Tao of the Zentropist

June 4, 2013

The Business Case for Uncertainty

For many people, and many business entities, the notion of uncertainty is one fraught with anxiety, if not outright fear, and is the cause for many sleepless nights and oftentimes ill-conceived attempts to “manage” the uncertainty.  While this is understandable, it is also a mistake, because fundamentally, we often have limited control and influence over the environment in which we operate, and there are lessons to be gleaned and improvements to be made at a personal and often organizational level in dealing with the very chaos and unexpected outcomes which unfold in the act of living our lives and running a business.

WHY UNCERTAINTY IS NOT NECESSARILY THE ENEMY

It would seem axiomatic that if we knew with absolute certainty what the outcome of any process or sequence of events would be, we would be assured of success each and every time we repeated the same actions in the same order. Arguably, one of the primary reasons to develop process or to codify certain actions in a planned sequence is an effort to ensure a repeatable and consistent result which is viewed as desirable. And when it comes to manufacturing a product or implementing a service, this is a worthwhile and necessary goal. But we also know from life experience that defects and deficiencies will arise despite best efforts, and the outcomes will not always be exactly as intended or expected. Call it Chaos theory or the Butterfly Effect, but what we find is that nature rarely presents us with absolutes, and predictability can be highly elusive.

We should acknowledge that uncertainty often drives innovation, because it tends to enforces discipline and a rational (or at least focused) analysis of a situation in order to try and influence outcomes in a predictable fashion. This can lead to new breakthroughs and new efficiencies arising from the willingness to adapt and acknowledgement via robust contingency planning that not all variables may be within our control.

Uncertainty leads to adaptability and refinement of process because of the innate desire to shape outcomes. Determining what actions to take, along with when and in what order in order to arrive at a particular result is the raison d’être for process to exist. And when a process does not reliably produce intended results, it is natural to make changes to see if the fault lies in the approach itself rather than some outlying factor(s).

If we accept that systems are in a state of dynamic flux, we are more apt to be open to continuous evolution and improvement, because we understand that maintaining stasis is not an option; if we attempt to do so, we will be superseded or eventually rendered obsolescent.

EMBRACING UNCERTAINTY

So if we cannot eliminate uncertainty completely, and at best can only seek to mitigate it, how can we best embrace it? In part, we must at times be willing to divorce ourselves from the purely emotional reactions to dealing with situations which do not turn out as expected or desired in order to understand whether partial or full fault lies in the process or actions undertaken up to that point. We must be willing to experiment and try new approaches to see if this leads to solutions which in turn produce more consistent results. Furthermore, we are reminded that if we are willing to ask “What if…?” we may discover previously overlooked opportunities and find competitive advantages that can serve us well.

We can have our preferences, but we cannot always be assured of them materializing exactly as envisioned. Only by coming to terms with uncertainty can we truly reach a state where we are prepared and sufficiently motivated to deal with it in an effective manner.

Advertisements

April 27, 2011

Why You Must Avoid Becoming “Middle Seat Guy”

Authors Note: This posting was inspired by a prior blog posting written by Curtis Franklin, Jr. on the Enterprise Efficiency IT blog earlier this month…

Anyone who has ever experienced airline travel, especially in the post 9/11 world and traveling in steerage (oops, I mean “economy”) class, intuitively understands that nobody, and I mean nobody, voluntarily chooses a middle seat. It’s simply not done. And part and parcel to this is understanding that the metaphor of occupying the “middle seat” when it comes to employment or marketability for independent, self-employed types in our Brave New World is avoiding finding ourselves in the Middle Seat, because it’s a miserable position to be placed in and ultimately, is not viable for one’s long-term viability, health or sanity.

In order to solve a problem, one first has to understand it, so let’s dive in…

CHARACTERISTICS OF “MIDDLE SEAT GUY”

If we accept the premise that one rarely volunteers to be the “Middle Seat Guy” (or Gal), absent extenuating circumstances, it is reasonable to conclude that a lack of sufficient planning and/or preparation often leads to this unfortunate categorization. And the truth is if you find yourself in the “Middle Seat” in business especially, you’re running a very real risk of being viewed as being expendable or at best, a mere commodity which is easily replaced by management on a whim.

Photo courtesy Sodahead.com

One of the major disruptions to the psyche of many white collar, or “professional” workers if you prefer, has been the realization that regardless of educational or work history pedigree, the system no longer protects those who may think of themselves (consciously or not) as being among the “elite” or most privileged. Much has been written about lately of the phenomenon of BWM’s (Beached White Males), typically displaced men in their 40’s to 60’s that were previously high-earners, some in what is supposed to be the prime earning years of their lives, who have discovered following their voluntary or involuntary termination that the world is no longer beating down a path to their door and the six-figure salaries that many were accustomed to are no longer sacrosanct.

As many corporations race to create, deliberately or not, a neo-feudal system in which the wealth and power is overwhelming concentrated at the very top with various levels of “serfdom” fulfilled by a mix of workers (including a cohort who can salve their wounded egos, if not their wallets, with various permutations of managerial or lower ranking executive titles), those who thought they had played by the rules have been disabused of the notion. Formerly convinced that they had dealt themselves a strong hand, these disillusioned and disenfranchised players have found they were mere patsies who were used and discarded, and pleas for understanding or “another shot at the big time” tend to fall on deaf ears both up and down the hierarchical ladder. After all, those who still have their jobs, especially if their positions are reasonably well paying and prestigious, don’t want to be tainted by association with perceived “failure” or the “fallen,” and those lower down in the pecking order may have little sympathy for people who once fed at the corporate executive trough and disdained or dismissed the very work which these refugees are either too prideful to accept even if offered, or completely unqualified to perform.

PROACTIVE AVOIDANCE OF THE “MIDDLE SEAT GUY” SYNDROME

So if one realizes the dangers in being passive, or even worse, complacent, regarding one’s career and economic future, what mitigating steps can be taken?

