Standing Still While Your Hair’s on Fire

I’ve a friend who, several years ago, wrote a book the basic premise of which I disagreed with profoundly. His notion was that life, especially in business, has sped up to such a degree that the older ways of doing things no longer applied. The book, in essence, was a paean to multi-tasking. Sure, he dressed it up as otherwise: raiment of  “new economy,” “conversations with customers,” and “social media.”

But it was really about that very human tendency to, when faced with fear or stress, speed up.

Driving up to Vermont  on my way to a retreat the other day, zipping along I-91, listening to David Whyte speak of the ways we speed up, lose our presence, I remembered my friend’s book. And then David shared a poem.

The poem, said Whyte, is a translation of the wisdom elders gave young men and women of the Pacific Northwest who, in preparing to wander into the redwood forests to find their adult selves, would ask what to do when lost.


By David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

From “Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems”

And I thought, “That’s also great advice for what to do when your hair is on fire.”

Hair on Fire |he(ə)r ôn fīr|


1 a state of mind where everything and/or everyone makes you crazy and where nothing is working.

2 informal: every day life at a startup

I love that first line: “Stand still.” For me it evokes the image of the kindergarten teacher, walking into a room filled with screaming five-year olds. “What’s the best way to get the five year olds to calm down?” I’d ask. “Should you scream louder?”

Of course not; the right thing to do is to shut the lights. And, if they’re especially rambunctious, make them put their heads down on the desk for a nap. It works for five year olds. It works for your employees. And, most importantly, it works for the crazy thoughts in your head.

PS…my China trip is on. Thanks to all those who gave. Between us, we’ve raised nearly $40,000. We’ve also managed to get a discount on the tents, so with some luck, we’ll be distributing 150 tents and food, water, and clothing. I leave New York on August 30 and back after September 15. I’m blessed to be able to do this. Blessed, grateful, and humbled.

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  • Peter Cranstone

    Stand still is step one, listen is step two, evaluate is step 3, decision is step 4. When I used to fly we had a saying when your hair was on fire – Aviate, Navigate, Communicate in that order. Of course when you’ve lost an engine, the hydraulics and are in a thunderstorm you don’t have “long to stand still”, however the premise remains – you need to stand still, listen, and learn from the inputs around you. If you can’t do this, then your hair will always be on fire. However it does take practice to be calm in certain situations. The corollary to the forrest poem is to think ahead – another trait I learned flying. If you weren’t 250 miles ahead of the aircraft then your hair was going to be on fire shortly after takeoff.

    • jerrycolonna

      As always, Peter, your comments expand and make the whole post better. Thank you.
      I suppose it’s like thinking ahead, anticipating, can keep your hair from burning to begin with. My ONLY concern about is that sometimes I think we tell ourselves that’s what we’re doing when what we’re really doing is feeding our own anxiety.

      • Peter Cranstone

        You’re welcome.

        Agreed on your comments. I would add the following – think of standing still as having the discipline to listen when things are “on fire”. When I first heard the “get ahead of the aircraft by 250 miles” I didn’t get it. It’s really a metaphor for planning and even though no plan survives first contact (with the enemy) it gives you a process by which you learn to deal with your anxiety. Standing still and breathing is very hard to do when everything around you is on fire – the stillness of the forrest allows you to digest your feelings and react in a more controlled fashion. As the poem states – The Forrest knows where you are – (your brain knows the answers) you must let it (your brain) find you. The only missing element is “time” (I love this quote – remove time and everything works) how much time is left on the clock for the forrest to find you – depends upon the forrest (situation). It can range from milliseconds to months or even years. The key is the discovery process – the accelerator is time.

        • jerrycolonna

          I think your analysis of the poem is spot on. That’s one of the amazing things about poetry…the power of the metaphor to create insight.

          • Peter Cranstone

            Thanks – however it took you posting the poem for me to stop and listen. Your blogs are very powerful in that respect.

  • greenskeptic

    Thank you for sharing this poem and sending the link my way via Twitter.

    When I lived in Alaska, I heard a story from an Inupiaq man about the Qupqugiaq, a legendary ten-legged polar bear who renounces violence and tries to create a love-based community. He also told about a time when some hunters came across a Qupqugiaq that had fallen into an ice hole and was struggling to get out.

    Rather than kill it, they decided to help the bear out of the hole. This seemingly impossible task took a lot of team work. The more they struggled, however, the harder became the task. Only when they stopped and stood still for a moment did they realize their frantic actions were useless. Once they calmed down and worked in concentrated harmony did the task become easier and the bear could be freed.

    I wrote a poem about the Qupqugiaq, which I often refer to when working with teams:

    • jerrycolonna

      Brilliant. And the power of that imagery is wonderful. Thanks for the poem as well.

