“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson may have been referring to professional boxers, but his quote is good advice to business leaders and anyone else who makes plans.
I learned it the hard way on April 3, 2012, in Santa Cruz, California. My son was driving me to inspect a source of cheap books for a non-profit I’m thinking of starting — Free Books For Kids. A few blocks from our destination, some jerk (please fill in a stronger term) ran a red light and T-boned us. My son’s car was totaled. Thank God my son was OK. And, of course, the jerk that hit us was OK. I, sitting in the front passenger seat, wasn’t OK. That’s what I’ve been told anyway. I lost consciousness and don’t remember a thing.
My next memory is lying in a bed, hooked up to an IV with several people in white uniforms staring at me. A medevac helicopter had airlifted me to Stanford Hospital. The local Santa Cruz newspaper reported that I was “expected to survive.” My injuries included a fractured hip and pelvis, two brain bleeds and some other stuff. Not really the results I had planned.
After 11 days in the hospital and surgery on my hip, I was moved to a nursing home in Silicon Valley to receive physical therapy. At that point I was in a wheelchair and the blood clots in my legs (a common side-effect of hip fractures) prevented me from flying home to Wisconsin. Like me, several patients in the nursing home were there temporarily for rehabilitation. But the majority of the population was elderly, permanent residents suffering from various forms of dementia.
While I felt badly for them, it was like coming attractions that you don’t want to see. And not particularly conducive to recovery. OK now, work hard at your physical therapy so you can get better and if you live long enough you’ll end up right back here! The fact that I was probably the youngest person in the nursing home didn’t help. (If you must know, I’m in my late 50s.)
After about six weeks at the nursing home, progressing from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane, I flew home on June 1. It was great to be back even though I was housebound because I couldn’t drive. Home therapy for the next few weeks enabled me to dispense with the cane and drive again. But lots of work still lies ahead. My limp is quite conspicuous. My stamina is mediocre. And the calf of my right leg (the one with the hip fracture) has atrophied. I’m told that physical therapy will remedy all these problems over the next several months to a year. We’ll see.
So what can we learn from this story?
First, when something bad happens and people tell you that “you’re lucky,” they mean you’re lucky a worse outcome didn’t occur. It took me a while to understand this. I couldn’t see how being injured in a car accident made me lucky. Then I got it. I was still alive. I wasn’t crippled. And my personality hadn’t changed (a common result of head trauma). In fact, much to the disappointment of many, I seem to be exactly the same today as I was before.
So the next time a deal falls through, you don’t make your numbers or a competitor beats you to market, remember — you’re lucky. It could have been worse!
Second, when something really bad occurs you may be tempted to search for a deeper meaning. I was almost killed while going to look at low-price books for a non-profit I want to start. So I kept wondering: What’s the big meaning in this? Does it mean I shouldn’t start the non-profit? Does it mean I should redouble my efforts to start the non-profit? Does it mean I was spared for some as-yet-undetermined purpose? The best answer was provided by a friend who said, “It just means a schmuck ran a red light.”
So if your business takes a major hit, don’t worry if you can’t find any profound underlying cause. The bad news may not mean anything more than it appears to mean. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Third, as the old saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” I planned to stay in California for a couple of days not for a couple of months. I also planned to give a keynote speech to an association in Kansas in early May. And I had lots of other plans — the routine plans you always have for running your business day to day. All those plans ended when the car hit me. But I adapted. That’s the key. I ran my business from an old computer available to patients in a hallway of the nursing home. As another old saying goes, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”
So despite business school emphasis on planning, great leaders are great because they can successfully improvise. Of course planning is important. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. Many American presidents have noted that the majority of issues they dealt with while in office could not even have been anticipated. Stuff happens. It’s like when you make a wrong turn because you didn’t follow the instructions from your car’s GPS system. The GPS automatically reorients itself and comes up with a new map. Great leaders reorient to changed circumstances.
So when life hits you in the face, roll with the punch. Adapt. Improvise. That’s what I’ve been doing since the accident. And as they say in the music business, now I’m a one-hit wonder. But I don’t ever want to be hit again!
Malcolm Kushner, “America’s Favorite Humor Consultant,” is the author of the award-winning “The Little Book of Humorous Quotes” and “Presentations For Dummies,” which has sold over 100,000 copies. An internationally acclaimed expert on humor and communication, he co-created a humor exhibit appearing at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Kushner has been profiled in TIME magazine, USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post. His television and radio appearances include CNN, National Public Radio, CNBC, “Voice of America” and “The Larry King Show.” The Wall Street Journal has called him “irrepressible.” A popular speaker at corporate and association meetings, Kushner has spoken everywhere from the Smithsonian Institution to the Inc. 500 Conference. For more information, visit www.kushnergroup.com or www.museumofhumor.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.