How to get comfortable with any “first time” and turn unexpected events into opportunities
“Wow, that’s never happened before!”
Whether from an executive in our coaching program who thought they were safe from layoffs by being in the tech industry to a large athleisure company we work with experiencing supply issues while trying to scale, we are hearing this phrase exclaimed on repeat lately.
“I’ve never had to deal with this!”
Firsts challenge our comfort levels, like integrating a new project management system, recalibrating a downsized or upsized team, or scaling new ways of hybrid working together. Even taking a new way to work, finding yourself in a new daily routine to balance parenthood with a new hybrid working environment. The unknown can elevate stress and anxiety levels.
It’s reported that 85% of jobs today won’t exist in 2030*. And of the jobs that do, they will undoubtedly be impacted by new technology, systems, or culture. Our grandparents may have seen huge advances, but the world is changing daily at a rate causing “firsts whiplash.”
Ever day, we’re asked to know or do something new.
It’s one thing to plan for a first – a move across the country, getting married, a new job. But unpredictable firsts – events we’ve never experienced before that happen to us out of the blue – are the most challenging. They can feel shocking and unwanted, leaving us feeling out of control of our lives. Unexpected firsts put a magnifying glass on your current state of mind. If you’re stressed when an unpredictable first happens, your stress will skyrocket. If you love surprises, your excitement goes up to 12 (and congratulations on being wired this way, you’re an outlier! In a good way!)
It may seem unpredictable firsts come out of nowhere, but they’re actually the outcomes of choices we or others have made in the past.
Radical technology disruptions, for example, arise because humans constantly push against the world for smarter, faster ways of getting information or accomplishing tasks (Hi, ChatGPT).
The current climate and conditions on earth are outcomes of choices people have made about leveraging earth’s resources without always considering the long-term impact.
The long overdue initiatives of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) are the outcome of people standing up for hundreds of years of opportunity and equality unfairness.
There’s a certain level of nervousness with any first, even planned ones. After all, we are never sure exactly how a first will turn out. A first date, first time in a leadership position, first time hiring or letting people go, your first child, all exciting yet nerve-wracking experiences.
But unpredictable firsts multiply discomfort because they don’t come according to plan. Suddenly, we’re scrambling to figure out how to navigate something we weren’t prepared for, putting us out of our comfort zone and disrupting the flow of our day or life. Humans typically like stability and love comfort!
What to do when the unexpected happens?
Whether you’re the type of person who loves or hates surprises, there are a few ways you can train yourself to thrive during unpredictable firsts.
Accept. Trying to deny reality will only cause more distress and anxiety. The sooner you can love what is, the faster you’ll be able to step back into your center of gravity and see a way forward.
Ditch victim mode. Life is happening for you, not to you. Even in the worst surprise situations, a gift will emerge. Trust that you’re empowered in your life. Perhaps you didn’t have control over what happened initially, but you certainly have choices in handling a situation and what you make out of it.
Be in a cause-versus-effect mindset. Try to change your thinking from being at the effect of everything around you to being or contributing to the cause of what’s happening. When you feel you own your outcome versus being at the mercy of a situation, you’ll feel more empowered and confident.
Own your calm. In the stressful swirl of an unexpected first, those who can find calm in the chaos will have the most advantage.
How to capitalize on an unpredictable first
Evaluate the first. Is this a first that is a one-off or here to stay? Never let a good surprise opportunity or disruption go to waste. Think about using what happened to your or your team’s advantage.
Role model the way. Even though we aren’t hanging out in saloons and having gun duels at high noon, in some ways, our modern world is more like the wild west than ever. With every surprise first, look for opportunities to protect what’s essential and moral.
Preparing for the unexpected
Looking ahead, we can only expect more unpredictable firsts to happen. In the next five years, we’ll experience the same level of innovation and disruptions that our grandparents saw in the last 100 years.
We can never fully know what will happen in 10 years or even tomorrow, but we can practice our ability to cope with surprises.
Be Curious George. Curiosity as a default mindset will keep you open to seeing and finding possibilities so that when they arise, whether they seem negative or positive, your first feeling will be, “Let’s find out more,” versus “I hate change, go away.”
Schedule spontaneity. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but if you put the time in your schedule every week to see where the wind takes you or to intentionally try something new, it will help you get used to the emotions and responses that come with a first. Perhaps you take a walk in a place you’ve never been, go to an open mic, take a meeting with someone from a different department you haven’t spoken with before, join a cross-functional initiative outside your central role’s scope, enter a contest or travel somewhere with no agenda. The point is not to know precisely what you’ll be doing for that hour and to be intentionally open about the unexpected that will appear.
What-if exercises. Play out scenarios of all the different ways a situation could go. Here’s the catch – you have to come up with positive what-ifs too! Use this disruption map as an example to play out implications and inevitabilities.
Making your first time not your first time
Firsts, as uncomfortable, awkward, uncertain, and scary as they can be sometimes, offer a great deal of opportunity. Looking back on all the firsts of your life, even negative ones, I’m sure they taught you a great deal or had a gift in them. You have survived every first you’ve ever had, so far! And for that, we ring the bell of courage for you!
As Andy Walshe, Director of High Performance for Red Bull and guide for U.S. Olympic athletes and industry-leading scientists to technologists says, “The goal is to make your first time not feel like your first time.” The more you can practice being in unpredictable situations, the stronger, more courageous and calm you’ll be when that unexpected first undoubtedly shows up.
Need help navigating a first for yourself, your team, or your company? We can help you turn lemons into lemonade.
Co-writer / Editor: Shannon Guyton