Clearly, both on a professional and personal level of self-development, it is vital that we adhere to the following core traits:

  • Remain adaptable and avoid stagnation by constantly evolving.
  • Do not wait for rewards and recognition, but create opportunities for these to arise.
  • Accept that change is inevitable, and that we are best served if we see it coming or do not waste energy fighting a reactionary battle that we cannot win.
  • Make ourselves indispensable through a “can do” attitude and willingness to learn new skills.
  • Avoid defining ourselves, or letting others define us, through simple sets of labels and preconceptions.
  • Understand that market value and “worth” are two different things; sell your value and thereby increase your perceived worth.
  • Never compromise our core values and ethical framework, but remain fluid in how we achieve our most compelling life goals, which should drive our sense of a personal mission.

Many of these concepts have recently been encapsulated in the notion of teaching individuals how to forge a “Protean Career,” and for employers, a “Protean Workplace,” which author and career coach Jay Block has been advocating for and spearheading via the Protean Careers Group on LinkedIn. Over the past several weeks, a small group of participants (the author of this blog included) have codified the notion of 12 Protean Principles which are meant to serve as a guide for people who understand the importance of continual improvement and development to avoid becoming stagnant, easily commoditized, or de facto, a “Middle Seat Guy/Gal.”

Further discussion of the 12 Protean Principles and their genesis will be forthcoming in future postings, so look for these soon!

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder and principal of Black Rock Consulting, a boutique management and communications consultancy based in Los Angeles offering strategic planning, project management, marketing and writing services. Feel free to send an email to schedule a confidential discussion of your needs. Initial consultations are FREE OF CHARGE and WITHOUT FURTHER OBLIGATION

December 29, 2010

Success Nourishes Hope

The Scottish Clan Ross, of the Northern Highlands, bears an interesting and inspiring family motto worthy of comment.

Spem Successus Alit. “Success Nourishes Hope.”

If we all fundamentally agree that to be stripped of hope is to be stripped of a crucial human belief that is absolutely essential for progress and our well-being, understanding the causality between “success” and “hope” and making the necessary psychological and attitudinal adjustments to maintain our definitions  of each no matter the external circumstances facing us is vital.

It is always worth remembering that “success” is often relative and subjective, and like failure, it is by no means permanent should we grow complacent, lazy or arrogant. In part it is a mindset and even a habit, and something worthy of striving for and pursuing with our full attention and vigor.

DEFINING SUCCESS

How we individually and collectively define success is in part influenced by our personality makeup and societal conditioning. For many, the accumulation of material possessions is high on the list of defining success. In a competitive, consumer-driven society addicted to spending and maintaining an image, this is perhaps understandable, although its sustainability has obviously come into question over the past several years. For others, the quality of relationships and interactions with family, friends and even strangers is given the most weight. Some choose to focus on acquiring as much as possible (and not strictly in a material sense), through whatever means necessary, placing the emphasis on the feeding and aggrandizement of their own ego and self. Others believe that “giving back” or serving others in whatever capacity one’s natural talents and capabilities allow is the true measure of success.

What is clear from these diverse viewpoints is that success comes down to a value judgment, no more and no less. We might condemn a particular attitude or view as being wrong-headed or undesirable, and feel rather smug and self-satisfied with our moral superiority, but to whom must we give account? Our belief in whether our actions in this world reflect upon our soul in some other realm of existence is most telling in this regard. Do we choose to act in a particular manner out of a “nobleness of intent” or “purity of our spirit,” or rather out of a fear of punishment in this world or the next?

As Marcus Aurelius observed, “The measure of a man is the worth of the things that he cares about.”

MAKING PEACE WITH SETBACKS AND OBSTACLES

No matter how we personally define success, invariably there will be peaks and valleys, times of abundance and scarcity, and perhaps even a sense that either our “best is behind us” or that the future is so uncertain as to diminish our sense of hope. These are the times when remembering our past accomplishments, even if we think them humble, point to our ability to realize success on our own terms and encourage us to believe such success is repeatable and within our capability.

Failure comes when our “reach exceeds grasp” and we attempt to achieve something that we are unprepared for, or which circumstances prohibit, in the moment. We learn by doing, and this is true in every aspect of human endeavor. Virtually all entrepreneurs have encountered “failure” of one degree or another in pursuit of their dreams; what separates those deemed “successful” from those who are not is their ability to learn from past mistakes, make adjustments, and apply the lessons learned to either the venture in which they initially stumbled or a new one. Sure, some setbacks are more formidable and daunting than others, but oftentimes this can be mitigated by recognizing when one is on an inadvisable course and having the wisdom and courage to change direction before the worst case scenario is realized.

We do well to consider that obstacles are ultimately opportunities for us to grow, to test our mettle and fortitude in ways which we otherwise might not. Sometimes this involves improving certain skills, or learning new ones. Sometimes it’s about adjusting our attitude or our expectations. While going through such a time may force us temporarily to “eat bitter,” it is essential that we not allow the experience to make us bitter.

It is always worth remembering Plutarch’s admonition that, “The measure of a man is the way he bears up under misfortune.”

WHAT PERSISTENCE TEACHES US

Most things will yield to hard work, determination and commitment. But perhaps not all. While it is important that we never give up on our dreams, we must also learn to interpret these dreams in new ways, or understand the underlying motivations for them. While we do not always realize it, there are more often than not many paths to the top of a mountain. Some of those paths are more scenic. Some are more arduous. Some are longer than others.

Hope may be nourished by success yet it is also driven by our expectations. It is our constant striving to be a little bit better than the day before. It is our ability to recognize and acknowledge incremental progress and to “light a candle rather than curse the darkness.” Finding the kindling to ignite the flame may be a challenge at times. That’s okay.

