Tao of the Zentropist

May 28, 2009

When You Meet a Swordsman…

In Thomas Cleary’s translation of several lesser known (at least in the West) Chinese classics compiled within the book “Thunder in the Sky” he references a Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist aphorism which deserves some attention:

“When you meet a swordsman, draw your sword: do not recite poetry to one who is not a poet.”

This lesson is apropos in both one’s personal and professional dealings. The ability to quickly size people up, either as allies, adversaries, or something not quite either is a skill that under some circumstances can mean the difference between life and death. In business, it could carry serious financial and even legal implications when taking the measure of a prospective business partner, competitor, creditor or debtor, among others.

Those versed in theories of warfare both Eastern and Western have realized that war, when practiced shrewdly, is based on deception, and convincing the opponent of “truths” that are anything but; in concealing one’s strengths (and intentions) until the last possible moment; and to borrow a turn of phrase from Winston Churchill, surrounding one’s weakness(es) “with a bodyguard of illusion” which downplays or otherwise mitigates pragmatic evaluation of reality.

As with many others, the Zentropist feels strongly that parallels can be drawn between conduct in business and prosecution of warfare (which in itself is an extension of politics and statecraft, as Von Clausewitz observed), although rather than seeking the annihilation of one’s opponents / business rivals, it is better to subscribe to victory through superior performance in terms of products and services, marketing, and customer service and support (and for some businesses, pricing is certainly part of this matrix as well).  In “meeting a swordsman,” it is vital that one seeks to uncover the motivations and intentions that underlie the other entity’s behavior, to provide insight into character and likely reactions to circumstances that may present themselves.

This is especially important when evaluating strategic or business partnerships and alliances, since those that seek harmonious and mutually beneficial relations understand that a “win/win” scenario must be the end goal which the parties pursue, yet some individuals and companies simply cannot do anything but pay lip service to this notion. For some, business, as with other aspects of life, is a zero-sum game in which the advancement of one’s aims is automatically at the expense of another’s. Those that subscribe to such theory will tend to be highly deceptive and sometimes amoral agents that only serve themselves and cannot be relied upon to uphold their end of any deal. You must be prepared to deal with such treachery, and one of the best means to do so is to limit your interactions wherever possible to avoid those that would employ the ancient strategy of, “To hold a sword behind the smile.”

A final take-away from this lesson is that the Zentropist does not suggest that deception or obfuscation has no legitimate role in business or personal affairs, nor is it inherently “dishonorable” behavior. To a certain degree in this instance, the ends can justify the means, and it is certainly one thing to mislead a competitor or business rival, for example, and another to betray a business partner, vendor, supplier or affiliate, especially for one’s financial gain. Ultimately, in one form or another, we must all answer for our actions and those that can operate with clean conscience due to the rightness of their actions will always be better served than those that seek to rationalize their self-serving or otherwise malevolent behavior.

And we all would do well to remember that, when confronting a swordsman, our own blade must be fast and true and without hesitation, for the “fluent blade cuts cleanly…”

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May 17, 2009

Writers Facing the Double-Edged Blade of Technology

It’s hardly an original observation to acknowledge that technology is a double-edged blade, capable of delivering enormous benefits to users when properly employed, yet also facilitating the destruction of careers, professions, cultures and even economies as either an intended or unintended consequence of its utilization. Certainly, the “flattening” of the world which Thomas Friedman has persuasively written about for several years now could not have happened without the build-out of technological infrastructure during the 1990’s, which has in turn facilitated the off-shoring (a sub-set of traditional “outsourcing” to freelancers) of many jobs which were once performed domestically.

This off-shoring trend has been great for low-cost nations such as India and China and parts of Eastern and Central Europe, but not so great for developed nations such as the United States, where for better or worse, many of us have grown accustomed to a certain standard of living. Some might call it opulent, some might call it irresponsible (and in hindsight, clearly unsustainable), and arguments about carbon footprints aside, many Americans, irrespective of educational levels or actual skills, have come to feel entitled to a rather free-wheeling approach to spending money and accumulating material goods and comforts.

