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I’m just recently back from five days in the trenches.  I’m one of those folks on the east coast who was hit by the terror of the “Halloween Snowfall” on October 29th.  That Saturday morning I had just settled down for a spell of SAP catch-up when lights flickered and went out.  Of course, I thought to myself “This won’t be long..(I mean – MY power lines are underground – so…)  I’ll just head out to the grocery store for a few D batteries, and one of those old fashioned telephones that works off the telephone line alone without electricity.” 

The grocery store was soon filled with neighbors all laughing, sharing lights-out stories and stocking up for a day in front of fireplaces with flashlights and good books.  (Let’s be honest – most of us were out because we also wanted to charge our cell phones in our cars.)

Day one was perhaps a welcome break from the usual. We actually talked to one another.  In person.  We played Scrabble.  On a physical game board — not on our phones.

Day two.  Telephone lines are out too.  No coffee.  I’m grumpy.  I light the gas stove with a match and boil water for some tea instead. I take a barely lukewarm shower with what’s left of the hot water.  And settle in for a day of ….nothing.

Day three.  I dress in the dark for work — never so happy before to go into the office.  But I remember to leave work promptly at five to take advantage of an hour of daylight so I can find my clothing for the next day.  Never had to do that before!  We head to my sister’s.  She has power.  And hot water.  I love her more than ever.

Day four and five are more of the same.  By now we’re all looking like refugees.  It’s not amusing.  The sniping has set in.  It’s us against the power company.  When my friend sees 2 dozen power workers stop for lunch she glares at them and tells them to eat a granola bar instead and keep working.

Days in the trenches can bring out the best and the worst in all of us.

Day five.  I’m about to cry when I get the call – “We have POWER!”  I feel a sudden elation – as if I’ve climbed a mountain and reached the summit!  We celebrate with hot apple pie baked in our very own oven and we charge every iPod, iPad and cell phone we own.

Some people snap under pressure.  Others make lemons out of lemonade.  And it occurs to me:  I want the person who can make lemons from lemonade on my team.

While I’ve told you the worst about five days in the trenches, let me tell you what helped us survive, sense of humor intact. 

1) Have a plan.  But be ready to improvise on queue.  I had candles, flashlights – but I never expected an extended power outage of five days!  Being able to think creatively how to get thru the next 24 hours of darkness every day kept us relatively productive and sane.

2) Ask for help.  Use your network.  The human race didn’t get to where we are now alone.  We need each other. And my family and I didn’t get showers during those five days without power by sitting still and WAITING for someone to offer help.  Have a ready network of inside and outside contacts who can help you. 

3)  Go over, around and through darkness with determination.  During a particualrily dim period in my life, my PC screensaver held Leonardo da Vinci’s quote:  “Obstacles cannot crush me.  Every obtacle leads to stern resolve…”  And I thought of that quote often during the power outage.  Success in the dark — whether your dark is a power outage or an unknown path towards an IT solution — comes from willingness to switch courses, to stay presistent, to be determined.

4)  Adapt.  Leonardo continued his quote above with “He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.” When the obstacle cannot be totally eradicated – adapt to the changed world around you.  Be flexible and open in your thinking. Consider how you can make the best of the new world order with which you are faced.

5)  Shut down every now and then – even for an hour.  Allow time for ideas to sink in, to shape themselves and to become better. 

6)  Listen.  Some people are very effective at multi-tasking – and that is typically the only way to get thru a millenium kind day.  We’re always on our laptops or cell phones or iPads reading and typing while supposedly listening to the person speaking in front of us.  But all of us miss some fraction of what we need to know through this constant juggling of our brain’s neurotransmitters.  You learn by listening.  It’s okay to do only one thing at a time.

7)  Be a light for others.  Working in the dark can be disconcerting for some people.  Help those people visualize the future.  Doing so requires that you understand how other people see things, how they learn.  You may have to change your message or your style of delivery to get thru to someone in the dark.  Realize that there is more than one way of communicating.  And there is more than one way that others hear.  Adapt your style to the situation.

6) Celebrate.  Spirits can be trampled, but can just as easily be raised.  Even the smallest successes need recognition.  This lifts people’s spirits and gives them the will to keep moving forward.  Once our power was back on, we had a backlog of laundry, dirty dishes, grocery shopping, bill paying and emails to get to.  But we paused to celebrate first.  We celebrated at home together – and after that, all of us were more energized to take up the challenges ahead of us.  But I also went out of my way to stop my car near a group of electrical workers to say a simple “thank you.”  I’d like to think that made a difference to their feelings of success that day.

In retrospect now, as I sit in my study at home with my hot cup of coffee, my iPod singing Viva la Vida (Coldplay), and plenty of heat and hot water, (already back to my sensory-overloaded life), I realize, silence can be a good thing.   Five days in the trenches quieted my overloaded brain.  Five days in the trenches made me realize what makes me a success — and it’s not my college degree or years of training in SAP and business analysis and project management.  Five days in the trenches gave me the perspective to realize how innately intertwined all of our lives are. 

Five days in the trenches emphasized to me that creativity, ingenuity, flexibility, listening and social networks will get me through anything. 

Lemonade out of Lemons.  That’s what I’m after. 

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