It’s Not The Meltdown, But How You Handle It

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Man, I still remember it like it was yesterday…

It was early 2002, my yoga studio in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC was only open a few months and the city was still reeling from 9-11 when I got the call.

Turns out a top editor/writer from the leading yoga magazine was coming to Gotham to write a story on what was hot in the city. She’d heard about a specialized yoga class I developed that was taught to a custom mixed soundtrack where the flow of the yoga matched the rhythm of the music, beat for beat. And, she wanted to check it out and interview me afterwards.

Killer media opp, or so I thought…Meltdown Part 1

A few hours before she arrived for the evening event, I mixed the soundtrack as I always had, burned it to a cd, then did my yoga practice to it in order to make sure it flowed well. It sounded great, for about 20 minutes. Then it happened.

The music went from crystal clear and vibrant to muddy, then faded into a cacophony of static.  I hit pause, then play. Still static. I fast forwarded. Still static. There I was, 2 hours before the media event that I hoped would seriously launch my business and vault us into the yoga world, and…

The sound system, the core of the experience, had melted down.

What to do? Just give in and try to explain to this editor, who’d flown from California to NYC for this, that we were having technical difficulties? Um, no. Call her and ask to reschedule? Not my style.

With two hours left, I literally ran out of the studio, sprinted down to 48th Street and 6th Avenue, known in New York as Music Alley, went up to the second floor at Sam Ash and told them I needed a sound system ASAP. I think the fact that I was pouring in sweat freaked the guy out a bit and he moved really quickly, probably to get me out of the store faster.

Two thousand dollars later, I loaded the new system into a cab and headed back.

There were only 30 minutes left and another class was already going on. I spied the editor waiting with others in the reception area. Lugging the speakers and amp up the 21 stairs in our 115 year old building, I cracked open the back door to the practice room (while the earlier class was going on), snuck in the new speakers and amp, rewired everything and literally hit the power switch as my class began to walk into the room.

Ahhhh, success! Not so fast…Meltdown Part 2

The editor positioned her mat right in front of me. It was a packed house, the room was electric. I popped in the mixed CD and hit play, glorious pulsing sounds filled the room and the crowd began to flow like a dance of humanity, heat and sweat.

But, just as we were all sliding into that deep trance-like state…it happened.

The sound. The static. The meltdown. This couldn’t be. How could I fry two sound systems in one day. The music was loud, but not THAT loud. Then, for the first time, with a room full of people and the editor staring me down…

I realized what the problem really was.

I’d burned a bad CD. Two thousand dollars, a frantic afternoon and 20 minutes into the class that was set to be featured in the magazine…and I was royally hosed.

So, what do you do?

Only two ways to handle it.

  • One, freak out, melt down yourself, lose control and guarantee disaster. Or,
  • Two, accept the reality of the situation, know that you can’t change what’s already happened and act quickly to salvage what you can.

I put my students into a Downward Facing Dog pose to buy myself a few seconds, ran over to the system, found another generic CD (this was just before iPods were on the scene), hit play, started laughing and made a joke about it, then resolved to teach the best damn class of my life.

Two minutes later, everyone was back in the groove, and, in the interview that followed with the editor, I explained “that’s not what usually happens.” I figured, hey, she could either choose to focus on the meltdown or the overall experience and how much the students seemed to enjoy it. I had no control over what would eventually end up in the magazine.

And, just my luck, guess what the article focused on? Meltdown Part 3

Yup, the sonic disaster. The awful blaring sound. Right there in the lead article, this was my introduction to the yoga world. Nice.

I cringed when I read it.

My heart almost beat out of my body. I was angry, frustrated, bummed. How could someone I’d actually had a lovely conversation with and explained the unusual nature of the situation, someone in the yoga world which is supposed to be all about non-judgment, do this? To me?

Time to step back and recover, once again.

As I read through the entire article, I realized that the focus was on hybrid approaches to the practice in the NY yoga scene. And, pretty much everyone in the article ended up getting trashed on some level. So, I was in good company. I like being among the mavericks, they generally end up being the innovators and leaders.

Plus, fact was, there was nothing “factually” wrong about what was written. The class was edgy and different. And, yes, there was a major equipment malfunction that pretty much derailed the entire premise of the experience. She couldn’t write about an experience she was “supposed” to have had.

And, any way you sliced it, my studio and I were featured in a major magazine. And, as I re-read the article, I discovered that, even in the bad reviews, there’s almost always a way to turn them positive.

There is was, staring at me.

