Monday, December 7, 2009

How to Fly Over Recessionary Obstacles

Originally published in
Tuesday August 4, 2009

By Peter Bregman (reprinted with author permission)

Win, my mountain biking partner, and I looked down the ten-foot drop.

"Should be fun," he said as we backed away from the edge and climbed up the hill to get some runway. I wasn't so sure. He climbed on his bike, pedaled to get a little speed, and took the plunge, effortlessly gliding over the rocks, roots, and stumps.

My turn. I felt the adrenaline rush as I clipped my feet into the pedals. My heart was beating fast. My hands were shaking. I took a few tentative pedal strokes forward and inched up. I felt my front tire go over the edge and I started to descend, checking my speed as I weaved around the obstacles.

Suddenly I hit something and my bike abruptly stopped. But I didn't. I flew over my handlebars and ended up on the ground, lying beside my bike, front wheel still spinning.

"Dude," Win laughed, "You OK?"

"Yeah." I brushed the dirt off my elbows. "What happened?"

Neither of us knew. So I picked up my bike, climbed up the chute, and did it again. Not just the chute, the whole thing: the adrenaline, the weaving around the obstacles, the abrupt stop, the flying over the handlebars.

"Dude," Win laughed again. I was officially in the movie Groundhog Day. I climbed back up the chute and did it again. And again. I must have done it five times before I figured out what was stopping me.


A mountain bike has to be going fast enough to make it over an obstacle. The bigger the obstacle, the more momentum the bike needs to get over it. There was one big unavoidable rock, and each time I came upon it I unconsciously squeezed on my brake. That slowed me down just enough to turn the rock into an insurmountable wall.

I needed more speed to keep moving. So I climbed back up and did it again. I stared at the rock and picked up speed. I kept my eyes on it right to the point where I squeezed on my brakes and flipped over my handlebars again.

I knew what I had to do but I couldn't do it. It was just too scary. As long as I was focused on the rock, I couldn't prevent myself from braking.

But I wasn't ready to give up. So I climbed back up and tried one more time. This time, I decided to focus ahead of me - ten feet in front of where I was at any point in time. So I would see the rock when it was ten feet away, but I wouldn't be looking at it when I was going over it.

It worked. I slid easily over the rock and made it down the chute without falling.

I'm a huge proponent of living in the present. If you pay attention to what's happening now, the future will take care of itself. You know: don't regret the past, don't worry about the future, just be here now and all that.

But sometimes, focusing on the present is the obstacle. Take driving a car, for example. If you didn't look ahead to see where the road was going, you'd keep driving straight and crash at the next curve. When you're driving, you never actually pay attention to where you are; you're always paying attention to what's happening in the road ahead and you change course based on what you see in the future.

It's the same with running a business. These days I see a lot of leaders who remind me of me mountain biking down that chute. They look with fear at their current numbers or at the government's current reports, and then without meaning to, they squeeze the brakes. In some cases they're still laying people off or, at least, not hiring. They've drastically reduced training or stopped it altogether. Their employees are still worried about their jobs and they, the leaders themselves, aren't reassuring them because they're worried about their jobs too.


Peter Bregman writes a weekly column called How We Work at Harvard Business and is a regular contributor at CNN. He speaks, writes, and consults about how to lead and how to live. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and advises CEOs and their leadership teams. You can sign up to be notified when he writes a new article. Bregman is the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change and can be reached at

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