Because when we find that kindling, and coax forth the flame, we have realized a non-trivial success. And from that tiny ember, hope springs forth, and the journey continues…

July 8, 2010

The “Scott Nicholson Syndrome” – A Glimpse Into American Entitlement

The New York Times recently published an article entitled, “American Dream is Elusive for New Generation” which garnered 60 pages worth of comments, the vast majority of which were hostile, tinged with class envy or hints of the author’s own unrealized or otherwise unfulfilled dreams, and largely symptomatic of the direction that our society is headed.

Scott Nicholson, the hapless subject of the piece, is a 24 year-old college graduate, whose expectations that his undergraduate degree from Colgate and “family connections” from a privileged upper-class Northeastern background (which have apparently failed to materialize into much thus far) would enable him to waltz into a high-paying executive-level “career-track” position despite an apparent lack of work history have been brutally dashed. Whether he realized it or not (although it’s hard to believe the journalist and editors did not realize the ensuing maelstrom that would result), his self-absorbed, self-pitying statements and the attitudes expressed by his well-meaning but equally naïve family only served to paint him as the poster child for unrealistic expectations coupled with massively overinflated ego and sense of self-worth, notions of class privilege, and a disconnection with the harsh realities of the massive global recession.

And I’m willing to bet, he and his family are hardly alone in this.

FORMAL EDUCATION PROVIDES OPPORTUNITIES – IF YOU LEVERAGE THEM

Perhaps one of the harder lessons for people to learn is that while formal education certainly has value and can open doors, not all education is equal nor does education automatically translate into a lucrative and stable long-term career. As many of the respondents observed, certain undergraduate majors tend to be more “marketable” than others, although those that believe that an undergraduate math, science, engineering or business/accounting degree will guarantee employment are also deceiving themselves.

Quite frankly, many of us in hiring positions have encountered prospective employees with BA or BS degrees that are inarticulate, lack demonstrable critical reasoning skills, or are incapable of clearly expressing themselves in written communication. I found it ironic that while some respondents were quick to denigrate “liberal arts” degrees (poor Scott majored in Political Science, which in the interest of full disclosure was part of my own major, and history), such degrees can and should teach valuable critical thinking and analytical skills, reading comprehension, as well as the ability to communicate clearly in both verbal and written forms. Given the fact that some of Scott’s most vocal critics misstated information provided in the article or simply made assumptions that the reported “facts” did not necessarily support, these skills are clearly lacking in more mature adults as well.

WHAT A FOUR-YEAR DEGREE ACTUALLY TEACHES

Many people seem to believe that 4-year institutions are in the business of teaching technical skills and/or trades – well this is simply not the case. Given the pace at which technology evolves, at best college is a time to absorb and hone skills which may be useful and applicable right now, but could very well be obsolete (or otherwise in lesser demand) just a few years down the road. However, what education ideally should teach is the necessity of maintain a lifelong interest in learning, whether this is self-directed, obtained from an accredited institution, or simply obtained via on-the-job training from an organization or mentor. There is little doubt that given the proliferation of colleges and universities, not to mention online degree programs, that the value and worth of a BA/BS degree in general is in decline, that standards do not necessarily measure up in many schools to what was expected a few decades ago, and that increasingly, obtaining post-graduate education is a necessity to either fulfill a checkbox on the HR forms of corporations hiring for better-paying positions or to gain experience and credentials to support their own entrepreneurial ventures.

Meanwhile many skilled “blue collar” workers (e.g. trade jobs such as plumbing, electricians, etc.), if they are skilled at running a business and able to compete in their given location, are able to carve out more solid and stable careers than those that aspire to “white collar” work. These services are also, for the moment, less susceptible to off-shoring practices, although they too are dependent upon having a customer base that can afford their fees. Such a realization hopefully validates the notion that all honest labor is admirable and beneficial, and that there is no shame in earning a living by getting one’s hands dirty, as opposed to pecking at a computer keyboard, shuffling paper or providing “knowledge” to other people.

LIES OUR ELDERS (AND SOCIETY) TOLD US

Here’s a news flash. Every generation lies to some extent to the one following it. That’s just the nature of human behavior. Some of these lies are well-intentioned ones, or lies of ignorance or omission. While age may bring wisdom, young fools / charlatans / malingerers sometimes age into older fools / charlatans / malingerers as well, if they don’t accumulate wisdom, maturity and humility along the way.

Perhaps Scott Nicholson and those of his ilk are an extreme example of the narcissism and lack of self-awareness that can arise when well-meaning parents insulate their children from the realities of the world until adulthood, never teaching them the value of money, or to realize how privileged they are relative to so many others. I understand – a lot of people have “played by the rules,” getting an education (and in many cases incurring significant debt to do so), working hard, not causing trouble for others, only to realize how the financial system is gamed by some to enrich themselves obscenely, which in many cases (although not always), leaves others squabbling over diminishing pieces of the pie.

Of course, it should not be overlooked that many people, in creating wealth for themselves (often by taking significant risk, such as starting and operating their own businesses), help build wealth for others by creating jobs, providing valuable services or products, or creating even more opportunities for other businesses to address.

But let’s get this straight. The world owes none of us anything. Life is hard for everyone – relatively speaking, of course. Some face financial challenges, some emotional, some physical and some psychological (or a combination thereof), and sometimes these challenges are setbacks which we overcome through persistence, dogged determination and an unwillingness to quit, while others are of a more permanent and lasting nature. But keep this in mind – the only time we fail completely is when we stop trying, and we will all taste disappointment in life, but it is up to us to imbue it with meaning.

WHAT’S YOUR ENTITLEMENT, JACK?

In closing, I’d also like to observe that while it’s easy to take potshots at what we perceive as entitlement thinking, many of us are loath to admit to our own. Planning on collecting on Social Security? How about Medicare? Senior citizen discounts? Do you actually pay federal income taxes or are you one of the millions of Americans that don’t qualify under the current system. As of 2007, the top 10 percent income bracket (essentially those with an AGI of $113K plus) paid more than 71 percent of all federal income tax collected. Now I realize that most Americans consider an income above $100K to be pretty extraordinary, but depending on where one lives, it may be less extravagant than you might think (e.g. many people forget that surgeons, most of whom do NOT earn more than six figures and require education and training that delays such rewards until age 30 or so, pay six-figure malpractice premiums) and the chasm between those earning even mid or high six-figure salaries and those in the seven and eight figure salary range (or above) is arguably as wide as those getting by on mid five-figures and the $100K plus club.