  • Tereza

    “Hey, tell me what’s going on.”It’s a phrase I used to use sometimes while doing primary research. And I could find out the most useful and interesting things. But as a parent I’ve used it more and more. Let my daughter vent. Then start sorting out what could be. What’s been interesting is that practically out of habit I find myself saying it so much with my work recently. And it’s incredibly useful in multiple ways.The funny thing is, it feels like time is suspended and it’s a conversation you don’t have time for. But in fact it accelerates the resolution because it invites to let out the emotion first. Know what I mean? And then you let the emotion out, and frequently the facts start pouring out right behind. Which then you can piece together into an answer.I swear it’s like a law of physics you can count on — like gravity. But it’s emotional.

  • panterosa,

    Growing up my best friend’s dad was way into Zen. He was the parent at home and loved being with kids, loved their creativity. When my friend’s sister had thrown tantrums at age 2, he had looked at her and asked “Is that the best you can do?”. It stopped her in her tracks, and from then on was quite different.

    I feel you have described here that stillness he brought – you knew he was very still, “in the forest”, and when you were off kilter he had a way of bringing you to that place of stillness by statements like that, and by his demeanor. That grounding is so important for children, and for the adults they become. It was a gift. If only there were more with this gift.

    • Tereza

      I don’t know why I just thought of this, but at least vis-a-vis parenting, a useful tool is playing dumb.

      There’s a book called Playful Parenting and while I read it with a parenting lens, I think there are business applications and I need to re-read with that filter.

      The author gives an example of how he and his wife were staunchly anti-gun and yet somehow a plastic toy pistol made its way into the house (birthday goodie bag?), and was hidden deep in a closet. A neighborhood boy, kinda bullyish, came over, and needless to say, in about 5 minutes found the one toy gun.

      He proceeds to “shoot ’em up” all over the house, including the dad/host/author.

      So the kid takes direct aim at the dad. Dad says, “Oh, I see you found the Love Gun, Larry. When you shoot it, it means I’ll have to love you that much more.”


      The boy drops the gun — ew!!!

      Then his daughter picks it up, and they start a big hug fest.

      An awesome example of changing the force-field.

      • panterosa,

        I always love the idea of switching things up to neutralize them, defanging I call it, as the Love Gun idea does. I also think it’s important to take power away from those who don’t have the skill to handle it, ie. a child thinking he can scare, when really he doesn’t know what truly scary is. Nor do we hope he will find out.

        A favorite scene of mine from Harry Potter is Professor Lupin teaching how to deal with a boggart – a shape shifting being which assumes the shape of your worst fears. The spell one uses is to counter the boggart is “Ridikulus” – you match your fear with an element of ridicule or humor, to you, and your spell combines your most feared and most funny in one image, such that the boggart’s power over you is useless, now it’s been rendered absurd.

        BTW, I can’t imagine you reading anything for which you did not find a business corollary.

    • jerrycolonna

      “I feel you have described here that stillness he brought”
      Brilliant. Thank you for the image. Exactly so. I once had a friend who did something similar for me.
      I was ranting about something or other…my hair was on fire…when he sort of verbally slapped me with a “that is not so” statement. It felt like I was a ship, rocking at sea and he’d dropped an anchor and stopped the rocking.

      • panterosa,

        The more I think about it, the more I correlate your work coaching (and blogging) the monster out of someone’s head to dealing with boggarts, and teaching people the Riddikulus spell.

        • jerrycolonna

          I suppose I’m Dumbledore?
          I feel like Hagrid.

          • Tereza

            Shana = Hermione

    • fredwilson

      is that the best you can do?


      • panterosa,

        Yes, so anti-thetical to the helicopter parenting of today.

  • Steven Kane

    Nice piece, J.

    Serendipitously – new awesome song from truly awesome new Broken Bells album called: “Your Head Is On Fire” –

    Look behind
    Your head is on fire
    Whirling masses
    Rolling ashes
    Keep on yawning
    Career dawning
    Life is Tasteless
    Folding paces…

    To turn away from the night
    Allowing the light a low
    He’s surely fooling yourself
    Leaving life on the shelf

    You’ll never know
    How low an angry heart can go
    How long a sitting hands return meant

    Look behind
    Your head is on fire
    Whirling masses
    Rolling ashes
    Keep on yawning
    Career dawning
    Life is Tasteless
    Folding paces…

    PS: somehow i missed the china trip fundraising – happy to coin up if you are still raising, let me know

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Steve. Love the song…downloading the album now. Thanks. Yeah…I leave on August 30…back mid-September. I’ve got fundraising still open until September 15th…check out to give. And thanks. I’m just shy of $20K (which is well past my first and second goals of $15K and $17.5K respectively but it’d be nice to hit that number). With some new prices on tents, it looks like we may be bringing housing (temporary of course) for 2000 people.
      So I’ll take whatever folks can give with humble gratitude.

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  • Emily Merkle

    thank you for permission – what is going on, can someone please tell me? 

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  • Sophia Athena

    I love this the most ” . And, most importantly, it works for the crazy thoughts in your head.” thanks Jerry

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