The morning after my 13th birthday, while I was getting ready for school, my dad had a massive cerebral haemorrhage at the gym. (So to anyone who tells you exercise won’t hurt you, I say, it really might.)
In that instant my comfortable, privileged suburban life was paused. Neighbours we barely knew were called to take my two younger sisters and I to school, as my mother disappeared in the ambulance after my father. We didn’t know if he was alive or dead. We had zero control over the situation. That state of helpless uncertainty was to last for many months, because although my father did not die (as, unbeknown to us at the time, the paramedics at the scene had told my mother was likely) he remained in a coma, with a hosepipe-sized pipe sticking out of his head to drain the excess fluid build up from his brain (these images stick with you). As he remained in this precarious condition we had no idea whether he would live or die from one day to the next.
Still our lives went on.
Uncertain days turned into weeks, turned into months.
Yet, we still went to school. My grandmother moved in to look after us. My mother, who had been a housewife since I was born had to find a way to pay the bills, taking on part time work at her old profession and teaching music lessons in the afternoon. We cut costs and learned to make do with less. I had to grow up and learn how to cook and take care of my younger sisters (and my grandmother who actually required more looking after than we did). We kept calm and carried on, because, let’s be honest, we had to.
After many touch and go months, it became clear that my father was going to survive. Yet the uncertainty continued. The doctors could give us no assurance that he would recover his mental or physical facilities after such massive brain trauma and such a long coma.
We were lucky. Although he had to learn how to talk, crawl and walk again – a slow process that took years – he eventually made an almost full recovery (aside from some balance issues and vision and hearing loss) and was able to return to his profession and position as family provider. (He’s still going strong. I get my slightly grumpy stoicism and disdain for man-made authority structures from him.)
So why am I telling you all this?
What I learned from this was to accept the things you do not have control over. We had no control over whether my father lived or died. Still, even at 13 I accepted the reality that I might no longer have a father. Once we knew he was going to pull through, we had to accept that he might be physically and mentally disabled. We had to accept reality that we were a lot less financially secure than we were before. We had to live with uncertainty as a constant for many years. And we had to learn to live within the new constraints. We had to adapt to our new normal, where dad was an invalid who slept all day and mom was no longer available on demand.
I also learned to be honest about risk and uncertainty. My mother never lied to us and told us that our father would be “fine”. No. She did not hide the problems that we had to face and the choices and constraints she had to decide between. She explained the seriousness of the situation and the likelihood that we would lose both out father and our home – and what we would do if the worst happened. By admitting the real possibility of the worst outcome, we were prepared to face that together.
Another lesson I took to heart was the importance of aways being prepared for the next crisis. This means investing in your future, and insuring the things you cannot afford to lose. If my parents did not have medical and income insurance, the hospital bills alone would have bankrupted us. I saw first hand how important it is to save, invest and plan for the unthinkable. No one is lucky all the time. As such, from my very first paycheck to this day I’ve saved at least 20% of my income and have never skipped a medical aid payment (yes, even when I was earning all of R6,000 a month at my very first job the early 2000s sharing a little apartment with three roommates and living off office coffee and tinned food, I always paid my future self first. I had no luxury goods or experiences, but I had the luxury of a little peace of mind).
Lastly, I learned the importance of independence. Independence means your family is not dependant on strangers for survival. This does not mean refusing help, rather it means that charity starts at home, and that in times of crisis, the only people you can really count on are your family and true friends (unfortunately, you only find out who those true friends are in crises). Furthermore, the biggest gift you can give your future self and your dependants is the gift of independence. My family’s income at that stage was fully dependant on my father’s salary as a professional engineer. After he recovered, he quit his job and started his own practice. So did my mother (an occupational therapist by training). They realised the value of having multiple, independent streams of income and instilled these values of self-reliance in us, their daughters.
These lessons served me well 15 years later.
The week I went back to work after four months of maternity leave, my husband had a massive motorbike accident and ended up in ICU, in a medically induced coma. Once again, my life and plans were placed on pause. Once again I had no choice but to submit to uncertainty, not knowing if I would end up a single mother, or with a seriously disabled spouse. Not knowing how to run his business or pay his 50-odd employees should he not recover…
Yet because of the lessons I had learned as a teenager, I was not caught totally unprepared. I had emergency plans and buffers in place. More importantly, I was mentally prepared to survive again.
And, once again we were lucky. After three months in hospital, and many more months physical therapy, despite head injuries, internal injuries and multiple fractures in every limb (yes just like in the cartoons), he too made an almost full recovery, and was within a year, able to walk and work again. (No it wasn’t easy, yes there are still all kinds of scars but that is another story for another day. The point is, we adjusted. We accepted. We carried on. To paraphrase a thought by my favourite author Terry Pratchett, a body can get used to pretty much anything other than being dead.)
Now, in the midst of COVID-19, I find my life as usual on pause for the third time. I am ready.
Maybe this time we will not be so lucky. Maybe this time all three of our businesses will fail to survive the lockdown. Maybe we will have to down-scale our house or sell off our assets to survive.
I accept this. I accept I have little control over the heath and political factors that will decide our fates. However, I have sat down and run through all the best and worst scenarios based on the current constraints. I have planned my options and actions for each eventuality I can imagine. I have constantly invested in myself through ongoing skills development and education. I have, as Dr Seuss said, “Brains in my head and feet in my shoes”. I have invested in multiple income streams and have little pockets of emergency savings stashed across the world (I’m not rich, by any stretch of the imagination, but I am prepared, having made a decision at 13 years old to always invest in my future as well as my present).
I have made peace with uncertainty. Chaos is my friend. I understand that life does not promise or owe me stability, consistency or routine. Nothing is guaranteed. There is no normal. Only life. Wonderful, terrible life. We don’t get to write the script. We can’t prepare for everything that life has in store for us. But can choose to be mentally, physically and financially prepared for anything (as the Stoics suggest) that could come our way. And when those “anythings” do happen, the faster we accept them and make peace with our new reality, understanding what the worst case scenarios might be, the faster we can make proactive plans – to keep moving forward within our new, tighter creative brief.
This personal philosophy of proactive pragmatism has lead me to a career in foresight and futures studies. I think about risk and survival all day long. Hopefully, some of the lessons I’ve shared here will be helpful to you, your family and your businesses too as the world at large continues to stumble though a period of protracted uncomfortable uncertainty without a convenient end date in sight.
Ask yourself, right now, what do you need to accept and let go of? What is the worst that could happen? Could you lose your job? Your business? Your house? A loved one? Accept that possibility. Then decide what you will do if that worst case scenario comes to pass. Yet, at the same time, do not mourn losses that have not happened. Keep doing the best you can with what you are left with whatever that may be. And remember, unless you die (and sorry to be the bearer of bad news, you don’t really have much control over that either – memento mori!), this is unlikely to be the last crisis you will face. Life is a series of crises interspersed by illusions of normalcy.
Crises are not interruptions to your life they are your life. So live them well.
To conclude with, if you need help navigating the current uncertainty, or if you just want to chat about these ideas more, send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’m ready.
Foresight | Futurist | Strategist | Economist | Trend Analyst