It's early Sunday evening - two nights ago. You are running downhill on Wildcat Canyon trail in Rancho San Antonio, one of the large open space parks off of scenic I-280.
There is a rustling in the woods. Deer scurrying away from runners and hikers, you think to yourself. You see deer nearly every time you're up here. And just once a bobcat. And another time a few months ago, a coyote ambled by you on the golden hill mound where one stops for a breather and a silent panorama of the bay with homes and buildings dotting the east hills across from Silicon Valley.
Instinctly, silently, you relay to the creature that it is safe. There is no need to frantically bound through the entangled bush with its heart leaping and eyes darting for cover in fear.
We all have habitual reactions. The error comes in believing they are fixed. And that they are 'natural' to everyone else in your similar situation.
"Do you remember the story back in Chapter 10 where we bought the ten thousand carats of diamonds and almost bankrupted the company?," asks Geshe Michael Roach in The Diamond Cutter.
Roach had accidently ordered ten times the amount of raw diamonds actually needed. He'd heard ten thousand when his boss uttered a thousand into the phone. It wasn't until he returned from a part-sourcing, part-vacation trip in Asia to a furious boss in the Manhattan offices that he found out that something had gone terribly wrong.
I've been in start-ups. This is the point where the natural reaction is panic. The typical reaction is defensiveness and finger-pointing: You definitely said ten thousand. I asked twice. Look, it's here in my notebook. The ordinary reaction is gloom: even one thousand carats is a big order in your company. Cash flow is kaput. The mental spiral downhill appears normal. Expected.
It's important at this point to realize that the ten thousand carats can be validly and correctly viewed either as a problem or the beginning of an opportunity. Viewing them as a problem already makes you nervous; it puts you in a defensive position mentally and quashes your creativity. Decide that you must have had a killer idea last week and needed the ten thousand carats to pull it off; it's just that now you can't remember what your great idea was. So just figure it out. - Geshe Michael Roach, The Diamond Cutter
Now you peer into the woods. It is not a deer. A cougar stares back at you framed by the shadowed greenery. You slow your slight downhill stride. Aloud this time you reassure: "It's o.k.," The cougar looks straight at you. It's round ears do not twitch. It totally stops every sinewy movement.
A common strategy we have used at Andin [International Diamond Corporation] was to back-design a product to fit the raw material we had overbought by accident. Not panicking in these types of situations means that you avoid tying up precious creative mental space (which would delay having the idea that's going to solve the problem); it also prevents negative imprints [into your mind] that would, over the next few days and weeks, float up to the conscious mind and actually block your perception of the opportunity. So it's important to stay cool and concentrate on remembering, just what was I going to do with those ten thousand carats? - The Diamond Cutter
It's not the first time I've seen a cougar in the wild. Alone. The first time it was a crisp October day in 1996 on the Mueller Park trail about a half-hour north of Salt Lake City. You are training for a 40-plus miler race on the Kepler Track in New Zealand. You go out mid-day mid-week to avoid the hordes of mountain bikers that descend on this popular single track trail. You hear the dry fall scrub oak leaves crunching behind you. You're used to this: it's time to stop and allow a careening mountain biker through.
Instead there's a cougar less than twenty feet away. You are ten miles from the trailhead. You haven't seen a soul since the first two or three miles.
You're supposed to feel fear. Thunderstruck reverence mixed with awe comes closer to your state of mind. Later you learn that prey feel fear and that fear is palpable to a mountain lion. Seconds or minutes are suspended in a time warp. You each look into each other's eyes and exchange silence.
When I got home and told the story I noted I felt guilty and stupid for my reactions. I taught myself to tweak the emotions of the tale slightly towards the listener's expectations of a terrorific encounter.
Just that previous spring I'd run by the memorial bench in the Sierra foothills dedicated to a female runner that had been killed by a mountain lion. That memory fleeted across my mind when facing the cougar underscoring "I should be afraid."
Andin should be bankrupt, too.
The result at the end of the day is an exquisite, sparkling diamond creation that you can offer for a good price because of the precision of control in the ingredients: in the gold and the diamonds. And the bottom line is that, when the piece hits big at the stores, you have just turned the ten-thousand-carat mistake into a ten-thousand-carat coup. You know how it goes after that. Your boss tell you to go out and get another ten thousand carats of exactly the same stuff... - The Diamond Cutter
p.s. I don't advocate adopting my reactions to a cougar in the wild. I don't have a neurological association in my brain that links cougars with danger. Perhaps out of a long-standing imprint as a kid: I've always been enchanted by big cats.
I was surprised that my split second reaction Sunday wasn't as much awe (as in 1996) as it was compassion. Compassion has been a continual practice of mine of late. I noted the same reaction - no different - than I'd had had for a deer or other animal wildly escaping away except perhaps, again, I feel a special affinity and symbolic significance with cougars and jaguars.
BTW, I'm not always as fearless (readers post-tsunami may recall my old mental pattern - terror of water). I found it instructive that others on the same exact beach as I did not share my level of fear. "I had a feeling that everything was going to be alright," was one reaction. Even initial panickers when they realized there was nothing they could do said, "I surrendered." These folks had the presence of mind to lift their legs up, float on their back and ride the torrent as one is instructed to in whitewater scenarios. And they weren't injured. It's safety training I'm fully well aware of having been on dozens of whitewater trips (my ex was part-owner of a river-running company) including my own Class III and IV endeavors in a hardshell whitewater kayak. That morning of the tsunami all that sage advice was obliterated by my single-minded panic.
I've seen companies go through crisis scenarios. It's amazing instruction - particularly if you are not an investor! - to watch executive's reactions then. I find the ones that have observed multiple leadership styles and many companies fare better because they are keenly aware of the range of possibility for 'natural' reactions. How and why some perceive difficult situations as opportunities and others tumble in the snowball of problems seems a lot less mysterious to me now than say in 2001 when a start-up I was at unraveled incredulously in mere weeks after the founders began anticipating the absolute worst.
It's all a matter of changing your habitual mental patterns through allowing that there's a universe of possible perceptions and reactions and through repeated imprinting. The Diamond Cutter is a radical book. I do not recommend it if you are invested in keeping your habits intact.