How Do You React To Crisis

My passport wasn’t in my jacket. That was bad. Real bad. I spin around to see the tail lights of the taxi turning at the intersection.


I immediately patted myself down. Wallet? Check. Phone? Check. Passport? No check.

“What’s wrong?”

I ignored my friend as I tore open my jacket. Sure enough, the inside pocket where I keep my passport was ripped. And empty.

The last night I was in Israel, my hostel went out for a late dinner and a bar crawl. After a few hours, my friend and I decided to split off and head for the beach. We had an amazing time at the beach, then around 5am we finally got cold and flagged down a taxi to go home, using my jacket as a blanket to keep warm.

Moments after we got out of the taxi, I realized the passport was gone. As my brain went into battle plan mode, all the facts came into focus. I had last used it to get into the final bar, so it was somewhere between here and there. Torn jacket meant it definitely fell out somewhere.

First course of action: Catch that taxi. Second: Retrace our steps and recover passport. Third: Inform the police, in case someone finds and returns it.

Low probability it was lost at the bar or on the walk to the beach. High probability it was at the beach or in the taxi. Zero percent chance of finding, let alone catching up to, the taxi. First thing to do: search the beach.

We flagged down a new taxi, explained the situation, and told him to step on it. Once we got to the beach, my friend and I retraced our steps. Luckily, it wasn’t a big beach and we didn’t go many places. We started where we got picked up by the first taxi, ended where we got to the beach, and then doubled back to where we got picked up again. Searched our whole route twice.


Next stop, police department to file a report. I didn’t have a lot of time left to recover the passport before I left the country, so I wanted to make sure they could contact me as quickly as possible. Gave them my local phone number, and tried to explain the urgency.

After the station, we taxi’d back to the hostel and went to sleep. There was nothing else to do. Everything in Israel was closed for the weekend + Shabbat, and everything in the United States was closed because it was 9pm Friday night there.

I’ve always found people’s reactions to crises interesting. Sometimes people panic. Sometimes people get stressed out and start imagining the worst case outcomes. (“They’ll never let me out of Israel!” “How will I get through immigration in the United States?”)

As soon as I realized what happened, I went into a fight or flight level of clarity. I ran through the facts, assigned rough probabilities to scenarios, and immediately knew what I had to do and the best order to do them in.

I never panicked, never got upset. In fact, I was laughing about how ridiculous the situation was, and how interesting getting through Tel Aviv airport security was going to be (“Hi. I was just in Ramallah, I’ve been blogging about Palestinians, and I don’t have a passport. Can I get on your plane?”). Having my friend with me definitely helped, but I stayed cool and rational.

This typically results in the best possible outcome. With a clear head, you can make the best decisions. It didn’t work out this time (I was almost certain the entire time that it was in the first taxi), but we covered a lot of ground, searched a lot of places, and set up the best system possible for having my passport returned to me - all in a very short amount of time. Plus, now we both have a great story about a fantastic night at the beach and the adventure that followed.

Here are a few ways you can maintain a clear and level head in the face of a crisis:

1. Remember, it’s not life threatening. We’re not living in a time when a hungry sabertooth tiger might poke its head into our cave. We’re not facing hoards of undead zombies breaking through our walls. And we’re definitely not living in a time where Will Smith has to fly a spaceship into an alien mothership, upload a virus, and save the Earth. Just remember that this isn’t a life and death situation (In cases when it is, please disregard this suggestion and hope you have a cigar to smoke on the flight back to Earth).

2. List the facts. What do you know to be true? Challenge each one - how do you know it’s true? This helps you eliminate, or at least identify, assumptions. In a crisis situation, knowing when you’re making decisions based on facts and when you’re making decisions based on hunches and guesses is important. I knew I had my passport at 1am. I knew my jacket pocket was ripped. I knew I didn’t have it anymore at 5am. I knew we had used my jacket as a blanket in a few different places.

3. Don’t focus on the worst case scenarios. Getting fixated on how bad your situation is or how bad things could get won’t help. In fact, it will usually hurt. Just like when you’re riding a bike and see a pothole in the road. You don’t want to hit it, so you focus on it, thinking “don’t hit the pothole, don’t hit the pothole.” You never take your eyes off of it, and then… you run straight into it. If you focus on something, that’s what will usually happen. Your brain is good at understanding intensity, but not so good at understanding whether that intensity is positive or negative. This doesn’t mean ignore the truth, but don’t get fixated on it.

4. Identify desired outcomes. Now that you’re not focusing on the worst case scenarios, what are the best case scenarios? In my case, it was finding my passport on the beach, someone returning my passport to the police, or finding the taxi driver. Start thinking about the steps required to achieve each outcome.

5. Prioritize. Come up with some handwave-y estimates of which scenario has the highest likelihood of success. In my case, that meant a combination of “how likely is it my passport is there” combined with my ability to check. While I put a high probability (70%) that my passport was in the cab, I also had a 0% chance of making that happen. And there was no use getting the police involved if it was just sitting on the beach, so my next steps were pretty clear.

6. Focus on the present. When I was in the cab on the way back to the beach, I had to wait. I knew the passport wasn’t in that cab, so I sat back and talked with my friend. When we were at the beach, I was looking down at the ground searching. When we were going to the police station, I was reviewing what I needed to tell them. At no point was I worried about how to get a new passport, or how I was going to get a replacement visa for my trip to China on Tuesday, or how I was going to get through airport security. None of that would have done any good. Worrying about the future doesn’t help you solve the problems of the present. So focus on what you can do in the present, because that’s what you have control over.

I’m not sure what makes different people respond to crises differently. Is it nature or nurture? Is it tied to personality type, or particular personality traits? If anyone has any research or articles, I’m interested in learning more about this. Please share them in the comments below.

I went to the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art with some German girls from my hostel. This was my favorite piece - it was called “Sandcastles.” At first glance from across the room, I thought it was a castle on an asteroid flying through space. Upon further inspection, it looks like the artist was just etching sandcastles into a chunks of rock.

I prefer castles flying through space.

Written on January 6, 2013