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“Secure your own mask first before helping others.”

Posted by Chris Holman on Oct 5, 2011 12:18:00 PM


How many times have you heard the following?

“If cabin pressure should change, panels above your seat will open revealing oxygen masks; reach up and pull a mask towards you. Place it over your nose and mouth, and secure with the elastic band, that can be adjusted to ensure a snug fit. The plastic bag will not fully inflate, although oxygen is flowing. Secure your own mask first before helping others.”

This pre-flight safety demonstration, as dictated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), is a speech that many of us have heard frequently. However, to me the most intriguing sentence of this demo is the last one, “Secure your own mask first before helping others.”

What are they saying? “Be selfish”? “Every person for themselves”? “Don’t help others”? In fact, this phrase offers practical advice quite to the contrary. They are saying:

"In the chance of an unforeseen adverse event, it is most important that we are in the best possible shape ourselves…in order that we may help others."

Confronting the Bear Inside of Us
Here we go again! With the markets flirting with a 20% decline, the third “bear market” within the past decade or so, anxious investors are likely to become even more unhinged. For financial advisors, the immediate question may appear to be, “How do I respond to, soothe, and calm the fears of my clients?”

However, before jumping in to help your clients, take a reality check. Ask yourself this question. “How do I address my own fears…first?” (i.e. “Secure your own mask first before helping others.”)

Sir John Whitmore, professional racing car driver, winner of British and European car championships, and performance coach, has a unique perspective on the nature of fear:

“Fear can be attributed to external or to internal factors or both; however whatever the external circumstances are, we are responsible for our reactions to them. We can succumb to them and wimp out, we can deny them and continue as if they don’t exist, or we can take them as a challenge and rise to the occasion.”

What are your fears, market-related or otherwise? What have you succumbed to? What have you avoided? What fears would you like to confront?

"You can observe a lot by just watching.”...Yogi Berra

Since all change begins with self-observation, the first step in addressing your fear(s) is observing yourself. Sometimes, this is easier said than done. Self-observation is definitely NOT the same as self-criticism. You should avoid the little voice in your head that observes, and makes side comments like, “Why did you do that?” or “Smart one, Einstein!”, so on and so forth. Nor should you feel compelled to devise actions before you’ve completed the self-observation. In fact, by not acting, you allow the self-observation to occur unobstructed and without your critical filter.

A practice is a behavior that we do again-and-again with the intention of improving a quality or competence. Practices follow self-observation, i.e. self-observation becomes part of every practice we do. As a sample practice on your relationship to fear, you might consider making a periodic self-observation, using the following questions as an example:

  • What fears have I succumbed to today?
  • What fears did I deny, or avoid, today?
  • What patterns do I see emerging from my fears?
  • What triggered these fears, and what was I thinking when these fears occurred?
  • How could I take on my fears as a challenge, and address them directly?

With this observation and learning, you have taken the first step in “securing your own oxygen mask”. Now that you’ve done this, you should be much more able to help others.

All the best!

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