A solitary line,

“Jonathan Fields, a muscular, dark-haired guy, walks in and begins a rigorous, powerful vinyasa session accompanied by music…By the end of class, we pour with sweat.”

The next day, guess what appeared in our flyers?

In the end, the whole experience taught me a powerful lesson, both in life and in business.

Meltdowns happen.

Some, you can avoid, others just plain happen, despite your best intentions and preparation. What determines your inevitable success, though, is not so much the “fact” of the meltdown, but how you “handle” the meltdown.

My approach is generally a four step process:

  1. Acknowledge the true nature of the meltdown – Don’t minimize it, don’t hyperbolize it. Just take it for what it is.
  2. Triage the meltdown – Quickly assess what needs fixing first. Where is the source of greatest pain? Where are the “mission critical” holes that need plugging.
  3. Respond to the the most emergent situations – Look for and solve source problems, before you move on to the lesser problems or symptoms. If you’ve got a hole in your boat, better to plug it first, then, bail water, rather than the other way around.
  4. Reflect, learn and correct – Once the situation has been resolved, take some time to debrief, to digest what has happened, assess what knowledge has come out of the situation, then implement changes in protocol that will allow you handle any similar challenges better in the future…or stop them from happening in the first place.

So, what about you?

Ever find yourself in a meltdown, personal or professional (nah, not you)?

Got any stories, tips, tactics or strategies you can share that’ll help us all handle meltdowns better?

Let’s discuss…

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15 responses

15 responses to “It’s Not The Meltdown, But How You Handle It”

  1. Dan says:

    Here’s what pulls me through a meltdown (and yes, we all get our turn): 1) focus on (as you say) what is mission-critical — the result I must have to succeed; 2) shun all ‘luxury’ considerations to put mission first and make it happen; and 3) if it wasn’t an anomaly, include what went wrong in your ‘pre-flight’ prep next time around.

    This may be just a variation on your theme, but you might find that first step can bring you such clarity or presence that it becomes part of your ‘Plan A’ rather than a mere fallback.

  2. Thanks for that Jonathan. How aptly you make the point that in the long run it’s all about perception. As I read about meltdown two I thought, “use humor to defuse the tension.” And that’s exactly what you did. Meltdown three was unexpected, but therein we find the real value.

    It’s amazing how often one small weak link, in this case a bad CD can get overlooked when the pressure is on. So, where did the extra sound system wind up?

  3. jaklang says:

    This is a good post…I sort of screen through to the end to read the tips. You are right, we should quickly resolve the issues immediately rather than prolonged it.

    I should have known better about this.

  4. I normally skim, but I really was caught up in the story. The thing about CD is something I can related to because of my experience in working with other peoples computers. Sometimes we overlook the simple causes of our problem. My friend told me how he had a cable problem. The tech came out and just had to push in one wire in the back of the tv.

    Have a great day.

  5. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Dan – Definitely, focus is critical

    @ Jonathan – no doubt, as sense of humor comes in REAL handy as a tool to help defuse tension in meltdowns, but you’ve gotta make sure it’s “appropriate” humor

    @ jaklang – yup, the faster you respond, generally, the better, as long as you give yourself enough time to have the information needed to proceed “intelligently.”

    @ Clarence – Tell me about it, we so often get so caught up in trying to find the complex problems, we overlook the simplest and most logical things.

  6. riva says:

    It’s tough to remember in melt down , but I always try to remember to breathe and not jump to conclusions. Of course, easier said than done. But in the end we save ourselves time and money. Very little is as critical as it seems in the moment.
    My most recent melt down involved a bat in the house. Flew right over my head as I walked in from a lovely candlelight dinner in the yard while my beloved took a shower. Since he was blowdrying his hair, he couldn’t hear me scream for help. And every time I tried to get past the bat into the house, the winged one seemed to swoop down directly at me. Finally I went around to the front door of the house, and as I stood there screaming again, once, twice, it finally dawned on me to just stand aside, leave the door open and shut my mouth.
    Of course, given an easy way out the bat took it. I could have saved myself a lot of unnecessary agitation if I’d done exactly what I did without all the vocal hysteria. My instincts were kicking in just fine in terms of problem solution, but my crazy brain wanting to be the damsel in distress and SAVED from it — is what made the situation so stressful.
    Of course, like every tough situation, now it’s a source of amusement and laughter.
    You always remember the crises. And they get funnier and funnier with time.