Like many others, I’m a member of the business social network LinkedIn, and belong to a number of “special interest” groups. While the global recession is hurting a lot of people in a lot of nations, there’s a lot of bewilderment and pain evident among white-collar professionals, many of them well-educated, suddenly realizing that somewhere offshore, there is a counterpart willing to do the same work for less money. Sometimes for far less money. This has impacted the professional writing and communications/media community (i.e. journalists, copywriters, marketers, consultants, authors of fiction and non-fiction alike) especially hard from what I can see. For anyone dealing primarily in intellectual property or work that does not depend upon a physical component necessitating locality (such as one form or another of manual labor or public/private service), the Internet is at once both a channel and tool to cultivate new opportunities once ignored due to distance, yet also increases competition exponentially.

Understand that capital, like energy, follows the path of least resistance. Those who grew comfortable pulling in solidly middle class, if not upper tier incomes, and more often than not assumed debt loads to finance these lifestyles, have been completely sand-bagged upon learning that they are indeed replaceable. Such knowledge ranks right up there with the realization of one’s mortality and seems to carry the same intensity of emotional baggage.

Writing has always been a profession that many people devalue and largely dismiss, since after all, anyone that has any degree of literacy “can write,” so those that earn a living doing this are not typically viewed as performing a service which is magical or mysterious. Brain surgery is mysterious. Building a bridge or building is mysterious. Even composing a symphony is mysterious. Writing a script or novel? Hah. Swing a dead cat in Los Angeles or New York and you’ll take out an aspiring screenwriter and/or novelist without doubt.

Blogging and “Internet journalism” are rapidly displacing traditional media in terms of audience reach and relevancy, and with the apparent decline in journalistic standards and integrity, the line between professional and amateur journalist is increasingly blurred.  Journalists and other writers accustomed to being paid by the word for print publication are now horrified to discover that rates that in some instances could formerly exceed $1.00 per word for a particular piece of work are now dropping to mere pennies per word, since in a universe where one’s work is now simply “content” and SEO (search engine optimization) is more important than a clever turn of phrase or providing the reader with insightful analysis or thought-provoking ideas, most publishers don’t correlate high quality output with traffic. Rather than pursue or encourage excellence (and pay rates in accord with this outcome), there’s a marked tendency to settle for “good enough,” which is a rather low-lying bar these days.

Writers that wish to “fight back” face an uphill battle, but not one which is unwinnable. Creating and marketing the writer “as a brand” is an absolute necessity, and using digital media to find and connect with an audience is vital to the successful prosecution of this strategy. The plethora of digital channels for delivery of one’s work has lowered the barriers to entry, and is likely going to make many traditional publishers largely irrelevant in the coming years. To be sure, there is still prestige associated with having one’s work published in print by a major name (be it a newspaper, book publisher, etc.), but as more consumers turn to digital channels to consume “content,” I suspect the distinction will fade. Portents of this are already appearing. For example, Amazon’s popular Kindle book-reader will allow bloggers to post their work directly to the unit, which in turn gives equal weight (in terms of presentation) to an undiscovered writer working in obscurity as it does to a best-selling author with a major publishing deal. The difference between them (which is clearly not insignificant) is audience reach, and the willingness of readers to pay for the enjoyment of accessing that writer’s work.

If this global recession teaches us anything, the lesson that we can take nothing for granted must be first and foremost. For those that use the written word to connect with others, whether through articles or columns appearing in traditional print media, advertising, film and television, or digital media, we must be cognizant that if we wish to earn a living from our work, we had better deliver a meaningful or otherwise valuable experience to the end user/consumer, or we will quickly be rendered irrelevant.  After all, plenty of others are more than willing to take up the mantle, and far too many will happily do so for free…

May 4, 2009

Finding Center

In the traditional Asian martial arts, there is often quite a bit of emphasis on “finding one’s center” and learning to move from the center, which the Chinese refer to as the dan tien. As esoteric as this may seem upon first impression, it actually makes a great deal of sense once properly understood, and the lessons are as applicable in business as in the practice of martial arts. In fact, “finding center” shares a great deal in common with the Hedgehog Concept advanced by Jim Collins in his deservedly well-regarded business book, “Good to Great.”

