Punishing the Panic Monsters [BLOG]

Have you ever been overwhelmed at school?

When I was a full time classroom teacher I absolutely hated staff meetings because by the time I had got out of a an hour and a half staff meeting I had so many things to think about that I was totally terrified, defensive and terrified because every person who stood up and said anything made it the MOST IMPORTANT thing that HAD TO BE DONE and it was impossible to get perspective.

Walking out the meeting it became even worse because all of those teachers who had sat placidly through this avalanche of information, nodding and taking notes, then came out and said what a load of crap it all was and how they hated this or that person or this or that idea and I just kind of froze up inside.

The problem wasn’t helped if you went to your area leader who suffered from a syndrome called “Nancy FIGJAM disorder” because they just told me that they didn’t see any problems at all and that I just had to get more organised and basically forsake all of the other duties in my life as a husband, father and friend and become a perfect teacher just like them.

So I just procrastinated!

This is called anxiety.


It’s what we do about the anxiety that changes everything.

See when we get caught in the downward spiral of negative anxiety reaction (-NRG), we get that “I don’t care!” attitude. The WhatEVER (sigh) shoulder slumping return to adolescent eye rolling that gets us precisely nowhere.

This works for a very little while in my case but I am sure I can prolong it for days if I get onto social media and get everyone else involved in the process. A simple “Do you know what my stupid school is going to do?” can get you a whole world of pain and reaction if you spread it around a lot. My experience tells me that misery loves company!

There is a time then, that after peevish, cantankerous, grumpy, petulant, bad-tempered, irritable, belligerent, testy, surly, sullen, disagreeable difficult, complaining, that you stop moaning, fault-finding, whining, protesting, whinging, bemoaning and whimpering AND you give yourself over to plain simple guilt.

Guilt can be a good motivator if perceived positively but too often it just opens the door to a prolonged negative state caused by the fact that being peevish, cantankerous, grumpy, petulant, bad-tempered, irritable, belligerent, testy, surly, sullen, disagreeable difficult, complaining, that you stop moaning, fault-finding, whining, protesting, whinging, bemoaning and whimpering loses you a lot of friends in a very short space of time.

Particularly if these friends are not teachers who either don’t have staff meetings or who work in joyous workplaces where they work in delusion filled happiness.

Persistent negative states are not good for your mental and physical health and need to meet however some people actually use this negative state to fuel their energy these have been called Type A personalities.

John Schaubroeck, professor of psychology and management at Michigan State University, lists 16 possible indicators that you might be one of these, if you do any of the following:

1. Waiting in long lines kills you a little bit inside.

2. You've been described as a perfectionist, overachiever, workaholic or all of the above.

3. You bite your nails or grind your teeth.

4. You have a serious phobia of wasting time.

5. You're highly conscientious.

6. You've always been a bit of a catastrophist.

7. You frequently talk over and interrupt people.

8. You have a hard time falling asleep at night.

9. People can't keep up with you -- in conversation or on the sidewalk.

10. You put more energy into your career than your relationships.

11. Relaxing can be hard work for you.

12. You have a low tolerance for incompetence.

13. You'd be lost without your to-do list.

14. At work, everything is urgent.

15. You're sensitive to stress.

16. You make it happen.

The type A personality has been criticised as being over simplistic, but my guess is that many of the people speaking in your meetings are Type A.

If you are a Type B personality type you will love the explanation of how Type A personality types were discovered.

Here’s the incomparable Professor Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Biological Sciences and a Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University describing how the personality traits were identified.

Positive Enjoyable Power (+PEP) starts with those same feelings of anxiety that we looked at before but instead of procrastinating and losing –NRG or using negative anger, we use positive self-talk.

It begins when a “Panic Monster” turns up and says “YOU MUST DO THIS NOW!”

Tim Urban describes this in his brilliant Ted Talk on Procrastination.

Well, turns out the procrastinator has a guardian angel, someone who's always looking down on him and watching over him in his darkest moments -- someone called the Panic Monster.

Now, the Panic Monster is dormant most of the time, but he suddenly wakes up anytime a deadline gets too close or there's danger of public embarrassment, a career disaster or some other scary consequence. And importantly, he's the only thing the Instant Gratification Monkey is terrified of. Now, he became very relevant in my life pretty recently, because the people of TED reached out to me about six months ago and invited me to do a TED Talk.