  7. Nothing like working in a law office – litigation – to learn all about meltdowns and how to handle them. You’re right on track with this post. It is, however, a learned behavior and one that I’ve pretty much mastered now in my own business. So if you’re experiencing a meltdown and you don’t handle it exactly how you would have liked to, just keep in mind that the next time you will handle it better! or the next time . . .

  8. I had a similar experience last week. I was speaking to hundreds of people as a keynote speaker to a National Association on building a community with new media on-line and off-line tools.

    I pride myself of Keynote presentations. Fancy graphics-Presentation Zen…

    No matter what I tried I could not synch the LCD projector with my Mac. We tried another Mac.

    I had grown to let my slides speak for me.

    I learned that I must be prepared to only have the slides serve as a compliment to my talk.

    I went free-play on them and then provided them with a download link of my presentation.

    I think it was one of my best. I learned a lesson.

  9. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ riva – totaly agree, once the meltdowns are far enough behind us, they often turn into some of the best stories and laughs.

    @ Nickey – oooh, I know that law firm drill well, it seems like every hour was about responding to meltdowns, but you’re right, once of the good things about that environment is that it teaches that nearly everything is recoverable if you just keep your cool and plot your way back

    @ Matthew – Funny you mentioned Keynote, I am in the process of figuring out whether to do a Keynote presentation for Blogworld this weekend or just speak. I know the others will likely have slides, but I just keep feeling that slides provide a crutch that takes some of the vital edge out of it. The best speakers I’ve seen could’ve all carried an audience for hours without a single slide

  10. Jonathan,

    Big fan of the slides, just being prepared when Murphy rears his ugly head and humbles us.

    Always partial to this style of presentations. May be a bit too much “slam poetry” for some, but sure is a beautiful and memorable style of presenting.

    Click on link below to watch this video.

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/larry_lessig_says_the_law_is_strangling_creativity.html

  11. The thing I always try to watch out for is during a meltdown is getting stuck in an endless loop. You fixate on something and obsess about it to the detriment of action you should be taking.

  12. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Matthew – Actually, I’d have to agree, what I meant to say was I’m a fan of slides that”enhance” a presentation, but all to often, they end up doing the opposite. But, when I look at presentations like Gore’s Inconvenient Truth keynote slides, no doubt they make the experience profoundly more impactful

    @ Michael – Agree, it’s really easy to slide into that pattern, which is why I think it’s a good idea to pause, step back for a moment and triage the meltdown, so you know what needs your attention most and where you’ll have the greatest fastest impact in solving the problem.

  13. Jagad Guru says:

    people basically encounter all sorts of stuff throughout their life. Some may be good and some things aren’t. Sometimes things don’t go how we want or expect them to and sometimes positive things turn up unexpectedly. People then tend to react adversely towards the negative stuff and fall into anxiety affecting them in some way if not deeply and often messes up their whole day or week. However, if try to analyze our situation, we can see that we can’t be in ‘total’ control over everything because of our position of being dominated. Through past experience and by simply observing, we could realize that there are so many outside forces affecting us for which we can’t control. We may have some control over certain things to a certain degree only but can’t stop and the higher forces governing us. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to affect us. The stress it could cause us doesn’t necessarily have to drive us down. It is actually on how we cope up with it. And that then would bring us back to the basic understanding of our identity, who we really are. Through meditation we can see our actual condition, our position and our function and basing our activities and our outlooks on these can make it so that we have a deeper understanding of what’s happening and how we can deal with it. Of course there are certain things which we can do something about such as better preparation and stuff in that level, but when the shit hits the fan no matter how much preparation we did, as Jonathan said, we’d just have to accept it because its our karma after all.

    “A lotus rises above the water…untouched by its impurities. Similarly, through meditation, a person can live in this world untoucjed by its anxieties.” – Jagad Guru

  14. […] Meltdowns are something really hard to avoid. No matter how hard you try, they will still happen. Jonathan Fileds explaines last week that meltdowns are really not important, what’s important is how you handle them. […]

  15. Jonathan,

    Welcome to the world of Audio Visual and technology. No matter how many rehearsals or redundancies you can build into technology it will eventually fail.

    I work in the audio visual production field and produce events for thousands.

    Although I still have many sleepless nights, I have created a mantra for myself. The equipment will eventually fail. My only option is that I must know how to dance.

    When the equipment fails, it is time to dance. It appears you did it instinctively on this one.

    My game plan is always have an analog backup plan. If the mic goes out yell. If the video goes out describe. If the lights go out have a candle. If they all go out sneak out the back door.

    Welcome to my world.

    At the end of the day, you need to know you are going to be alright on the inside, despite the crisis on the outside.

    Brian