For me, one of the joys of fatherhood is discovering the insights and simple wisdom of children’s literature. I used to love reading to my daughter Truitte Rose when when she was young. She had a favorite book titled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. (I am reminded of it this week because Steve Carell has a new movie version of it out.) My daughter couldn’t get enough of this book which chronicles a day in the life of a boy where nothing goes right.
So, what does this have to do with entrepreneurship? Well, I too had a very bad day recently at my own firm, Corporate Rain International. I hit my chair and was assaulted by the following:
- Fighting a cold.
- Dealing with a client crisis.
- Resolving a minor credit card fraud.
- Losing a valued employee.
- My ex-wife’s complaint about a late alimony check.
- Having to read a dense legal contract.
On the side of my desk was a veritable Mt. Everest of unanswered sales calls. And all this before noon.
I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
I’ve learned that days like this can be quite dangerous—not because of the circumstantially difficult day, but because of my reaction to it.
On such a day I feel I have to push hard to compensate—to move, move, move—to rush, rush, rush. And when I give in to this feeling I make poor judgements. I make mistakes. I insult people and lose my temper. My whole mien becomes frenetic, faked, forced, and charmless.
As an owner, it’s hard to slow down when Rome is burning all around you. (Only you can prevent this forest fire!) I’ve had to learn the efficacy of hitting the pause button—of not trying to be more than I am. And, especially, I’ve had to learn not to make crucial decisions on such days.
When I have a very bad day everything emanates from a dark, bleak, shrunken part of my soul, where i exist only as a miasma of utter insufficiency: That place where dwells the cowed and frightened child, the cornered rat. So my “professional” response is to assume the trappings of a sanguine, competent businessman and fumfer through. But, in fact, the real good me is not present. The fact is that on a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day I am in reality one dark, primordial, primal scream—a lost Edvard Munch template and an enraged troll.
Over the years I’ve lost money, sales, friends, and reputation on days like this, while grinding my teeth and determinedly…getting…it…all…done. I have frequently caused myself harm under the guise of dutifully and manfully doing my duty to capitalist enterprise. Only slowly have I overcome such hubristic folly.
One of the best and kindest pieces of advice I ever received was from an elderly Portuguese friend named Leonardo. (He was a fellow waiter where I was working at the time.) After observing me in a moment of intense frustration and self-flagellation, Leonardo took me aside, sat me down, put his hands on my very tense shoulders and said simply, “You can’t push the river, Timothy. Flow with it.” That’s all he said.
I think it’s hard for any entrepreneur to follow that advice. We live to push the river. But the simple fact is we really can’t force our will on any number of things.
So what’s the answer to the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day? Well, I guess my answer to that conundrum is increasingly to just stop, no matter how much I have to do. As Scarlett O’Hara says at the end of a very bad day in Gone With the Wind, “Home. I’ll go home….After all, tomorrow is another day.”
When I was in college I remember being depressed and distraught over a failed love affair. My mother was appropriately sympathetic, of course. That’s a mother’s job. But then she told me, “You know there’s little I or anyone can say that will cheer you up. There’s only one thing I know to do on really dark days. The only thing I know to do is spend that day just cleaning my toilets.”