Now, of course, I said yes. It's always been a dream of mine to have done a TED Talk in the past.

(Applause) But in the middle of all this excitement, the Rational Decision-Maker seemed to have something else on his mind.

He was saying, "Are we clear on what we just accepted? Do we get what's going to be now happening one day in the future? We need to sit down and work on this right now."

And the Monkey said, "Totally agree, but let's just open Google Earth and zoom in to the bottom of India, like 200 feet above the ground, and scroll up for two and a half hours till we get to the top of the country, so we can get a better feel for India."

So that's what we did that day.

As six months turned into four and then two and then one, the people of TED decided to release the speakers. And I opened up the website, and there was my face staring right back at me. And guess who woke up?

So the Panic Monster starts losing his mind, and a few seconds later, the whole system's in mayhem.

And the Instant Gratification Monkey -- remember, he's terrified of the Panic Monster -- boom, he's up the tree! And finally, finally, the Rational Decision-Maker can take the wheel and I can start working on the talk.

When your Panic Monster turns up, it’s a really good idea to listen to it and “DO SOMETHING NOW!”

Action is when your rounded belly sends you to the gym, or your disgust at a bosses lack of appreciation helps apply for a new job, or when your wife’s tears enrols you in a course on building better relationships.

Action gives you a sense of achievement, it gives you not only positive feedback but it a feeling of worth power and brings you to a great place which I will call “liberation”.

Why do we crave money? Because we hope it will liberate you from worrying about money, why do we crave love because we hope it will liberate us from loneliness, why do we crave success, because we hope it will liberate us from worthlessness.

I believe that liberation and happiness are very, very close relatives.

The real liberation happens when we are able to get our mind to work for us when we need it.

Motivation and sales guru Chris Helder puts it this way “The most important words you say all day are the words you say about yourself when you are alone by yourself and those moments of non-anxious presence are when you are at your best!”

So to put it terms of liberation, happiness is what happens when you free yourself from the negativity of your own thoughts.

Here’s Chris Felder a sales guy talking about “Useful beliefs “rather than positive thinking and what you can do to build positive relationships. Every time he talks “Sales” hear school. Every time you hear “customer” think student and you will hear really good information.

The happiest a person can be though is when you can handle a really crucial situation well.

In leadership workshops I use the example of Richard de Crespiny, QANTAS pilot extraordinaire, who in 2010 took off in an Airbus a380 on of the largest and newest planes on the planet.

Early into the Singapore/Sydney leg of flight QF32, one of four engines exploded. The damage to the aircraft was extensive. On top of ensuring that 460 or so passengers remained calm during the ordeal, Richard had a mammoth task on the flight deck to keep the aircraft in the air and then get it back on the ground. For two hours he and his fellow crew (technical and cabin) remained calm as they planned to stabilise the damage, configure the overweight aircraft, then manoeuvre it towards Changi Airport in Singapore.

Now that’s one hell of a panic monster.

Once on the ground, a recalcitrant engine refused to shut down, fuel was leaking near white hot brakes and a new environment was set for potential disaster. Passengers remained on board for two nervous hours before they safely disembarked.

The incident brought into play Richard de Crespigny's considerable skills involving teamwork, problem solving, judgement, knowledge, and experience and putting years of highly-skilled training into practice.

This pivotal event has changed his life forever.

Here’s a taste of how it felt.

I’ll finish this with Charles Duhigg writing about Richard De Crespiny and let you feel the rush of mental model agility.

Psychologists have a phrase for this kind of habitual forecasting: "creating mental models."

Understanding how people build mental models has become one of the most important topics in cognitive psychology. All people rely on mental models to some degree. We all tell ourselves stories about how the world works, whether we realise we're doing it or not.

But some of us build more robust models than others. We envision the conversations we're going to have with more specificity, and imagine what we are going to do later that day in greater detail. As a result, we're better at choosing where to focus and what to ignore.

Even before Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny stepped on board Qantas Flight 32, he was drilling his crew in the mental models he expected them to use.

