It'll be ten years this month, but I have yet to write about my experience fleeing my New Orleans home because of Hurricane Katrina. I've made peace with the event, initially dealing with my anger and sadness, and, later, managing the loss of the city I once knew (there is definitely a pre- and post-Katrina NoLa). My problem, then, is really semantics: I don't have the words to express my complex, emotional experience. Perhaps one day I will.
I did recently realize how formative the experience was for me as an entrepreneur. I'm positive my business is run differently--better--from lessons I learned in August 2005. I'm eager to pass them on.
1. Recognize your essentials from your fluff
A couple good friends were giving me a ride out of the city and they only had room for me to bring two small bags. We did a quick stop at my place and, in a matter of minutes, I had to decide what was most valuable in my one-bedroom home. It not only included memorabilia and keepsakes, but business manuals and hardware. I needed to bring important things in my life as well as the things that enabled me to make a living.
I didn't know it at the time, but those two bags would be the only possessions I'd have access to for several months--the city would be quarantined the following week. And, believe it or not, there were very few essentials I lacked.
How much excess do you have in your office, your home and your life? When I was able to return home that winter, I ended up giving most of my remaining possessions away, as I hadn't needed them and didn’t need them anymore. You sometimes don't know how much bloat you have until something shows you.
2. Be honest when you're in a crisis
Once I realized it would not be business as usual anytime soon, I immediately contacted my editors, my agent and other associates. Deadlines were pushed and checks were temporarily redirected. I absolutely hate getting extensions or otherwise not living up to my end of a business agreement, but everyone involved was terribly supportive and appreciated me being forward about the complicated situation. It didn't hurt my business and, if anything, my associates respected my honesty.
Don't blame yourself when (not if, but when) your environment shifts: Sherpas will set up a rest camp based on the conditions, stock car racers will drift behind until an opening occurs and chess players will parlay until the moment is right. It's sometimes smarter to pause, regroup and strategize, and, if appropriate, share your intentions with interested, trusted parties.
3. Allow others to be foolish
I was used to chaos around catastrophe--my background is journalism--but I was unprepared with the amount of innuendo and hyperbole surrounding Hurricane Katrina. It was like unwittingly being part of a three-ring circus: I had people ask me if my friends had been eaten by rabid alligators, or if most of the city's population had been murdered by the flood (both responses would be, "Uh, no."). I'd sometimes correct people, but I quickly learned that the questions were less out of concern and more akin to gawking, kind of like bystanders passing an accident.
As an entrepreneur, you are often going to pursue avenues that others will not understand and maybe even openly mock. In the decade following Katrina, I would write a book on the digitization of modern sexuality well before it was popular and co-found a platonic connection app that would kickstart an entire industry. Both got significant media attention, and both required initially tuning out the people who didn't see my vision. Sometimes the best defense is to let others be foolish and not be involved in their conversations.
4. Stop to move forward
The year following Katrina was tough. My beautiful, structured way of New Orleans life was gone and the storm separated my friends and me all across America. Worse, I didn't realize the mental and emotional impact the experience had on me. There were some business decisions, whether it be making a new purchase or picking up a questionable client, that I would have made differently had I recognized I wasn't in the right mindset to move forward.
If you have a paradigm shift, it is absolutely essential that you give yourself time to reset your compass. Your world has shifted. It's OK to postpone those major decisions until you get your head on straight. Sometimes you can't afford to take time to get your bearings, but at minimum you should recognize that you are not at the top of your game. These would be the times to lean on trusted advisors or colleagues, anywhere from smart advice to full-on delegation. Since 2005, I have built up a strong brain trust to make sure I always have objective viewpoints. I also got better at recognizing when my priorities shifted and adjusting my life accordingly.
How has personal crisis changed you as an entrepreneur?