Archive for April, 2016
Posted by Tim Askew in Blog, Corporate Rain, Entrepreneurship, Losing My Wallet, Mindfulness, tags: ADHD, Berkeley, Columbia Business School, Hans Selye, Kellogg School of Management, London Business School, Northwestern, Rao Institute, Srikumar Rao, TED, The Film Forum, The Haas School of Business, Vladimir Horowitz
Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye, who invented the term “stress,” said, “It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”
I lost my wallet yesterday—the realization of one of my deepest business and life fears.
I was meeting a friend at The Film Forum downtown in NYC and I was late. Somehow, in fumbling my way out of my cab I left my wallet in the backseat. As the taxi took off I realized my mistake and ran frantically after it, screaming at the top of my lungs, cortisol coursing through my veins. Alas, the cab turned the corner and was gone from my life forever.
What a catastrophe.
After looking forward to a relaxed, thoughtful two hours seeing a film about Vladimir Horowitz, I found myself standing pathetically in the middle of Houston Street street with heart pounding—full of radical stress, fear, despair, anger, and helplessness. This was not the day I had planned.
However, for once I tried to be mindful rather than reactive. Not an easy thing for an ADHD afflicted entrepreneur like me.
Even though I was late, I managed to take a couple of minutes of deep breathing and actually think about how to make this distressing mishap positive. And what came to me (after canceling my credit cards) was a talk I heard last year, given by my friend Srikumar Rao, head of the Rao Institute in New York.
Srikumar has taught at such places as the London Business School, Columbia Business School, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, among numerous others. He is a TED speaker and a specialist in business creativity and personal mastery. I guess you would call him a guru of sorts. (I personally detest the very idea of gurus, but that is a topic for another day.)
Sri notes that his students and clients report many reasons for the stress they experience each day. Things like financial reverses, business and career setbacks, relationship problems, struggling children, etc. But, he says, “…in reality there is one, and only one reason, they feel stress. They would like the world to be a certain way, and the universe is not playing ball.”
To illustrate his point, he shared the following ancient didactic parable.
“A man and his teenage son lived in a beautiful valley. They were very happy, but they were also dirt poor, and the man got tired of living in poverty.
He decided to go entrepreneurial and become rich by breeding horses. He borrowed heavily from his neighbors and bought a stallion. He kept it in a paddock and the very day he bought it, the stallion kicked the top bar loose and vanished.
The neighbors flocked around to commiserate. “You were going to become a rich man,” They said. “But now your stallion has run away and you still owe us money. How sad.” And there may have been some schadenfreude in their sympathy.
The man shrugged his shoulders and said, “Good thing, bad thing…Who knows?”
The stallion fell in with a bunch of wild horses, and the man spied them in a valley close by. He was able to entice them into his paddock, which he had repaired. So he now had his stallion back, plus a dozen horses. That made him a rich man by the standards of that village.
The neighbors clustered around again, and there was a tinge of envy as they congratulated him. “We thought you were destitute but fortune has smiled on you.” they said. “You are already a rich man.”
The man shrugged his shoulders and said, “Good thing, bad thing…who knows?”
The man and his son started to break the horses so they could sell them, one of them threw the man’s son and stomped on his leg. It broke and healed crooked.
Again the neighbors came. “He was such a fine young lad,” they said. “Now he will never be able to find a girl to marry.”
The man shrugged his shoulders and said, “Good thing, bad thing…Who knows?
And that very summer, the king of the country declared war on a neighbor, and press gangs moved through the villages rounding up all the able-bodied young men. They spared the man’s son because he had a game leg.
There were tears in their eyes as the neighbors lamented, “We don’t know if we will ever see our sons again. You are so fortunate—you still have your son with you.”
The man shrugged his shoulders and said, “Good thing, bad thing…Who knows?”
Srikumar’s parable goes on like that forever.
So, I lost my wallet yesterday. As to my anxiety, well…”Good thing, bad thing…Who knows?” Life does not turn out the way we want it to. It also does not not turn out the way we want it to either. It turns out the way it is.
Winston Churchill once said, “When I look back on all my worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.” Thank you, Winston.
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Posted by Tim Askew in Blog, Corporate Rain, Entrepreneurship, Humor, Success, tags: Conscious Capitalism, EO, Forbes, Francis Bacon, GrowCo, Inc., Inc. 5000, Jacquelyn Smith, Robert Half International, Seinfeld, Small Giants, Vistage, William James
Elizabethan poet and playwright Francis Bacon once said, “Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not, a sense of humor for what he is.”
Recently I was at a meeting of fellow Inc. 5000 company owners who periodically meet to share, dialogue, and solve business conundrums together. I found myself laughing uproariously there. It got me thinking about humor and business ownership.
