What Life or Death Situations Taught Me About Business

(Photo: Bryan Brenneman/Flickr)

(Photo: Bryan Brenneman/Flickr)

There are lessons to be learned from the unthinkable. In a life or death situation, your survival depends on your clarity, focus, and taking action toward a single goal, which are the very things that help us build and create and succeed in our world.

I was always interested in combat sports growing up. My grandfather was a boxer, who taught me from a young age that an opponent’s size, speed, and strength didn’t matter under the impact of a targeted hit. I’ve since built my career on teaching that same basic principle to special groups, military, law enforcement, and now civilians.

Fighting for our lives is something that most of us will, thankfully, never have to do. Those of us who have hope to never experience it again. But you can take the stark truths that come out of a life or death situation and use them to help your business thrive. Here are a few of them:

A narrow definition of success will make you effective

Violence is chaotic. Business is no exception. There is no shortage of noise and those who cleave through the knot instead of untangling the strings are the ones who get where they want to be. Defining your success by a single, concrete result will cut your knot in half. In doing so, you: Know exactly what you’re gunning for and know whether you’ve achieved it or not

In a life or death situation, the result that defines your success is injury. It’s the only thing you’re gunning for, and you’ll know you’ve succeeded when the other guy doesn’t get up. It’s that simple.

It’s ironic, because we will live in a culture in which broad definitions of success abound. Think big, people tell you. But in business, a narrow definition of success keeps you from having to worry about an entire spectrum of goals or events. It keeps you from screwing around with other things, confusing them for effective effort. Your focus is fixed on your single goal, your concrete objective; and anything that does not directly cause the result you want is useless to you.

Be the cause

I’m willing to bet that the first thing that comes to mind when I say “attacker” is “bad guy” while “defender” means “good guy.” And if I asked you which you would rather be, what would you choose? For a moment, set those good/bad associations aside and pick again.

The attacker has initiative, aggressiveness, and is moving directly toward the result he wants. The defender is reactive, self-protective, and trying to prevent something he doesn’t want from happening. Who do you think is more likely to achieve his desired end?

You don’t succeed in business simply by seeking to thwart a negative outcome, staying in a reactive mode, or only countering what the other guy is trying to do. You succeed by putting yourself in the cause-state, being the one who is moving forward toward your goal, and making everyone else react to you.

Bigger, faster, stronger means nothing

What is a grain of sand to a big, strong, skilled and very angry man who wants to hurt you? It’s laughable, and completely meaningless compared to his size, his strength, his anger, and his skill—unless it’s in his eye. Then it’s everything. It’s blindness and preoccupation. It’s him unable to wield his size, strength, skill and anger as a focused weapon.

In business, pitting yourself directly against your competition’s biggest advantages is often a losing proposition. If you choose to focus on their strengths and throw yourself against them, then you’re beat before you even get out of bed in the morning. I’ve seen insanely strong guys leveled after getting an eye poked by a 4-year-old; and I’ve seen entire industries disrupted by a single start-up. The other guy may be bigger, faster, and stronger, but that does nothing to protect him from you.

Prepare for the way It Is, not how you’d like it to be

The truth about a violent, life or death encounter is that you’re going to get punched, kicked, stabbed, whacked or shot—whether you’re the “winner” or not. What you can realistically expect as the survivor is to limp out of there alive. Any other outcome is pure luck. Whether we’re talking about violence or business, accepting the reality of your worst-case scenario ahead of time and preparing for the way it is instead of the way you’d like it to be can make the difference between surviving and shutting down.

If you take a wrong turn and suddenly find yourself on the brink of disaster, your mind is going to go to one of two places: to the result of your mistake—“I’m ruined!”—or to the specific steps you need to take to steer your company to other side. Look at the difference: it’s abstraction versus concrete action. Which one do you want coming out of you when your business depends on it?

You’re either doing It or you’re not

We tend to see everything on a continuum. Violence is binary. In a life or death situation, there is only winner/loser, effective/ineffective, and successful/unsuccessful. And you’re either doing it, or you’re not. There is no middle ground and there are no levels of severity. It’s all or nothing. In a life or death situation, “going light” might not save your life.

In business, I think the same binary perspective applies: you’re either doing what you set out to do, making the most effective moves to achieve the result that defines success for your company—or you aren’t.

Tim Larkin is the founder of Target Focus Training and author of the New York Times bestselling book Survive the Unthinkable: A Total Guide to Women’s Self-Protection

What Life or Death Situations Taught Me About Business