One key theme that emerges from the work of Mr. Collins is the “Hedgehog Concept,” which in turn is credited to the work of Isaiah Berlin in his book “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” When traced back to antiquity, this stems from a Greek parable which posits that the world is divided into “hedgehogs,” or people that define the world through a single defining idea, and “foxes,” or people that view the world through multiple experiences. In other words, hedgehogs know one thing very well while foxes know many things, but not necessarily in any real depth.

The Hedgehog Concept boils down to the need for a company (or arguably, an individual) to define itself by what it can be the best at. This forced examination of strengths and weaknesses, which requires an honest assessment of not only one’s own capabilities but the competition and operating environment, is arrived at by envisioning three circles and finding the intersection where all three overlap:

  1. What you can be the best in the world at. For some individuals and companies, this is potentially a painful realization. You may or may not be currently on the right path, because as case studies have found, being “competent” or even “good” in the face of global completion is not sustainable. Your product or service must be world class, or at the very least perceived by your customers as being so, if you are to thrive and become “great.”
  2. What drives your economic engine. At the end of the day, a business must earn more money than it spends. It’s as simple as that. Without profits, you cannot survive, and profits are arrived at by maximizing revenues and containing costs. Understanding how to do this, and arriving at a business model that is sustainable and scalable, and aligned with your product(s) / service(s), is one of the greatest challenges that you can face.
  3. What you are deeply passionate about. If an individual (or business) does not truly enjoy the work that it performs, no matter how much it attempts to fake it or muster false enthusiasm, this eventually comes out in the work. False passion cannot be manufactured indefinitely; it must be an outgrowth out of genuine enjoyment and satisfaction in engaging in the process of Mastery, and to be the best in the world at something, you must walk the Path of Mastery.

If you take the time to diagram the approach above, you will discover that in creating the three overlapping circles, you are in effect “centering” by finding the point where these all come together. And make no mistake, this exercise is not an easy one in practice, as simple as it is in theory, because we live in a world of illusion.

Many traditions hold that what we perceive as “reality” is simply illusion, and that the physical world is subject to varying interpretations and perceptions based on the frame of reference of the individual / organization. As individuals we both consciously and subconsciously create illusions, either because of a desire to portray ourselves in a favorable light (yielding to the ego), or because we filter the information that our senses deliver and interpret it based on biases or assumptions that we may not even be aware of.

Not only must we contend with self-manufactured illusions, but we must also deal with the illusions cast forth by others, which all feed upon each other and perpetuate uncertainty, unclear intent and lead us astray from our chosen path. This can be the root cause of a great deal of unhappiness, misunderstanding and suffering.

Even without delving into the spiritual aspect, or discounting it entirely, finding one’s center has both a physical and psychological dimension. In the physical expression of many martial arts and other physical endeavors, one seeks to create a grounded connection with the earth, often manifested in the manner in which weight is distributed and the body’s center of gravity is rooted. While some pundits have observed that the successful use of force is the imposition of one’s will on another, I would argue that an alternative explanation is the imposition of one’s center on another. Since two objects cannot occupy the same physical space, the object whose center is most rooted and connected with the universal energy at the moment the paths intersect is the one that will prevail. Perhaps this interpretation seems rather metaphysical and/or mystical to some, but physics seems to bear this out.

Psychologically, finding one’s center implies achieving balance, and “balance” is often an adjective used to express how a healthy psyche is described in layman’s terms. We all instinctively understand that when something, or someone, is unbalanced that there is danger of a loss of control, often with unfortunate consequences.

The inescapable conclusion is that our success as individuals (no matter how we personally define “success”) and in turn, the success of organizations, is dependent upon the ability to “find center” and maintain this no matter what obstacles appear in the path. In a world of illusion and obfuscation, deliberate and consequential, being rooted in one’s center is the only way to live one’s purpose and find contentment. It’s a challenge to be sure, but it is part of the journey that we all must undertake…

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