So while it’s clear that some commentators on this article and Scott Nicholson’s situation and attitude in general took undisguised glee in expressing their Schadenfreude, it’s also clear that many fail to understand just how dysfunctional and illusory our consumer-oriented culture has become. Sure, some Baby-Boomers have been able to make hay in the generally economically vibrant decades of the latter half of the 20th Century, but many of their cohort either failed to plan properly for their retirements (if they want to maintain their pre-retirement lifestyles) or thanks to the near financial meltdown that began taking shape late in 2007, have seen their 401-K’s plummet or are counting on pensions which may very well be underfunded and may evaporate once exposed to the light of day.

What remains to be determined is whether we as a nation will continue to delay making the necessary sacrifices and adjustments to right our ship of state and crack down on the irresponsibility, selfishness and criminal malfeasance in some quarters which has created so much hardship, or if we will surrender to an “inevitable” decline which could very well end in violent upheaval once we can no longer borrow money to forestall the massive financial, societal and natural resource intensive debts that we have collectively incurred.

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder and principal of Black Rock Consulting, a boutique management and communications consultancy based in Los Angeles offering strategic planning, project management, marketing and writing services. Feel free to call us at 310.598.6161 to schedule a confidential discussion of your needs. Initial consultations are FREE OF CHARGE and WITHOUT FURTHER OBLIGATION.

May 10, 2010

Embracing the Mysterious

While there may be many different views on what the purpose of life as we know it is, we do find that a commonly held view is that fundamentally, it’s a learning experience, in which our great challenge is to seek out both knowledge and wisdom and apply it to lead a “meaningful” existence. What’s interesting about that interpretation is that a lesson learned on this journey of discovery is that there are key differences between “knowledge” (In Greek, γνῶσις which in English is translated as Gnosis) and “wisdom” (Σοφíα to the Greeks, which has come down to us in English as Sophia), and being able to differentiate between the two is confirmation that said lesson has indeed been absorbed and translated into practice.

Perhaps one of the most eye-opening conclusions that we must draw, which for some can be a bitter pill to swallow, is the acceptance that there are things in this world that we can never know with any certainty; that there exists certain information or points of view which can only be personally experienced or accepted on faith, but are not readily provable through any empirical process of observation and experimentation.

THE MIDDLE PATH – COMMITMENT WITHOUT OVER-COMMITMENT

It is said in Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism that one must walk the “Middle Path,” which certainly lends itself to wide interpretation. While some might view such a philosophy as living life with emotional detachment, thus stripping away an important aspect of the material world and our senses, I personally do not view this approach in such cold and clinical terms.

To my mind, walking the Middle Path implies maintaining a sense of balance, an appreciation of the very Taoist notion of duality which exists in all things and a nod towards the concept that there is an important difference between commitment to a cause or belief, and an over-commitment which clouds one’s judgment and leaves one unable to respond appropriately to experiences or views which challenge our fundamental assumptions or preconceptions. In my own practice of Wing Chun Kung Fu, this principle is embodied in the physical expression of the art, in which practitioners must learn to be “interruptible” at all times. If we are not, we risk becoming extremely vulnerable because we cannot know for certain how an opponent will react to a given strike, series of strikes or other offensive (and even defensive) actions due to the fluidity of the situation.

This does not mean, of course, that one cannot hold firm to principles, for if there is any “truth” to be found in these principles, they are certainly worth preserving and building the framework of our lives around. What it does suggest is that being malleable, much like water, is an important concept to grasp; rigidity, while appropriate and desirable in certain situations, may be disadvantageous in another, and the ability to move between “states of being”  imparts us with the flexibility to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

There are many paths to the summit of a mountain, and those paths may diverge and converge in ways which we cannot readily fathom. While the views from those paths may differ for those on them at any particular moment in time, if they all lead to the same destination, then ultimately the view will be the same for all that have successfully completed the journey.

SUCCESS AND PRESERVATION OF THE ADVENTUROUS SPIRIT

The entire notion of “success” is subject to not only individual interpretation, but also to societal and cultural ones as well.  For some, the accumulation of material wealth and possessions, or perhaps rank and titles, provides a means of “keeping score” and confirming the validity and efficacy of our efforts and daily struggles. It is all too easy for us to get caught up in the trappings of our perceived success, to chase elusive chimeras as a means to prove our worthiness not only to others, but ultimately to ourselves, yet perhaps miss a more important lesson. I have always subscribed to the belief that anything worth doing entails a certain amount of risk, and harboring an adventurous spirit is part and parcel to this creed. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee has observed that, “To live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk,” and this is true not only of physical dangers and pitfalls but emotional, psychological and spiritual ones as well.

We should all embrace and encourage the thrill of discovery – it is a joy that we should welcome into our lives, for it enriches our souls. Likewise, we should hold firm to the notion that we all matter – every living thing, whether it walks on two legs or four, crawls, slithers or flies – for if we deny this premise, we destroy the very promise contained within us all.

Truth cannot be held hostage; it reveals itself in time. However, we cannot always control when that time will manifest itself, only take comfort in the knowledge that inexorably its season will come.

The journey through life is easy for no one; all sentient living things experience joys and sorrows. Perhaps some see a disproportionate share of one or both, but each leaves its mark on us, visible or hidden. We must draw courage from knowing that who we are is not defined by what we have (or don’t have) but by the voice that whispers to us in the dark. The voice that summons forth the goodness and light we are all capable of, or the dark, destructive urges that some choose to indulge in, whose currency is pain and suffering. We all hear this voice, although some choose to ignore it. And it is this voice which reminds us that our choices are not made for us by some outside agency, but ones that we freely make ourselves.

