I was working on Wall St. at the time. When I got out of the subway station I saw papers flying everywhere. I had recently moved from L.A. to New York and I figured it was a parade.
I walked to my office.
On my way, I heard the second plane hit. I don’t know what I thought. I just kept walking.
In my office, many people were working like it was a normal day. CNN was on. That was the only difference.
Someone called our office and told us that a plane hit the World Trade Center and people were jumping out of the building.
I walked outside to see what was going on.
Crowds of people were walking toward the World Trade Center. I followed. We all wanted to see people jumping. It’s an unbelievable thing to hear — that people are jumping out of a very tall building. Everyone was talking about it.
I stood in a crowd of people and watched. There was no mobile technology. We had no idea what was happening.
I was so close to the building and I was looking straight up that when it fell, I didn’t really see it fall. Or something. I am still mixed up about why I had no idea what was happening.
But I know that, having just moved from LA, I thought it was an earthquake. So I ducked and covered my head.
I got trampled by the crowd.
And I nearly suffocated. There was a period of time that seemed to stop. It was between when I ducked and when I was in the hospital. Bandages over my eyes. Nearly deaf from the dust filling my ears.
My cousin worked at Time magazine and he published my account just hours after it happened. Here’s what I wrote. In hindsight, I think I was out of my mind. I’m not sure I even knew, at that point, that the towers had both fallen. Certainly no one was showing me clips on TV at that point.
I went to a support group to deal with post-traumatic stress. People were divided into groups based on how bad their experience was. Most of the people in my group had been sprayed by body parts from jumpers.
In my group, we told our story. Over and over again. At first, my story was like the one I linked to above. Not filled in. Then my story became clearer.
After I could tell the whole story clearly, I learned to reframe the story. For example, I hated myself for a long time for walking toward the building instead of away. Now I know that I am a naturally curious person, and it is a reasonable response given the situation.
Another thing I hated was that someone tried to hold my hand. It was right before I could not breath anymore. I knew I was going to die but I could not stop trying to help myself.
The person’s hand seemed fragile. And the person would not, I thought, be able to help me. So I pulled my hand away.
It took months and months before I could even admit this to my recovery group. But then I saw that no one was surprised.
It has taken me 10 years to understand what I did that day, and what it means for me. And really, what it means is that I’m resilient.
How I got to that is a process of reframing. And it’s a tool that has served me well many times after the World Trade Center.
I can frame that day as me being crazy for walking toward danger. Or I can frame it as me being my regular, curious self, unaware of the dangers I was facing.
I can frame that day as me being selfish and mean. Or I can frame it as me having a huge will to live even when I was certain I had already taken my last breath.
I can frame that day as ruining my career. I never went back to an office after that day. Or I can frame it as opening up new possibilities for me: I started my own company, and today I live on a farm in rural Wisconsin.
The process of reframing helped me get through lots of troubles throughout these last 10 years. A funding shortage at my company, for example, a product launch gone bad, or even my child being born with a deformity.
Reframing is a skill that you can practice all the time. I learned it from experts — people flew in from all over the country to help World Trade Center recovery groups learn reframing skills. But you can learn them now.
The first step is to tell people about what’s happening. This is not the norm for startup founders. But transparency is gaining traction, and it enables entrepreneurs to develop more resilient responses to terrible news.
The next step is to make your life a learning process and not a race to the finish. You can reframe most of your setbacks in terms of how you grew from that setback — if you let yourself. Things like anger and wanting to hide are small, secret habits of self-destruction. They are the enemies of resilience and they will undermine your ability to reframe.
I have spent 10 years writing about how the Word Trade Center changed me. Each year I have written a post on my blog. But this year is the year I shift. I did not use those 10 years to get startled by loud noises in the day and small screams at night. I used those 10 years to get so good at reframing that now, I can help other people.
We can build resilience together. If we care.
Penelope Trunk is the founder of three startups, most recently Brazen Careerist, a professional social network for young people. Previously she worked in marketing at Fortune 500 companies including Mattel and Hyundai. Her blog about career advice, blog.penelopetrunk.com, receives half a million visits a month and is syndicated in more than 200 newspapers. She frequently appears as a workplace commentator on CNN, 20/20 and FOX News. She’s also the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, a bestselling career advice book for Generation Y.