How to Pivot on a Thought

28/02/2014 13:05 | Updated 29 April 2014

When a redwood tree falls in a forest, there's a sound like a gunshot that can be heard for miles. (So there's an answer to that question.) The loss of such a majestic organism might seem like a tragedy, but it's actually the beginning of a whole new ecosystem, as sun pours through the new opening in the canopy over the forest and dozens of saplings stretch upward from the old trunk.

It's the same in business: Unexpected happenings that interrupt our plans for the future are often an unwelcome shock, but within these situations is always the raw material for something bigger and better. As entrepreneurs, we have a unique freedom to capitalize on these opportunities, and the key to doing it well and quickly is in our thinking.

Trees don't share our sense of drama. They don't say, "Oh no! I can't believe this is happening" and lie there in shock. They just get on with transforming their resources--some salvaged and some newfound--into the best possible new scenario. We humans, though, have brains with a built-in fight-or-flight response and a tendency to think in a linear way that can leave us paralysed when our assumed path is suddenly blocked off or blown to smithereens by some unpredictable event. In a "brain-in-survival-mode" sense, this plays a useful role at first: Stopping in our tracks when our brain senses a break in the path is natural. We need a moment to assess the new reality, take stock, and figure out a safe new way forward. Trouble is, negative emotions like fear, frustration, and anger, and the often escalating stories we spin with them, can get in the way of this positive redirection and keep us from seeing new opportunities and advantages, if we let them.

This tendency is why thinking about your thinking at these moments is so important. It's not the events themselves, but your thinking about them that determines whether you'll feel downtrodden, drained, and out of control, or like the grateful master of your own school of life and success in which you're always growing and improving. Indeed, much has been said and written about how the ability to learn from failure and setbacks contributes to the growth of the best entrepreneurs.

At the heart of that ability to always be learning and improving even in the face of seeming adversity is an ability to pivot quickly with your thinking, and the more you practice this on a daily basis, the more natural and easy it becomes to do. I believe that this is one of the most basic and essential skills an entrepreneur can have in this age of exponential change, so it's one I'm always reinforcing in my own thinking and in the thinking of the entrepreneurs I work with.

There's a profound little trick you can do, and it will always unhook you from that negativity so you can think creatively. (And chances are your clientele and competitors are feeling just as confused and afraid, so if you can master it, you have a distinct advantage.)

It starts by pivoting away from a negative thought into a more productive direction. You essentially become your own "thought police," and instead of following a thought down a dark hole, you stop and ask yourself two questions: "What am I grateful for right now?" and "What is possible now that wasn't before?"

The first question shifts your attention to the resources you have (instead of worrying about what no longer exists). In most cases, you'll actually have some raw material you didn't have before. These things might include a new perspective on a weakness or an improvement opportunity you hadn't seen, or in extreme cases, the opportunity to start again from scratch and build something better. The tree that falls creates a new shaft of sunlight along the forest floor in its wake that provides the energy for a single trunk to multiply into 10 or 20.

The second question focuses you on what you're going to do with those resources--which, in extreme cases, might mean starting from scratch to build something bigger and better.

I'm reminded of a meat-packing business I know of, which was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. They lost their facilities in the catastrophe and their local customers went out of business. Not only did they rebuild their operation, they doubled their capacity and expanded to a nationwide market. That's the kind of creative turnaround we're talking about.

But you don't need to wait for disaster to strike to practice this pivot and experience the cascade of benefits it creates. Everyday life gives us lots of chances to get better and better at this.

Here's a simple example from my week: I don't drive. I find it more productive to delegate that task to a great limousine service in Toronto that my assistant, Tara, books several times a week for me. Last Saturday, I was surprised to go out and discover that my car wasn't there. A few years ago, I might have gotten upset, but instead I simply thought, "Hmm, looks like we've had a breakdown in the system." I called the service myself, made a mental note to ask Tara about it on Monday, and got on with being present for my meeting.

It turned out that the dispatcher made a mistake, and Tara missed the error in their confirmation email. So I wasn't charged for the weekend, and we found a way to close the loopholes on their end and on ours to prevent this happening again.

This may seem like a small thing, but over time, all these little course-corrections add up to a dramatic multiplier effect. My team members know they always have my support and appreciation, so they don't have to waste energy protecting themselves from blame and can focus on the future instead. And by refusing to get hooked by stories in my head about how things should have gone, I reserve my energy for productive and profitable activities.

When something shocking does happen, I can rely on this reflex to quickly turn the situation around--like the time my laptop was stolen from a London hotel room, along with the only copy of the book manuscript I'd just finished writing, which my publishing team in Toronto needed the following week. Yes, I went through a flurry of emotions for the first few hours, but the next day I started a new version of the book, and that turned out to be far superior to the one I lost.

The trick was not to stuff down all those emotions, but to transform them by channeling them into a new creative focus where a bigger win was possible. Once you discover this trick, you learn that, as difficult as recovery may seem, it's actually a much better option than being gnawed at endlessly by the sense of being a victim of uncontrollable circumstances. It turns out I had a better book in me, and amazingly, the time to write it. It would never have seen the light of day had my laptop not been stolen. I now have no negative feelings about those events.

Successful entrepreneurs perform this transformation all the time, though they might not be conscious of it. And at a higher level, where there's more at stake, it might seem like a different game, but it isn't. It's exactly the same as the millions of pivots you've made since your business was small. The game is simply bigger on both sides of the equation now: The bigger the hit you take, the more you have to lose, but the opportunities on the other side are also bigger in direct proportion--as are the changes you might have to make to reach them and the hero you'll seem like when you do.

You might want to begin by writing down the facts of your situation just to get them out of your head. Think about what didn't work, and look at what new opportunities have been created. You're not stuffing down any feelings; you're simply redirecting your focus from what was true before to what is true now, and putting your energy into what productive actions you can take from wherever you are.

You are not and will never be in control of what happens outside of you. Markets change; people and institutions behave unpredictably, illogically, and always for their own reasons and according to their own sensibilities; and life is forever throwing you surprises. What you do control, however, is your ability to think and to use the talents you've cultivated.

I say there's no such thing as failure, only success and market research. And the way you turn failure into market research is to focus on opportunity and pivot. Then, later, you'll see the reason you had to go through this experience, because that's another thing our human brains naturally seek out: lessons for the future. Oftentimes, you don't get to a new idea until there's a reality to support it.

Consciously develop this capability to pivot your thoughts, and you won't experience the same chaos that others do. No matter what kind of dark or suddenly strange place you find yourself in, you can always find the light in the canopy above and head back into the sunshine.

To learn more strategies for changing the way you think and approach your work, download your free copy of The 80% Approach by Dan Sullivan