I harked back to a column I read last year by Jacquelyn Smith of Forbes. Smith pointed to a survey done by Robert Half International which showed 91% of executives found humor imperative for career advancement and 84% found people with a sense of humor do better work.
There are several reasons humor can be a powerful business tool. Here are some I especially esteem.
- Humor creates mindfulness, perspective, and balance. If laughter is a part of you and your company’s life, it reduces anus clinching anxiety and fear. It relaxes you. For example, Dr. Julia Wilkins cites an experiment using episodes of Seinfeld to measure tolerance to pain thresholds. After viewing a Seinfeld video, results showed pain tolerance to be much higher. The process of laughter caused a serotonin release similar to aerobic exercise. Laughter causes you to breather deeper. You feel better.
- Humor builds culture. Laughter promotes a sense of unity and shared culture. It boosts comraderie. It builds corporate empathy.
- Humor facilitates creativity. Laughter opens you to the absurd and the impossible. It encourages playing with concepts, taking risks, and considering the outrageous.
- Humor humanizes leaders. It nurtures a sense of “we are all in this together.” It can be a key component of empathetic leadership.
Humor is great within your own firm, but I find healthy leadership needs a home for humor outside the confined community of my own company. Certainly joining a convivial, discreet organization of your peers gives an outlet for letting your hair down and being yourself in all your profound non-rationality.
Free flowing silliness and laughter is not the easiest thing to come by for a business owner. It is not necessarily prudent to share all your uncensored business mind with your employees or your clients or the world at large. Yet the successful entrepreneurs I know are remarkably funny people. Often wickedly funny. (You can find it at places like the upcoming Inc. GrowCo, as well as places like Vistage, EO, Conscious Capitalism, Small Giants, among others.)
The role of leading a small business can be a lonely enterprise. (I wrote about this last year in this column.) ( “The Peculiar Loneliness of Entrepreneurship”.) No one but another entrepreneur can fully understand the special frisson of fear and excitement each day holds for the high-risk small business striver. It is an infinitely not boring experience. Yet it is not something that you can truly share in its unfettered joy and horror even with your wife. To try to talk about your daily trials and tribulations would load an unnecessary burden on your intimates and, really, to what point? It’s cryptic to anyone who is not living in it. Each of our businesses is unique and peculiar, but the business ocean we swim in is common to all of us.
A place of real safety to talk openly with very smart colleagues is great. I find myself relaxing with an almost palpable emotional sigh when I enter a meeting of my peers. And humor is frequently a predominant mode of sharing in peer business communities. A lot of the humor is mordant and dark, but it comes from an ambient sense of relief at being in a safe harbor, a non-darwinian grotto of relief from the sturris of a darwinian world. There is a glow of irenic happiness in being with one’s own kind–one’s own little supportive ghetto.
This may not be a particularly profound thought, but participation in a safe, outside personal business community of peers is surely healthful for the mindful business psyche. And the release of business anxiety and uncertainty through humor often frees up the animal spirits and the playfulness from whence cometh innovation and ideas.
Psychologist and philosopher William James said, “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is common sense, dancing.” Thank you, William.
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Posted by Tim Askew in Blog, Corporate Rain, Entrepreneurship, The Gift of Not Knowing, Uncategorized, tags: Alcoholics Anonymous, Corporate Rain International, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, The Poetry of Small Business, Thucydides, Voltaire
Voltaire once wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
I hope Voltaire is right, because a lot of my experience of what little success I have had as an entrepreneur has come out of my supreme ignorance and inexpert background in my business.
I founded an elite executive sales outsourcing company called Corporate Rain International over 20 years ago without a priori experience in sales or any education in business—not even a basic college course in economics. My company is an accidental creation. I just made the thing up. I have a business and a life based on “I don’t know,” a business of improvisations. As to having any formal qualifications to lead a company, I have none. In that sense I am a fake and a fraud. Yet my firm has lasted and succeeded.
I’ve been thinking about this since I published my book The Poetry of Small Business: An Accidental Entrepreneur’s Search For Meaning last year. I’ve done a number of interviews about the book and invariably I’m introduced as an “expert” which fills me with unease.
Actually, what I am is a guy who has responded continually, day-after-day and year-after-year, to constant quotidian business conundrums with the simple response of “I don’t know.” Let’s figure it out.” Kinda like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland suddenly saying, “Hey, gang. I know what we’ll do. Let’s put on a show.”
God, I wish I was an expert. A knower. What I am is an unsystematic autodidact.
Responding to questions with “I don’t know” is often taken as a sign of incompetence. People want to know the secret sauce, a certainty they can take into their own lives and leadership, dammit. Yet leading from ambiguity and personal uncertainty has some real advantages in a business world that increasingly values the strengths of empathetic leadership over command-and-control absolutes. And this applies in spades to creating a robust entrepreneurial culture.
