How to turn a challenge into an opportunity

There's nothing quite like a monumental crisis to bring people together. The arbiter of our fractured relationship as improv comedy team Four Day Weekend came in the way of the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. It sounds dramatic, but there we were, about to perform at Fiserv Forum for 5,000 banking CEOs, presidents, and other high-level bankers at the Venetian in Las Vegas, when there, splattered all over the front pages of the New York Times, was the headline that read, "Lehman Collapse Sends Shockwave Around World." 

None of the members of Four Day Weekend were bankers, and our knowledge of complex banking regulations was limited to having a free checking account. Yet we knew this was a potential crisis that could literally grind the U.S. economy to a halt. The warnings that were coming from the government hardly seemed hyperbolic; this may be the biggest collapse in 80 years.

As we were preparing to take the stage that morning in mid-September in 2008, almost everyone was on edge. How did this happen? How could the largest economy in the world lose one of the largest financial services firms in the world?

Sometimes it is best not to fully know how dire things are in a certain moment, and this certainly was the case at the time. Although each of us knew these dire warnings couldn't be good, we had no idea how long it would take for the U.S. economy to recover.
We realized what we needed to do. We needed to work… together.

Would You Like Your Financial Meltdown on White or Wheat?

As we made our way through the remainder of 2008 and into 2009, the financial meltdown became one of the best disasters to bring us together. As America's business ground to a halt and budgets became tighter, one of the first line items to be eliminated was the entertainment budget. Soon, much of the corporate work that we had grown so accustomed to doing was gone, leaving huge gaps in our booking calendar. Many Fortune 500 companies slashed their entertainment budgets, opting instead to have one of their own people act as host/master of ceremonies for their events.

We call this the "Earl-from-Accounting Effect." When budgets get lean, someone in the organization invariably will suggest cutting the speaker's budget and have one of their own host the event. "Get Earl from Accounting to do it. He's funny. He can pull it off." In the upcoming 18 months Earl from Accounting would take quite a bit of our work.

Although this temporarily hurt us financially, it soon became one of the biggest Happy Accidents of all.

The dire financial situation gave us a lot of additional time on our calendar, and soon we found ourselves back in our theater working more on our live production for our weekly shows. We spent the time working to revamp the show with new material, and we worked on the theater facility to improve and repair some of the things that had been ignored due to our busy schedules. The theater improved and the show improved, but most importantly the show improved because our relationships improved.

Once again, we found ourselves laughing and having fun doing the very thing we loved the most, and it was the reason why we got into this to begin with -- our live show. Soon we found we were having more fun than ever, and it began showing in our live performances. Audiences looking for an escape found the Four Day Weekend Theater the perfect place to come to sit back, unwind, and have a good laugh. Believe it or not, in the midst of a crisis we began having the time of our lives again, and the most important aspect of this journey, our friendship together had returned to old times. We were loving what we were doing.

America felt frightened and scared by this financial meltdown, and many people sought refuge in laughter. People were so bogged down by the persistent drumbeat of bad news day in and day out that many searched for some sort of fun in their life. Four Day Weekend provided that.

We knew people needed a break, and we took steps to avoid talking about the bad news in our show and become the healing salve of laughter that they were seeking. We helped our audiences get some relief from the bad news. Countless times after shows people would come up to us and say, "Thank you for the laughs. I really needed it." We were seeing the transformative power of our Four Day Weekend mission statement, "healing through laughter."

Perception is everything in life. The economic collapse was by all accounts just shy of calamitous, and there was little any of us could do about it. For Four Day Weekend, we could go back to what we did the best, making people laugh, while we weathered the storm. We concentrated on our live show and did everything we could to see the proverbial silver lining around the storm cloud.

We didn't have the luxury of hindsight at the time, so it was often difficult seeing the Happy Accident in all of this. But continued success requires patience. We must have faith in what we are doing and allow things to align for our success to take hold. Do the work you can and let things happen, as they will.

We couldn't see that the economic collapse would actually prove our value to companies in the corporate circuit. In our minds at the time, we considered that the corporate segment of our business might be gone forever. The words Next Great Depression were being uttered daily, and we were thankful that we had our live theater operation to keep us afloat.

Happy Accidents wait for those who keep moving through the darkness. You either adapt or die. We must only be able to do the work that is necessary and trust that things will work out in our favor if we work hard and keep a positive mind-set.

This excerpt was adapted from the book Happy Accidents: The Transformative Power of "YES, AND" at Work and in Life (Wiley, 2017). In improvisation, we recognize that all ideas have merit and there are no "wrong" choices, only higher and lower percentage ones. Authors David Ahearn, Frank Ford, and David Wilk have personally benefitted from this "Yes, and" mindset by founding Four Day Weekend Comedy and launching themselves to international renown. Their transformational work together has impacted tens of thousands of lives, and they have helped people and organizations around the world adopt an optimistic attitude and an openness that begins with a simple change of phrase. Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Happy Accidents by David Ahearn, Frank Ford, and David Wilk. Copyright © 2017 by Four Day Weekend, Inc.  All rights reserved.  This book is available from all bookstores and online booksellers.

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