Three-Word Magic

Tony Kern, Ed.D

By Tony Kern, Ed.D
Chief Executive Officer, Convergent Performance

Posted on August 9, 2023
airport ground crew

As many of you know, I’m intensely curious about all things related to people and risk. Over the years, I have collected several bits of “human performance shorthand,” phrases that are easy to remember and packed with power. Most of them truncate vast wisdom into something executable. I thought it would be fun and insightful to look at a few of them to see why they have stuck in so many of our heads, and what we can learn from them.

Let’s start with aviation.

“Aviate – Navigate – Communicate” Nearly every pilot alive has been taught this prioritized list in responding to any high-stress situation. It seems simple at first, but like all these earworms, it is full of deeper meaning. Let’s take the elements in order.

Aviate means that the first order of business is to keep flying the aircraft. Check your airspeed, attitude and altitude and establish safe flight parameters. Every “loss of control in flight” mishap that has ever occurred has happened because this simple first step was forgotten. Navigate is the next step. Point the aircraft where you want it and need it to go.

The final action is communicate, and it is last for an important reason. Until you have the aircraft under control and going where you want it to, communication with the outside world is just a distraction. Three words, tons of wisdom.

Let’s look at another.

“Run – Hide – Fight” This has become the basic training mantra for those who teach active shooter scenarios to non-law enforcement civilians. It’s designed to get you out of harm’s way, but more importantly, to keep you from freezing in the high-stress moment and becoming an easy target.

Run is the obvious first step, yet many don’t have the presence of mind to do so. Hide is what the professionals recommend if you have run out of space or time to leave the area. Finally, if both of these measures fail, fight your attacker with everything you have.

Easy to remember, right? Here’s another one from the Marines.

“Improvise – Adapt – Overcome” Marines are masters of chaos. They learn to create it, relish it and swim in it like a fish. This makes them great soldiers because they know that no plan, however well prepared, survives first contact with the enemy. When things go sideways, they don’t panic. They grin because they are well prepared mentally to adapt to the changing situation and their adversaries are not.

With these serving as examples, I’d like to propose a new mantra I want to advocate to deal with all the stressors and chaos in our own personal worlds.

“Relax – Reassess – Re-engage” Nearly all of us have experienced—or will experience—situations that rock our safe and secure world. Maybe it’s a doctor telling us we have a serious medical condition, a financially devastating event or the loss of a loved one.

The news is so powerful that we momentarily lose our equilibrium. This typically results in our bodies dumping a host of chemicals into our bloodstream, cortisol and adrenaline being two of the most powerful. In turn, these shut down access to the parts of our brain where logic and reason take place. Panic often ensues.

Relax is the first step and the most difficult. But this is where the magic of the three-word mantra is so amazing. Simply focusing on the steps momentarily takes our mind off the problem, and a moment is all it takes. Catecholamines—a fancy word for the substances pumped into our systems—are called “one pass through” chemicals. This means they are metabolized out of our system with a single pass through our lungs.

Cleansing breaths—deep intakes of air, held for a few seconds, and slowly released—are called that for a very good reason. By focusing on the mantra, and taking a few cleansing breaths, we get the rest of our brain back. Then it is time to reassess. With our logic and reason restored, we can look at the problem logically, and develop options. With these options on the table, we can now re-engage in a positive frame of mind.

All these actions have a lot more depth than I have room to go into. But the lessons are basically the same. When the crap hits the fan, we have somewhere to go mentally. The fancy term for this is mental agility, and it is a life-saving skill.

I know there are a lot more of these gems out there, and as a curious guy, I would love to hear them. So, hit me with what works for you at and we can continue the conversation!

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