CONCLUSION: “IT’S A SUNNY DAY”

Personally speaking, one of the great blessings of my life has been my young son’s favorite utterance upon waking up to face the world, “It’s a sunny day.” What makes this remarkable in my book is that such an innocent, offhand remark can contain so much truth, especially when the day in question does not appear to be suffering a surfeit of apparent sunshine. Because fundamentally, what this speaks to is an attitude – a mindset that another day, no matter the weather or conditions that we face at the moment, is one full of the magic of possibilities, and that no matter how we regard how things are going for us at a given moment, we can rest assured that change will come. It is how we manage that change and incorporate both its overt and hidden lessons that define our success in our journey.

The winds of fortune can be fickle and changing, but even when struggling in the Doldrums, we are wise to remember that there will again come a “sunny day.”

February 23, 2010

The Coming American (R)Evolution

Part One of a Planned Multi-Part Series…

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

The time has come to tackle a subject which many pundits, opinion-makers, and ideologues across the political spectrum have been speaking of with increasing vitriol and divisiveness, which is the fracturing of the veil of prosperity and upward mobility which has been the hallmark of the American Dream for generations, forged in the fires of our Founding Revolution gaining independence from Great Britain.

We’re in trouble, folks, and pretending otherwise is foolish and will only postpone the inevitable. The United States has become a massive debtor nation, and an increasingly large percentage of the population in what is the “richest, most powerful nation on earth” are living lives of increasing desperation, at least so far as our traditional American standards and expectations have defined. While politicians dither and in many cases, cynically manipulate the system out of personal interest and beholden to those that control their purse strings, the physical and educational infrastructure of this country crumbles, executives with little concern beyond the next quarter’s bottom line make decisions with implications that impact the lives of millions, our population grows even more anaesthetized and disengaged as it gorges on a diet of 24/7 “info-tainment” and mindless lowest common denominator “reality” fare, and meanwhile, we engage in conflicts which on many levels may be necessary, but with a tiny fraction of the population bearing the actual burden of the fighting.

Like all civilizations before us, we have reached a crossroads and the choices (difficult as they may be) which we make now will define us for eternity. Even if we do nothing, which is what many in positions of power seem compelled or resigned to do, we have made a choice, and the repercussions of our inaction will echo throughout time as we slide into the chasm which has engulfed other once great peoples. If recorded history teaches us one thing, it is that human nature does not change, and throughout the world lie hints that contrary to the widely accepted view that mankind has technologically evolved over time, save for periods of “back-sliding,” we operate under no assurance that this is a constant or that we are somehow immune to the pressures and choices which have destroyed empires and nations that had cohesively endured far longer than our 234 year run thus far.

REVOLUTION OR EVOLUTION? WHICH WILL IT BE?

As I see it, we face very stark choices right now, which will likely become more restricted as time goes on and we slip deeper into the quagmire we’ve created for ourselves. The United States as a whole can seek to evolve, to apply the enormous potential of our creative and business minds to adjust our course, to make certain sacrifices which may be unpleasant in the short-term, but which are far more preferable to what we could face in the mid or long-term if we do not take such action. Or we can continue to allow the fear, hopelessness and steadily building anger which is permeating many sectors of our population to build, until it finds release in revolution, which even in its non-violent expression leads to fractures and rifts in which the rights of dissenters to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – as well as the rule of law – may be compromised as passions inflame action and desperation yields to extreme agitation.

Before I get too much farther, I should clearly state for the record that the thought of our present circumstances leading to violence, organized or not, is deeply troubling and not a course that I wish to see inflicted upon this nation. Yet I cannot help but observe that circumstances are staging themselves nicely for the emergence of demagogues on either extreme of the political spectrum, and I do not deceive myself into believing that right-wing or left-wing extremism cannot take hold in the United States. I believe it is the duty of the vast majority of us who occupy positions somewhere in the amorphous and not easily defined “middle,” that understand that we can find solutions if we bravely face and acknowledge reality, to try to prevent a schism which would destroy the very promise and noble ideals that America was founded upon.

OUTLINING THE STAKES – THREATS FACING THE STABILITY OF THESE UNITED STATES

In order to present solutions to any problem, it is first necessary to acknowledge that the problem exists, to understand what the repercussions are if the problem is not addressed, and to seek to find solutions that will eliminate the problem as an ongoing concern or at the very least, minimize the impact that the problem will have on the future.

Unlike many op-ed writers in many “papers of record,” at the very least I feel compelled to try to offer possible solutions to these problems in upcoming postings. Rather than be yet another “doom and gloom” naysayer crying that the sky is falling, I believe it is incumbent to try to motivate others to seek solutions while we still have palatable options, or before we are backed into a corner individually and collectively and the only choices remaining are poor or unthinkable.  I can’t promise that my answers are the best ones available, but I hope that they are better than silence or the monumental and borderline criminal obfuscation and collusion with special interests engaged in by the majority of our current crop of politicians.

As I see it, there are seven vital issues facing us right now, some of which are interlinked, which must be addressed in a coherent and forward-looking manner:

  • Unemployment and Underemployment – Why the U6 Number Matters
  • Crumbling Physical and Technological Infrastructure Heading Towards Obsolescence
  • Energy Dependence on Foreign Oil
  • Geo-Politics and Global Security – Why Radical Interpretations of Islam are a Threat
  • Spiraling Healthcare Costs and Government Entitlements – There is No Free Lunch
  • Underfunded Pension Liabilities – The Nasty Surprise Awaiting Many Future Retirees
  • Education and Lifelong Learning – Ignorance is a Choice with Serious Consequences

Each of these issues is of significant scope and pressing need to present formidable challenges on their own; the fact that we are facing these in a confluence of bad timing due to years of inaction, recklessness and lack of political will to deal with these before they escalated to pending or current crisis status is most unfortunate.

