If you live on the edge, eventually you will fall off

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Allen Thibeaux
  • Civil Engineering Squadron commander
I used to be a cook in a restaurant that had pretty sporadic business. We also had a lunch policy that if food came out past a time limit, we would pay for it. One day, a convention was in town and the place was packed with folks wanting to eat in a hurry.

We were not prepared.

It started when an employee did not show up, and the manager was unable to get someone to cover. We decided to live on the edge and assume things would not get too busy. The manager worked the cook line to make up for the loss. I remember the tickets flowing in, and we ran out of inventory which was sparingly stocked for normal business - no margin for error. We had to pull our dishwasher to do prep work in the back (portions, cutting, mixing etc.) to replenish our inventory. The manager kept getting in everyone's way. Much to our relief, he eventually left to deal with angry customers.

The customers were not relieved, and there were tears from the wait staff. All of us were strung out and we started making mistakes. We also ran out of clean dishes so the prep work had to stop, leading to a new inventory problem on the line. We had a total system shutdown and lost $3K when we should have made $7K.

I found the manager crying in the back office. He told me that this was not his fault.

I was not sad. I was mad.

When things were clicking when we were busy, it was all good stress and very rewarding. We were selling good food like crazy and making people happy. Sadly, the restaurant business is not predictable, and a lack of resilience can lead to bad stress. Plans fail, people fall apart, both the food and service suffers, and people start crying. Since we had no reserves, we had no resilience which led to failure. The management's unwarranted optimism about inventory and labor needs led to this brittle disaster.

Optimism is a huge force for good. Without it, I would not function well as a leader. Even so, optimism is not the plan. You might be able to visualize good fortune and make it into a reality as I have read in some pretty nutty self-help books (someone made me read one). This will only happen if you have a plan to make it a reality, and develop habits that account for future challenges.

I have seen this breakdown phenomenon in my 20 years as an Air Force leader both on the organizational and individual scale. As an engineer, we look at this often when we design systems. We build in safety factors and redundancies because the stakes are typically high, and we must account for failures. Unfortunately, most people do not approach their lives with the diligence of an engineer because they are not thinking about things going wrong.

In my restaurant scenario, a sequence of small failures led to large failures. Management's decision to live on edge, assume the best and not plan for challenge caused a whole team to come unglued. In the personal and professional life of an Airman, I have seen this as well. Here are a few falsely optimistic, non-resilient habits that I have observed:

Procrastination: When procrastinators live at the last minute, they have no time to deal with problems. If they hit one bump in the road, they have unplanned for pain. In most cases, working early and late involves the same amount of work. The late folks just have more stress, and when things go wrong, they tend to fail.

Fitness neglect: A basic resiliency skill, fitness is not something that can be put off to be of any help. Being fit means Airmen are more likely to stay healthy, and so they are more prepared when their bodies are put under stress. I have seen many Airmen assume they can pull off fitness prep with a last minute regimen right before their test. The mistake may seem small, but consequences can be severe.

No-margin finance: Some choose to live paycheck to paycheck with no cash reserve. Something goes wrong and they lean on credit. Debt grows and puts a choke-hold on future cash flow. More problems lead to more debt and soon they are desperate.

Taking Family and friends for granted: Solid relationships require investment, usually in time. Odds are, folks will not have more time for friends and family in the future than they do today, so they need to get into the habit of making that investment. When times get tough, those relationships are a crucial part of resilient recovery.

There are many other examples. Are there people that struggle with more than one of these? Yes. In fact, I usually see these in combination. Just like in my restaurant example, these habits combine to form a very fragile lifestyle. As a commander, I usually get involved when that fragile arrangement breaks. Oddly enough, just like my manager, the person in this situation typically perceives how external factors cause failure. Here is my advice, account for those external things now, make a plan, and develop habits that build resiliency.

Resiliency is a responsibility for every Airman. It is not an ideal for which only "goody-goody" people strive. Resiliency is a foundation. A resilient life is less fear driven, more rewarding, and allows a person to rise to greater challenges. False optimism is a type of self-lie that chips away at that foundation. Sure, assuming things are going to be fine might work most days, but the day will come when the system fails. If you sleep on a cliff assuming you would never roll off, most nights you might be OK. Then that day comes...