Optimism for an 'amazing' new year

I am not prone to panic, and in fact I'm pretty much a Steady Eddie. I was a boy scout (always prepared), a consistent saver, and am still true to my Midwestern roots - I live below my means, I invest conservatively, and I take everything with a grain of salt.

I am not prone to panic, and in fact I'm pretty much a Steady Eddie. I was a boy scout (always prepared), a consistent saver, and am still true to my Midwestern roots – I live below my means, I invest conservatively, and I take everything with a grain of salt.

But lately it's been tough to remain calm. Last week I opened the statement for my son's 529 college savings account only to find that an entire year's worth of tuition had disappeared. Gone.

Pretty much everything I own is down 40%.

And so the nagging worries have been creeping in. Maybe we really are on the verge of a Great Depression. Maybe I should have sold everything and bought gold. Maybe the banks will fail and I should put it all in cash.

But I didn't realize how close I was to true despair until I saw something on Facebook that shook me out of my stupor and turned my worldview around. It was a short, throwaway line, a “status update” on Facebook in which a friend simply said she “is pretty amazed at the beginning of '09.”

When I saw the sentence, my heart quickened and my spirits lifted. She's “amazed” at 2009? Really? Is the economy improving? Did something great happen in her family? Did she see something in our new president?

The funny thing is, I don't actually know if she was amazed in a positive or negative way. But I'd been so hungry for hope and optimism that I seized upon the sentiment and, into it, projected all kinds of positive prognostications. And it made me realize something important about communications and leadership: We need to give hope.

In these overwhelmingly difficult times, we have no choice but to be realistic, to be practical, and to take immediate and difficult action – but we also have to be optimistic. We're going to be OK. We will get through this period despite the hell that still lies ahead.

The reality is that all of us have lost close to half of what we had a year ago. Many – particularly those who worked at AIG, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, or Bear Stearns – have lost more than half. Some have lost jobs, some will lose jobs, and many are truly not enjoying the jobs they have. But the first step for all of us is to reset our perspective and lift up our heads. We've got to let go of the expectations we had just six or seven months ago – expectations of wealth, retirement, vacations, cars, promotions, exciting projects, and complacency. Our world has been rocked, and it's time to figure how to adapt and move forward. And that's where leadership and communications can make all the difference.

So I've taken up the cause. When I tell people I'm optimistic about the year ahead, their eyes lift and their voices quicken: “Really? Tell me why.”

I'm trying to find the pathway back to amazement.

Don Spetner is the EVP of corporate affairs for Korn/Ferry International.

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