WHY FREEDOM IS PREFERABLE TO SLAVERY IN ANY FORM

Many Americans would do well to remember Gerald Ford’s admonition that, “The government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.” I do not believe that more government is the answer to the problems facing us – our government is bloated and inefficient as it is, and while government can work in partnership with the private sector to help facilitate solutions, with rare exception has government ever proven to operate more efficiently or productively than profit-motivated private industry. It’s not that Capitalism as a concept is fatally flawed or outdated; however, unbridled and unregulated capitalism does concentrate wealth, and correspondingly, power, in the hands of a few and if we rely on a sense of benevolence or noblesse oblige from some of today’s oligarchs (little better than the 19th Century’s Robber Barons) raised with little sense of a moral compass or civic responsibility greater than themselves, we are really in trouble.

While it may be true that it’s hard in modern society to be completely self-reliant and to one degree or another, as individuals and nations we are all inter-connected, this does not mean that we cannot strive to do better. For all the pessimism and bad news that the 24/7 news cycle seems to feed upon, every day witnesses all too often unheralded acts of kindness, compassion and heroism from ordinary people that are willing to put their money, principles and sometimes even their lives on the line to help others.

Freedom is a scary proposition, because freedom entails risk, but ultimately, we can only trade our freedom for the illusion of security while voluntarily and cowardly slipping on the shackles and fetters that enable us to become little more than serfs to the minority in power at any given time or place in history.

In my next posting I’ll delve deeper into the employment situation in America, taxation and our faltering primary and secondary educational system…

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder of Black Rock Consulting and the blog “Tao of the Zentropist.” In the interest of full disclosure, he is a political independent that deeply admires President Teddy Roosevelt and believes in the principles of limited government by, of, and for the people; increased personal responsibility and accountability to society;, and enlightened regulation of free market economies to safeguard the financial interests and livelihood of the majority. He believes that the Bill of Rights enumerates individual rights and that it’s specious and self-serving to selectively claim that any (e.g. The Second Amendment) are meant collectively only. He feels that people’s personal lives ought to remain personal and that what goes on between consenting adults, so long as no one else is getting hurt, is neither the business of the state nor of anyone else. While he believes in international cooperation and free and fair trade, he also believes that nation-states and their populations have the right to sovereign and secure borders and the right to self-defense, which extends to the individual level as well. And finally, he believes that as flawed as it may be at times, representative democracy is the best means of governance yet devised by Man and those that threaten it are a clear and present danger to peace, freedom and any hope of global stability now or in the future.

January 24, 2010

Harnessing the Inner Demon: Taking Stock and Letting Go

Fundamentally, every human being is driven by an inner demon, and in some cases, more than one. Now I realize that certain literalists of a religious bent will interpret this statement as belief in actual demonic possession, which is not the contention that I’m making (I’ll leave that subject to others for now). Rather, based on my three plus decades of life, I’ve observed that people are complex yet imperfect organisms and in terms of actions, attitude and predilections, will behave in ways that reflect the internal struggle that exists within us all.

Finding a means to positively harness the darker or more negative sides of our emotions, which we must first acknowledge to begin with, is an important step in the individual’s psychological and personal evolution. Rather than live in denial as to the existence of these emotions, we must learn to channel and ultimately rise above them as we navigate our way through life.

THE TWO WOLVES DEFINED

There is an American Indian allegory, often credited to the Cherokee Nation, which directly addresses this struggle that I’m referring to. While there are some subtle variations among the retellings, the theme never changes as recounted here:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

THE SHADOW MAN – YIN AND YANG FROM ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE

Joseph M. Marshall III, a multi-talented Lakota writer, educator, historian and craftsman whose works I’ve come to admire, speaks of his people’s concept of the nagi wica, or the Shadow Man in his book, Walking with Grandfather. As he explains it:

“The shadow being lives within each of us. He or she is the one that pushes back when someone pushes us. It is, as the label implies, the dark side of each of us. Its strengths are anger, recklessness, and impulsiveness, and most of its existence (in most cases) is spent waiting to emerge. Adversity most often pulls the shadow being from its dormancy, where it is held in abeyance by the absence of conflict… When it does emerge, its only limitation is the character of our overall being and the values and morals that we live by.”

In other words, the nagi wica is but a reflection of the face that we present to the world, and what is contained within is simply the hidden aspect of our complete, integrated being. We may attempt to suppress it, but in times of stress, it will sure surely emerge and if we are not careful, overwhelm us.

ENERGY SEEKS THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE

In Buddhist traditions, we are taught that “good” and “bad” are value judgments fundamentally arising from desire, which is the cause of human suffering. Taoism acknowledges that in everything there is balance; as there is night, there must be day; for an object to be hard, another must be soft, and so on. The way in which energy manifests itself, or is utilized, is determined in part by intent, as within it can be found the aspects of light/dark, positive/negative, good/evil or any other dichotomy the human mind seeks to explain through language. Yet as the allegory of the Two Wolves illustrates, energy ultimately takes the path of least resistance. How we cultivate it, or generate it, in turn will influence how it is applied, consciously or subconsciously.

It is because of this natural law, as it were, that we must consciously make a choice as to how we conduct ourselves and put energy to productive use. We can look at a situation, assess it as unfavorable, and immediately fall into a pessimistic mindset, which tends to cloud judgment and further feed into the current morass, or we can acknowledge that “this too shall pass” and there is opportunity to find new solutions, or set another course to our intended destination.

What we cannot do is ignore it, for energy is unforgiving in this respect and does not dissipate simply because we wish it to do so.

MAKING THE INNER DEMON’S ACQUAINTANCE

So what to do when confronting our inner demon? First and foremost, we must seek to understand it. For some, it may be the insecurity of having grown up with little in the way of financial resources, which often motivates these individuals to seek out financial success utilizing what talents they have. For others, it may be wrestling with low self-esteem or being too self-critical and finding a larger purpose which bolsters confidence in one’s self. Still others are consumed by jealousy and envy, and rather than explore why these emotions might exist and how to let them go while using their energy for positive means, choose to wallow in a cycle which is ultimately self-destructive.

