My husband and I are bareboat sailors and have chartered vessels all over the world before owning our own beautiful catamaran we called Playologist. It’s been mostly fun and frolic, and my adventurous mate captains our boat almost single-handedly as I chose, years ago, to take the less active approach. I specialize in other “Blue Mind” aspects of these soul-filling vacations: capturing the breathtaking scenery, working on my tan, reading books, and preparing deliciously easy meals. My favorite activity by far though is mixing our gin and tonics when we anchor for the day and reflecting over our day’s sail as the sun sets. (Rest assured, I did learn sailing fundamentals and all the basics so I could be a seaworthy first mate if absolutely necessary!)
Being a word person on land, one of the first things I had to learn as a sailing novitiate was the proper sailing vocabulary. Words you really only hear on boat like aft, bow, port, starboard, boom, tacking, jibing — these are just a start! And then the more serious terms like souls on board, mayday and pan pan. Like you, I had heard the words mayday and souls on board used in relation to airplane travel, but pan pan was all new to me. It’s the international distress signal that the vessel or someone aboard the vessel is having a situation that’s urgent but is not in immediate life-threatening danger. In two decades of sailing the open seas, we’ve heard pan pan used a handful of times, usually due to some unforeseen but important medical conditions of the captain or of a crew member.
A Need for Calmer Waters
It seems as though this unbidden COVID-19 pandemic has led to some version of pan pan times for all of us as business leaders. As I deeply listen to my clients and colleagues across a spectrum of sectors and channels — retail, research, specialty food, publishing, nonprofit, direct-to-consumer, education, real estate, and others — I hear a quiet but unspoken cry for help, for calmer waters. A need for a bit of refreshment for their souls. Encouragement. More sunshine. More air. Like yourself, these leaders have been challenged as never before, navigating tumultuous waters filled with uncertainty. The headwinds unpredictable, the GPS points unclear, the route reconfigured. They’ve indeed taken full, active and engaged responsibility for all the souls on board their various vessels — their employees, their customers, their vendors and partners — but where, oh where, do they turn for respite and refreshment? Who puts the wind back in their sails?
The exhaustion and fatigue are real. Truly, a second wind is needed. This isn’t going to be a quick trip for the faint of heart. All signs point to this being a long and ongoing journey, tedious at times, frightening and bewildering at others. These leaders have captained and created new fast-track plans for their businesses; many of them becoming more than they ever thought they could become. However, these herculean efforts have left their souls a bit parched. Understandably so.
I found myself in this same place recently, and with no boat to easily jump onboard (nor a clean plane to take me to the boat, nor an open body of water to easily escape to in the heart of the Rocky Mountains!), I did the next best thing. I fixed myself a gin and tonic with an extra lime, grabbed my paper and pen, and sat in the Colorado sun on my comfy Adirondack chair and played with sorting out a few pan pan words of my own. This strategic reflection grounded me and gave me the insight I needed to “create capacity” (as my artist friend Rosie Harris taught me to call “clearing the decks”) for what lies ahead. This exercise soothed my spirit. It anchored my soul.
Your New Pan Pan Vocabulary
If you find yourself feeling a bit unmoored or, even, possibly shipwrecked at times, may I suggest that perhaps a new pan pan vocabulary is in order. Set aside all the “virusy” depressing words that are screaming for clicks these days in the news and all the urgent business words that are filling up your calendars with Zoom/Webex meetings and focus on the imperative need for new words to revivify your soul.
I’ve always been partial to verbs — action words that take us places! We are all verbs-in-process these days. Therefore, mix your favorite cocktail (or pour some coffee/tea/sparkling water!) and set some alone time aside to reflect on this vocabulary of verbs and the questions they raise. This strategic reflection is strictly personal — answers for your eyes only. Take on this new vocabulary all at once, or grapple with one word a day for the next month:
ADMIRE: Name one person in your inner circle who demonstrated a behavior, big or little, during this ordeal that was praiseworthy in your eyes.
BLOSSOM: What has this shelter-in-place time encouraged to burst forth in your life?
CLARIFY: Identify one thing that has been made clear for you.
DELETE: Name one practice/habit/routine in your life that you stopped doing and don’t miss.
ENAMOR: What has recently stolen your heart?
FORGIVE: Confess one thing you’ve been extra tough on yourself about that you can now give yourself permission to let go.
GLORIFY: What one new micro habit began in this time would you like to exalt?
HUMBLE: What aspect of these times confounded you in unexpected ways?
INSPIRE: Where did you find ounces of inspiration?
JUXTAPOSE: Compare and contrast one routine that has changed for you. What’s better about the new way?
KICK-START: Identify an internal fire that you want to add more fuel to.
LISTEN: Who have you listened to well during this time? Who has listened to you well?
MARINATE: What new idea that occurred to you during this pandemic may need additional time to sort through or work out?
NEST: What has brought you comfort — physical, emotional, mental — in your living space?
OPEN: Name an opening, big or little, that this time has created for you.
PURSUE: Is there a quiet dream that you’d like to set in motion?
QUICKEN: What shortcut have you taken that has paid off?
REINFORCE: Pinpoint a personal value that this time reconfirmed for you.
SACRIFICE: What’s something that you’ve given up that you don’t miss?
TRANSLATE: Name something that has been reframed for you in a positive light.
UNCOMPLICATE: What’s one thing you can continue doing to simplify your life?
VENT: What still needs further airing out?
WELCOME: Describe one welcomed gift from this circumstance.
EXPOSE: What was one conversation you had that brought to light a deeper topic?
YEARN: Name a favorite pastime that you miss.
ZIGZAG: What new path did you take unexpectedly, and where did it lead you?
There you go! True gifts from this pan pan pandemic season. More than a bit of comfort food for your weary soul. I loved learning that post-traumatic growth can come from hard times. It doesn’t always have to be limited to post-traumatic stress! (And, if you want to go even deeper, go back to your answers and ask WHY after each one!)
Perhaps you can share this list with others in your life, either at home or at work. I truly believe we’re all quietly — and perhaps not so quietly — becoming more these days. As you lead your business, your brand, your team, your family to become more, please pay attention to your very own soul. The world urgently needs authentic, empathetic, soulful leaders.
PS: For those with a bit of wanderlust and craving a blue water fix, may I recommend Wallace J. Nichols’ research on how just being near the water can make your soul smile: “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.”
And, for more of this verb-based questioning process targeted to business branding and product development needs, take a peek at my book, “THINKABOUT: 77 Creative Prompts for Innovators!“