboratory
The Great Recession has presented us with a unique laboratory that offers us a rare opportunity to plumb the psychological depths of the crisis and gain real insight into the nature of crises and how we respond to them. From this remarkable petri dish, we can find answers to some essential questions: what is our emotional reaction to crises? What do we think about in a crisis? How do we react in a crisis? And, most importantly, what can we learn from this catastrophe to help us deal with the crises we will inevitably confront in the future?
A Crisis Is A Crisis
I believe that a crisis is a crisis. We face crises of all sorts, of varying degrees of magnitude, every day, in the form of challenges, obstacles, setbacks and failures. Moreover, crises are a test of our psychological, emotional and leadership capabilities. Crises tell us a lot about who we are, because the best and the worst of us reveals itself most prominently during the stresses of a crisis. And given the fact that crises are a normal part of our lives, the ability to overcome crises will certainly make us better performers, leaders, parents and spouses.
The typical human reaction to crisis is best known as the "fight-or-flight" response, which has evolved in humans over millions of years with a singular purpose: to ensure our survival. The primitive humans who had this reaction had a better chance of survival and passed on those genes to future generations up to the present. This crisis mentality has three components: fear, negativity and panic. Fear prepared us physiologically to fight or flee by increasing our strength and stamina, sharpening our senses and reducing our perception of pain. Focusing on the negative dimensions of the crisis, namely, the immediate threat, ensured that we stayed vigilant to the most apparent dangers, allowing us to respond most quickly. Panic created instantaneous action, either frenetic resistance or rapid flight, that made survival more likely. This reaction was very effective back in primitive times because the threats back then were generally immediate and simple.
Unfortunately, survival is much more complex today. As a result, the crisis psychology of primitive times simply won't work any longer. Fear paralyzes our ability to think clearly, solve problems and make decisions. Negativity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To survive in the concrete, metal and hard-wired jungle in which we now live, you need to develop what I call an opportunity psychology. Instead of fear, you can experience emotional mastery, which isn't the absence of fear but the ability to confront the fear and act proactively and constructively despite it. It involves being able to manage negative emotions, such as fear and anger, and generate helpful emotions, including hope and inspiration. Instead of negativity, constructive thinking promotes thoughtful consideration, problem solving and effective decision making. Finally, instead of panic, opportunity psychology encourages calm and deliberate action that is directed and purposeful.
Admittedly, adopting opportunity psychology is far from easy; there are hundreds of thousands of years of human development pulling us toward the crisis reaction. But you have something that apes did not have, namely, the ability to control emotions, think reflectively and act deliberately. These strengths can enable you to break the grip of the crisis reaction and incorporate the psychology of opportunity.
My investigation of the recent (and ongoing) economic crisis, and many other traumatic events, has revealed seven dimensions that distinguish those who respond well to a crisis from those who don't. Your ability to reject the crisis mentality and cultivate an opportunity psychology depends on your developing these essential capabilities.
- Emotions: Making the transition from the crisis instinct to an opportunity psychology begins with emotions, because they are the most primitive part of us. When faced with fear, frustration or anger, you have to keep from being overwhelmed by these negative emotions before you can do anything positive.
By considering how you respond to crises, both large and small, on these seven dimensions, you will be able to identify what changes you will need to make to better prepare yourself for future crises. By becoming a master of crisis, you become a master of life itself.