"I want us to envision the first thing we'll do if there's a problem," he told his copilots as they rode in a van from the Fairmont hotel to Singapore Changi Airport.

"Imagine there's an engine failure. Where's the first place you'll look?" The pilots took turns describing where they would turn their eyes. De Crespigny conducted this same conversation prior to every flight. His copilots knew to expect it. He quizzed them on what screens they would stare at during an emergency, where their hands would go if an alarm sounded, whether they would turn their heads to the left or stare straight ahead.

"The reality of a modern aircraft is that it's a quarter million sensors and computers that sometimes can't tell the difference between garbage and good sense," de Crespigny later told me. He's a brusque Australian, a cross between Crocodile Dundee and General Patton. "That's why we have human pilots. It's our job to think about what might happen, instead of what is."

After the crew's visualisation session, de Crespigny laid down some rules. "Everyone has a responsibility to tell me if you disagree with my decisions or think I'm missing anything."

"Mark," he said, gesturing to a copilot, "if you see everyone looking down, I want you to look up. If we're all looking up, you look down. We'll all probably make at least one mistake this flight. You're each responsible for catching them."

So when the pilots flying Qantas 32 started seeing emergency warnings erupt on their instrument panels, they were somewhat prepared. In the twenty minutes after the turbine disc punched a hole in the wing, the men inside the cockpit dealt with an increasing number of alarms and emergencies. The plane's computer displayed step-by-step solutions to each problem. The men relied on the mental models they had worked out ahead of time to decide how to respond. But as the plane's problems cascaded, the instructions became so overwhelming that no one was certain how to prioritise or where to focus. De Crespigny felt himself getting overwhelmed. One computer checklist told the pilots to transfer fuel between the wings in order to balance the plane's weight. "Stop!" de Crespigny shouted as a copilot reached to comply with the screen's command. "Should we be transferring fuel out of the good right wing into the leaking left wing?" A decade earlier, a flight in Toronto had nearly crashed after the crew had inadvertently dumped their fuel by transferring it into a leaky engine. The pilots agreed to ignore the order.

De Crespigny slumped in his chair. He was trying to visualise the damage, trying to keep track of his dwindling options, trying to construct a mental picture of the plane as he learned more and more about what was wrong. Throughout this crisis, de Crespigny and the other pilots had been building mental models of the Airbus inside their heads. Everywhere they looked, however, they saw a new alarm, another system failing, more blinking lights. De Crespigny took a breath, removed his hand from the controls and placed them in his lap.

"Let's keep this simple," he said to his copilots. "We can't transfer fuel, we can't jettison it. The trim tank fuel is stuck in the tail and the transfer tanks are useless."

"So forget the pumps, forget the other eight tanks, forget the total fuel quantity gauge. We need to stop focusing on what's wrong, and start paying attention to what's still working."

On cue, one of the co-pilots began ticking off things that were still operational: Two of eight hydraulic pumps still functioned. The left wing had no electricity, but the right wing had some power. The wheels were intact and the co-pilots believed de Crespigny could pump the brakes at least once before they failed.

The first aeroplane de Crespigny had ever flown was a Cessna, one of the single-engine, nearly non-computerized planes that hobbyists loved. A Cessna is a toy compared to an Airbus, of course, but every plane, at its core, has the same components: a fuel system, flight controls, brakes, landing gear. What if, de Crespigny thought to himself, I imagine this plane as a Cessna? What would I do then?

"That moment is really the turning point," Barbara Burian, a research psychologist at NASA who has studied Qantas Flight 32, told me. "Most of the time, when information overload occurs, we're not aware it's happening — and that's why it's so dangerous. So really good pilots push themselves to do a lot of 'what if' exercises before an event, running through scenarios in their heads. That way, when an emergency happens, they have models they can use."

De Crespigny, in other words, was prepared to pivot the mental model he was relying upon, because he knew that the models he had worked out ahead of time were insufficient to the task at hand. De Crespigny asked one of his copilots to calculate how much runway they would need. Inside his head, de Crespigny was envisioning the landing of an oversized Cessna. "Picturing it that way helped me simplify things," he told me. "I had a picture in my head that contained the basics, and that's all I needed to land the plane."