It is important to acknowledge that sometimes, these inner demons take the form of addiction (whether to substances or certain behavioral patterns), or are the result of chemical imbalances, physical ailments or deformities, or other serious psychological and medical conditions which require appropriate professional attention and care.

Rather than allow the inner demon to subsume the “angel of our better nature,” we must strive to accommodate this voice from the wilderness without yielding to it. We may not have full control of the card hand that we are dealt in life, but how we play these cards is completely within our purview and must never be forgotten.

December 29, 2009

The Zentropist Reflects: As Another Year Winds Down

Perhaps it is natural that as the calendar year draws to a close, we tend to look back in time and attempt to draw lessons, inspiration and even wisdom from our experiences, regardless of whether we deem them “good” or “bad.” As we close the books on a second year since the global financial recession gained steam and overtook both the guilty and innocent in its path, it is important to celebrate and acknowledge one’s survival, as dicey as circumstances may be.

The truth is, nobody can say for certain that we are in “recovery” or that future shocks won’t knock the U.S. or world economy off the precipice after years of irresponsible societal and individual actions, but understanding mistakes of the past means that we are not doomed to repeat them. There is no denying that many Americans are in serious financial pain, and following on the heels of fiscal stress are the deleterious effects on emotional, psychological and even physical health. Perhaps most ominously, some of these effects may not be immediately obvious but will manifest over time. Of course, this is not to dismiss the daily struggles of millions around the globe that continue to live in abject poverty, but we Americans, as a lot, have grown comfortable with our First World “Superpower” status and only now is the bloom off the rose, and the resulting fall more pronounced.

WHITE COLLAR WORKERS FACE “FUTURE SHOCK”

What’s truly terrifying, and the pink elephant in the room, is the possibility, which I suspect is very real for many, that barring significant changes in our own country and global trade, diminished standards of living and lifestyle expectations may prove permanent and not temporary. Previously in the Post World War II world, Americans in general have enjoyed a “rising tide” of prosperity and this is especially true of college-educated “white collar” workers. Many of us believed that if we pursued an education, learned some useful skills (or at least cultivated the capability to think, which is surprisingly lacking in many) and displayed a good work ethic, we’d reap the financial benefits accordingly.

Well, that assumption is as baseless as those made in creating CDO’s by the many charlatans of Wall Street.

WHEN THE WORLD FLATTENS, IT’S EASY TO BECOME ROADKILL

As Thomas Friedman famously observed, the “flattening” of the world is at this point a fait accompli and has brought many benefits to not only those in emerging or underdeveloped nations, but even those of us in America. After all, in a society where we generally want everything to cost as little as possible but we all tend to want to be well compensated for our work, a balance must be struck, and off-shoring (a sub-set of outsourcing) manufacturing  began in earnest during the 1990’s. However, as technological infrastructure improved globally, we began to see not only goods but services  sent overseas to lower-cost providers, perhaps most noticeably with customer service operations, although it wasn’t long before “higher horsepower” services such as financial and legal research, radiology (tele-medicine anyone?) and a host of other “professional class” offerings were sourced overseas. This in turn enabled better profit margins, especially if the cost of the services did not markedly change to the consumer.

While no one can fault the ranks of workers in developing nations from wanting to enjoy the material benefits and conveniences of the modern world, it is clear that this has placed enormous pressure on compensation, job security and stability in countries such as the United States, which increasingly cannot seem to compete with cut-rate prices, less litigious legal systems, lack of intellectual property protection safeguards, and more lax environmental regulation. For all the talk of creating a “knowledge based economy,” the U.S. educational system as a whole seems incapable of turning out an educated cadre of graduates up to the task, while many foreign nations, seeing education as vital to uplifting their populaces, are sending their best and brightest to learn the hard sciences, mathematics and engineering and then return home with that knowledge. To put things into perspective, realize that the middle class population of India exceeds the entire U.S. population, and those people will need jobs commensurate with their own rising expectations and consumption habits.

COMMIT TO LIFELONG EDUCATION AND SKILLS UPGRADES (OR ELSE)

So what are we to do? Well, as I see it, much as with the development of nuclear weapons, the genie is out of the bottle and wishful thinking won’t be cramming it back in anytime soon. It seems that even well-educated Americans will need to prepare for constant reinvention, re-tooling and re-calibration of their skill sets and knowledge base to keep up with rapidly evolving developments.

For some the answer may be accumulating even more formal education, since even four-year undergraduate degrees seem to lack the prestige accorded to them even a generation ago, mandating some form of graduate or post-graduate study or industry specific certifications. Of course, educational institutions, being in the business of education, are only too happy to provide coursework to meet demand; for example, look at the proliferation of project management certification courses from both established and virtual institutions to meet alleged demand for what is now being billed as a profession in of itself (rather than a skill set that any competent executive or manager holding any position of real responsibility would be expected to have). Never mind that for all the alleged demand, the supply of talent looking to fill project management positions appears to exceed current hiring slots, and the Internet is filled with advice on how to create the appearance of having sufficient hours of professional experience to qualify for some popular certification. So long as HR departments in some private, public and governmental institutions feel that a credential somehow validates a candidate, to remain competitive it becomes another hoop (and expense) that the applicant must be willing to address.

BE ADAPTABLE OR FACE BEING MADE REDUNDANT OR PREMATURELY OBSOLESCENT

At the end of the day, events of the past two years simply illustrate just how important adaptability and willingness to continuously accumulate new knowledge are in our hyper-competitive and connected world. While we may long for a slower pace or simpler times, the current trajectory suggests this is unlikely to happen, and the further one falls behind, the more difficult it is to ever recover.

So like it or not, it’s time to “cowboy up” and evolve with the times, remaining true to one’s dreams and passions but acknowledging that our best laid plans sometimes require modification if we wish to reach our intended destination.