So, can a whole company, a whole culture, a whole career, a whole life be based on the vulnerability implicit in frequently admitting “I don’t know”? Well, in my case, yes.
Here are some advantages of leading from uncertainty.
- It creates community. Nothing binds a group more certainly than admitting common frailty and the need for others. It is a basis for most religions. It is the basis for Alcoholics Anonymous. To say, “I don’t know” is admitting we are not and will never be God.
- It encourages creativity. If the boss shares her honesty and uncertainty, it gives courage and permission to everyone to be imperfect, to fail, to be wrong—and also to succeed with the outrageous new.
- It creates leadership credibility. If a leader can sometimes admit “I don’t know,” it creates trust in that leader and encourages honesty for all corporate associates.
- It reduces corporate fear. If the boss leads from admitted uncertainty, it frees employees to concentrate more fully on their work, on bringing their “A” game and their whole non-rational intuition to solving communal puzzles.
- It helps personal development. An “I don’t know” culture opens all corporate citizens to honestly ask for help. People actually like to help. They actually often feel honored to be asked to teach something or guide an uncertain colleague. It builds relationships. It builds personal honesty.
- It encourages humility. Humility is a real business skill. A salubrious quality. It saves us from smug overconfidence and opens our heart to the new.
- It encourages a culture of ethics and truth.
- It creates meaning. It takes effort to go beyond the immediate and the obvious. Leadership’s sincere and open search for integrated solutions, based in mission and culture, gives permission for every corporate citizen to look to deeper long-term truth, both personally and corporately.
All this is not to say that ignorance is bliss. Ignorance is to be assiduously remediated and overcome. Obviously. But ultimately admitting “I don’t know” when appropriate is really a statement of power and centered leadership.
As Greek historian and general Thucydides put it, “Ignorance is bold. Knowledge reserved.” Thanks Thucydides.
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I never heard the Neil Armstrong story before. It’s at the end.
IN CASE YOU DIDN’T ALREADY KNOW THIS LITTLE TIDBIT OF WONDERFUL TRIVIA…………..
ON JULY 20, 1969, AS COMMANDER OF THE APOLLO 11 LUNAR MODULE, NEIL ARMSTRONG WAS THE FIRST PERSON TO SET FOOT ON THE MOON.
HIS FIRST WORDS AFTER STEPPING ON THE MOON,
“THAT’S ONE SMALL STEP FOR MAN, ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND,” WERE TELEVISED TO EARTH AND HEARD BY MILLIONS.
BUT, JUST BEFORE HE RE-ENTERED THE LANDER, HE MADE THE ENIGMATIC REMARK “GOOD LUCK, MR. GORSKY.”
MANY PEOPLE AT NASA THOUGHT IT WAS A CASUAL REMARK CONCERNING SOME RIVAL SOVIET COSMONAUT.
HOWEVER, UPON CHECKING, THERE WAS NO GORSKY IN EITHER THE RUSSIAN OR AMERICAN SPACE PROGRAMS.
OVER THE YEARS, MANY PEOPLE QUESTIONED ARMSTRONG AS TO WHAT THE ‘GOOD LUCK, MR. GORSKY’ STATEMENT MEANT, BUT ARMSTRONG ALWAYS JUST SMILED.
ON JULY 5, 1995, IN TAMPA BAY , FLORIDA , WHILE ANSWERING QUESTIONS FOLLOWING A SPEECH, A REPORTER BROUGHT UP THE 26-YEAR-OLD QUESTION ABOUT MR. GORSKY TO ARMSTRONG.
THIS TIME HE FINALLY RESPONDED BECAUSE HIS MR. GORSKY HAD JUST DIED, SO NEIL ARMSTRONG FELT HE COULD NOW ANSWER THE QUESTION. HERE IS THE ANSWER TO
“WHO WAS MR. GORSKY”:
IN 1938, WHEN HE WAS A KID IN A SMALL MID-WESTERN TOWN , HE WAS PLAYING BASEBALL WITH A FRIEND IN THE BACKYARD.
HIS FRIEND HIT THE BALL, WHICH LANDED IN HIS NEIGHBOR’S YARD BY THEIR BEDROOM WINDOW. HIS NEIGHBORS WERE MR. AND MRS. GORSKY.
AS HE LEANED DOWN TO PICK UP THE BALL, YOUNG ARMSTRONG HEARD MRS. GORSKY SHOUTING AT MR. GORSKY,
“SEX! YOU WANT SEX?! YOU’LL GET SEX WHEN THE KID NEXT DOOR WALKS ON THE MOON!”
IT BROKE THE PLACE UP.
NEIL ARMSTRONG’S FAMILY CONFIRMED THAT THIS IS A TRUE STORY.
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