Thursday, August 4, 2011


It's easy to look back on mistakes in judgment and see all the warning signs that we ignored-- just like it's easy for the Monday morning armchair quarterback to identify all the "shoulda s" and "coulda s" that "woulda" saved the game, but how do we spot these warning signs or red flags when we can actually do something about them?

First of all, if you suddenly feel that funny thing on the back of your neck that says, "this feels uncomfortable and wrong" it probably is! Our instinct to avoid danger is a protective feeling rooted in our biology that we too often ignore because we can override it with "evidence" that temporarily satisfies our misgivings and supports our powerful but unrealistic fantasies and desires.

Bernie Madoff victims when interviewed stated that they were initally skeptical of the ease and consistency of the high rates of return, yet as they observed the wealth, the respect given to Madoff and the testimonals of other investors, they went ahead with their investments--to their everlasting regret. If they were living in a primitive world of survival where danger and caution would have been related to a dangerous animal, a warring tribe or a pending environmental disaster, they would have honored their initial instinct. They would have avoided danger by running in the opposite direction and not thought twice about it till the next time the instinct was aroused. There was no time for second guessing or excuse making. Our ancestors needed to act on that first initial "danger" impression in order to survive. In our highly developed society, the threats are not so apparent and many times are in the form of friends, neighbors, lovers; even pretty places and things and therefore, easy to ignore. Yet our warning instinct is still with us. How can we use it to prevent big mistakes in our lives? We can't avoid all mistakes and we really don't want to if we want to learn, grow and develop, but we all have some mistakes and lapses in judgement that run the gamut from disastrous to embarassing that we could have done without, right?

I remember interviewing for a "dream" job once, when I started to get a very strong feeling that there was no way they could honor all of the promises that they were making. I looked around at the empty offices and the idle employees and almost laughed out loud when the owner said, "We believe in fully paid vacations for our employees. Where does your family want to go on vacation? Disneyland? Two weeks at a cabin resort?" I bit my lip and smiled, yet I went ahead and accepted the position! Why? Because several of the other new hires were respected in the field and my thinking was "if they had signed on then everything must be OK, right?" The owners also said that there was enough funds to pay everyone's salary for two years even if we didn't have one client come in the door. "What?!!!!! my instinct yelled--what investor would watch his funds diminish and not expect a return for two years?" But, because the thought of working in a new, beautiful office with a steady substantial salary with no pressure for clients was so tantalizing to me, I completely overrode that funny thing on the back of my neck that screamed: "This is wrong, don't do it!" Less than three months later, I was in the first wave of those let go. In any other situation this would have been devasting to me, but it wasn't because it confirmed all of my preceding warning instincts and that was strangely comforting and validating. I ended up in a very good place in my vocational life after this bizarre experience, but I shudder when I think of how I allowed myself to be involved in such a dishonest, dysfunctional organization when I "knew" from the beginning that it was going to fail. (It is now completely defunct.)

There are several ways we can enhance our ability to honor our inner voice of warning--heed the red flags--and thus prevent a lot of heartache--that is why it is there--it is a preventative tool that we can hone and sharpen.

1. Set aside time everyday to reflect, review and ponder your experiences. Everyday events--both minor and major--impact our thoughts and feelings and in turn our behavior. Processing and evaluating, then integrating these experiences into our lives, help us to truly know and trust ourselves and conciously decide how we want to behave at present and in the future.

2. Practice daily relaxation exercises. This helps to calm the body and the mind and allows you to "step back" and make decisions from a more objective and realistic vantage point.

3. Read, Learn, ask for advice. Education and information gathering reveal facts that, no matter how disturbing they may be, are hard to ignore; but, don't accept all "facts" at face value--find out for yourself. Sometimes we don't want to know the facts because they will blow the cover off our fantasy or what we hoped was true and this is just too disappointing--but wouldn't you want to find out the truth sooner than later?...before more time is wasted, money spent, or hearts broken?

4. Observe, Be quiet and Listen. When you are with others, a lot of knowledge can be gained just by observation. How do they treat people? What do they do with their time? What do they talk about? What do they do when service is needed or someone or something needs attending to? Do they stay around for the "heavy lifting" or (as LDS church members can relate) when the folding chairs in the overflow need to be put away? I think it was on Oprah years ago that I first heard something like: "when people tell you who they are, believe them!"

5. Play the "likely/unlikely" game. It works like this: When something is important to you and you are relying on someone or something outside of yourself to make it happen, help you, or just to do their part, ask yourself this question: "Is it likely or unlikely that __(fill in the blank with name, place or thing)_______ will__________(action)______? Then answer the question with what you have come to know is most likely the truth. More often than not, you will be right. We often know the truth--we just don't like to admit it unless it fits our schema.

When red flags are ignored--we make up a lot of excuses for someone or something--we put blinders on and hope for the best--but this is when we fool ourselves and set ourselves up for disappointment. Again, the truth may hurt, but if you choose to ignore a red flag, it does make the consequences a little easier to accept--you are not a victim--you knew and yet you chose it.
The question then becomes: "Now, what are you going to do about it"? (live with it, make the best of it, leave it, change it, etc...).

What will you do the next time you feel that "funny thing on the back of your neck"?