April 10, 2009

Mastering the Art of Living

As John Lennon famously remarked, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Perhaps now more than ever in recent memory, we need to concern ourselves with the “Art of Living,” which is as important (if not more so) than the “Art of Making a Living.”

Nothing in this world is permanent. There are both shadows and light. Periods of feasting and periods of famine. There is great Good in this world, and there is unmitigated and unrepentant Evil. It has always been this way. Certain theological beliefs and arguments aside, there is little reason to believe it will ever not be so.

The Zentropist walks the Path of Mastery, and it has been observed (quite accurately in my opinion) that this is a path with no end, a journey whose destination is always beyond the horizon. This teaches us that it is the journey that shapes us, as we face various obstacles, obstructions and challenges, and in overcoming such adversity, we learn things about ourselves that we otherwise would never have known.  Perhaps we do get knocked down, and there are times when we are convinced that we cannot possibly go on, but this is an illusion. We can go on, and there is always a way.

Rather than batter ourselves mercilessly against an unyielding foe, sometimes we must flow around it, or find the means to re-direct the opposing energy so as to realize our own goals. As my own Sifu likes to observe, “In a given moment force can only have one direction at a time.”

This is true in the application of martial arts to a particular situation and it is true on the larger playing field of life. While it is probably a natural human desire to want to compartmentalize life, to artificially construct firewalls between the various aspects of our existence, this too is an illusion. How we approach life is expressed in our actions and attitudes, and the good news is that we have the power to adapt and change. We may not be able to always control what befalls us, but how we react and adapt to such opportunities and challenges is paramount.

The pursuit of Mastery is really about the pursuit of Excellence. Many are afraid to pursue Excellence because of self-imposed limitations, or because they are not willing to invest the time necessary. Make no mistake. Mastery only comes through the dedicated and consistent application of work over time. And not just any work. Focused and detail-oriented work. The most difficult of all.

Even those blessed with natural abilities in a given endeavor must do the work. There are no shortcuts. There are no “quick fixes.” Sometimes the rewards are external, such as recognition among one’s peers or even the general public, and sometimes they are monetary. All too often, the rewards may be internal, or will only manifest externally over a far longer timeline.

All that we have in this world is time, yet ironically, it is not our place to know how much of it we have. How we invest that time is ultimately how we are measured, and something that we do have control over.

Heed the wisdom of the late writer James A. Michener, who said:

“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.”

So master the time that you have been given. Pursue excellence in all aspects of your life. Master the Art of Living in all its various expressions. Unleash the Zentropist within…

April 3, 2009

Growth During Recessionary Times: The Five Pillars

To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

One day we will all collectively look back on this difficult period in time, and with the perfect clarity and wisdom of 20/20 hindsight, we will either rue missed opportunities or perhaps be in a position to congratulate ourselves on our prescience and persistence. For we must ultimately adopt a mindset that believes that things eventually will get better and that the economic wheels will once again turn freely, or we are tacitly accepting the notion that we are in the onset of a new global “Dark Ages” whose trials and tribulations may be too terrible to contemplate.

In either case, I still believe that rather than curse the darkness, it is better to light a candle to provide illumination for not only yourself, but for others to follow.

In an effort to help other entrepreneurial souls and small business weather these dark times, I am calling attention to what I term “The Five Recession Defying Pillars.” Now truth be told, there are probably a much great number of issues that a business owner can potentially focus on if properly motivated. However, by limiting our discussion to five which I feel are arguably most critical, we’re more likely to successfully implement them. As with the fingers of the hand, alone each “pillar” has its limitations, but when formed into a fist or pressed together to form a “knife edge” surface of the hand, they are much stronger acting in unity.

The Five Recession Defying Pillars include:

  • Focusing on Core Competencies
  • Building Alliances & Networks
  • Mining Niche Market Plays
  • Judicious Guerrilla Marketing
  • Scrutinizing Cash Flow

Let’s quickly examine the relevance of each of these pillars.

“Focusing on Core Competencies.” There’s a natural tendency when business slows down to lose focus and in the desperate gambit to attract new business, start diluting your offerings by delving into areas where you have little experience, aptitude or passion. This is self-defeating. Figure out what you’re good at, find a hook, and work it rigorously.

“Building Alliances & Networks.” There’s often strength in numbers. Never underestimate the power of referrals, or what active networking can do. But rather than approach it with a “What’s in it for me?” attitude, you must demonstrate how you can bring value to the equation. Or better yet, engage in the “pay it forward” concept of trying to genuinely connect and assist others, because in turn, you will eventually receive the same treatment. If you don’t belong to or attend industry events, or professional/trade/civic organizations, now is a good time to reconsider. There are opportunities in abundance to volunteer time or offer your expertise to develop the “credibility capital” that can pay off financially.

“Mining Niche Market Plays.” While it’s difficult to be a leading player in many vertical markets from a macro-perspective due to the existence of well established and capitalized competitors, there are often under-served or neglected segments within these larger markets that a shrewd and nimble business can capitalize on. Sometimes there can be incredible value in being the “big fish in the small pond.” For one, you don’t get eaten by larger fish.

“Judicious Guerrilla Marketing.” One of the worst mistakes a business can make is to completely abandon or neglect its marketing. We all know that traditional media is getting reamed because of changing consumer preferences and behavior, which means opportunities abound to cut deals if it makes sense to reach your customers through these channels. The proliferation of digital media, which is often far more affordable and provides a more measurable ROI, is a boon if you cherry pick your placements and really understand your prospective customer behavior. Even if you don’t have a budget, establish a regular presence on social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. If you can offer relevance and value, you’ll eventually attract paying customers.

“Scrutinizing Cash Flow.” If you don’t have money in the bank, you cannot pay your bills. It’s that simple. Having accounts receivable is nice, but remember that your A/R is someone else’s accounts payable, and they may not be in a hurry to part with their cash. Cash, as well as content, is king.

So get out there and don’t give up. This too shall pass…

If you’d like to follow The Zentropist on Twitter, click here.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.