If de Crespigny hit everything just right, the copilot said, the plane would require 3,900 meters of asphalt. The longest runway at Singapore Changi was 4,000 meters. If they overshot, the craft would buckle as its wheels hit the grassy fields and sand dunes.

"Let's do this," de Crespigny said.

The plane began descending towards Singapore Changi airport. At two thousand feet, de Crespigny looked up from his panel and saw the runway. At one thousand feet, an alarm inside the cockpit began screaming "SPEED! SPEED! SPEED!" The plane was at risk of stalling. De Crespigny's eyes flicked between the runway and his speed indicators. He could see the Cessna's wings in his mind. He delicately nudged the throttle, increasing the speed slightly, and the alarm stopped. He brought the nose up a touch because that's what the picture in his mind told him to do.

"Confirm the fire services on standby," a copilot radioed the control tower.

"Affirm, we have the emergency services on standby," a voice replied.

The plane was descending at fourteen feet per second. The maximum certified speed the undercarriage could absorb was only twelve feet per second. But there were no other options now.

"FIFTY," a computerised voice said. "FORTY." De Crespigny pulled back slightly on his stick. "THIRTY . . . TWENTY." A metallic voice erupted: "STALL! STALL! STALL!"

The Cessna in de Crespigny's mind was still sailing toward the runway, ready to land as he had hundreds of times before. It wasn't stalling. He ignored the alarm. The rear wheels of the Airbus touched the ground and de Crespigny pushed his stick forward, forcing the front wheels onto the tarmac. The brakes would work only once, so de Crespigny pushed the pedal as far as it would go and held it down. The first thousand meters of the runway blurred past. At the two-thousand-meter mark, de Crespigny thought they might be slowing. The end of the runway was rushing toward them through the windshield, grass and sand dunes growing bigger the closer they got. As the plane neared the end of the runway, the metal began to groan. The wheels left long skid marks on the asphalt. Then the plane slowed, shuddered, and came to a stop with one hundred meters to spare.

Investigators would later deem Qantas Flight 32 the most damaged Airbus A380 ever to land safely. Multiple pilots would try to re-create de Crespigny's recovery in simulators and would fail every time.

When Qantas Flight 32 finally came to a rest, the lead flight attendant activated the plane's announcement system.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "welcome to Singapore. The local time is five minutes to midday on Thursday 4 November, and I think you'll agree that was one of the nicest landings we have experienced for a while." De Crespigny returned home a hero. Today, Qantas Flight 32 is taught in flight schools and psychology classrooms as a case study of how to maintain focus during an emergency. It is cited as one of the prime examples of how mental models can put even the direst situations within our control.

Mental models help us by providing a scaffold for the torrent of information that constantly surrounds us. Models help us choose where to direct our attention, so we can make decisions, rather than just react. We may not recognise how situations within our own lives are similar to what happens within an aeroplane cockpit. But think, for a moment, about the pressures you face each day. If you are in a meeting and the CEO suddenly asks you for an opinion, your mind is likely to snap from passive listening to active involvement — and if you're not careful, a cognitive tunnel might prompt you to say something you regret. If you are juggling multiple conversations and tasks at once and an important email arrives, reactive thinking can cause you to type a reply before you've really thought out what you want to say.

So what's the solution?

If you want to do a better job of paying attention to what really matters, of not getting overwhelmed and distracted by the constant flow of emails and conversations and interruptions that are part of every day, of knowing what to focus on and what to ignore, get into the habit of telling yourself stories. Narrate your life as it's occurring, and then when your boss suddenly asks you a question during a meeting or an urgent note arrives and you have only minutes to reply, the spotlight inside your head will be ready to shine the right way.


If you want a really interesting challenge listen to this podcast and see what can QF32 teach schools about teamwork.

What will you do to save your backside from being taken over by a PANIC MONSTER ?

Learn the best mental model to use at our Mindset Manoeuvre Workshop on October 5th, where teachers develop over 30 strategies to help you avoid the PANIC MONSTER and love your career.

There will be no monsters at all on our Bali Teacher's Retreat in January. This is going to be an incredible week for school teachers to learn, relax and rejuvenate before the new school year starts.

Yours, Greg Mitchell

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