Tao of the Zentropist

January 1, 2015

Perspective: When in Doubt, Get Some!

It is natural for many at this time of year to engage in introspection and take stock of things. That can be admirable, especially when it leads to further evolution and development. To that end, I offer the following thoughts…

Photographer: Tom Hall

“Mountain” Photographer: Tom Hall Image courtesy of Flickr

When a mountain comes into view…

Do you see it as an insurmountable obstacle? Or do you wonder what the view is like from the summit, or what lies on the other side?

The very things which may challenge us may also reveal great rewards. We can embrace the challenge and advance forward, or we can remain rooted to the spot or return to the comfort of what we think we know, only to invariably discover, that place is not quite the same as when we left it.

Scarcity and abundance…

Are always intertwined. One never exists without the other.

Mindset reveals our most closely held beliefs. Sometimes what we most desire is indeed scarce. But if we take stock of what is in abundance, how can we use this to obtain or acquire what we really want?

Perception is reality…

Pierce the veil. 

What we perceive to be true inevitably becomes our truth. Objective fact can be inconvenient under this circumstance. Remember that what another perceives will define his or her truth as well. If you cannot find mutually satisfactory definition, given the binary nature of “true or false?” conflict will result.

Use what you know today…

With rare exception, we all know more today than we did yesterday.

Experience may be gained through action or inaction. We learn from the outcomes of both. When outcomes are deemed not desirable, examine what led to them without rancor, bitterness or excessive regret. And avoid repeating the mistakes of yesterday today.

Do more…

Talk less.

Action ultimately trumps flowery talk and academic theory. Far too many pontificate and bloviate. Strategy requires execution. Execution emerges from tactics. Without the right tactics, applied at the right time, even a well considered strategy will fail.

Now is always available…

Use it wisely.

What has happened previously is over and done with. What may happen in the future is subject to change. Unless you believe in predestination. In which case, you will do what you will and the future will happen accordingly.

Trim your sails, adjust your course…

We cannot change the wind and the tide.

But we can harness them, and by keeping a weather eye, adjust as necessary to get where we want to go.

Acknowledge the Monkey Mind…

The Monkey Mind is rarely quiet and is ruled by emotion.

Emotion all too often clouds our judgment. Pause. Inhale. Exhale. Orient and find your center. Decisions made when ruled by emotion may in hindsight prove less than optimal, and sometimes quite poor. Seek to buy enough time to let the most unguarded moment pass. And then act decisively.

Remember…

The past should always inform us. But never define us.

What happened yesterday and all the days before was the result of things both within and outside of our control. The past is only prologue if we fail to exercise what we can currently control. Wiser decisions are always possible. Our fate, driven by unfolding possibilities, is fluid and always in motion.

Celebrate, mourn, move on…

Retain the lesson and those memories you cherish, but do not cling to what has passed.

There is a time and a season to every purpose under Heaven and Earth.

Regrets…

We’ve all got them. But seek to make them, “Too few to mention.”

Sometimes things don’t work out as we planned. Or if we are truthful with ourselves, as we desired, even if we failed to properly plan. Some opportunities, once lost, are not regained. But this is not always so. Do not punish yourself a second time. The moment of lost opportunity is punishment enough.

Impermanence…

This too shall pass.

It is our attachment to things which are the source of pleasure and pain. Life will contain such highs and lows. Things happen in their time.

Beware those who claim to have all the answers…

Those who possess true wisdom understand that which they do not know.

We live in an era where self-proclaimed experts abound. Always consider the source. Good intentions with ill-conceived counsel or inappropriate action can be as detrimental to our welfare as those who act with indifference or outright malice.

Decide what matters…

This is your touchstone.

Over the course of your life, your answer may change. That’s not necessarily good or bad. But you must always be clear on what matters to you if you wish to make decisions aligned with your values.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse on 30 December 2014.

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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.

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…

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March 27, 2009

When Faced with Adversity… “Keep Going”

We are living in tumultuous times these days, and many people who have formerly known at least relative comfort and prosperity are having their fundamental assumptions challenged due to job loss (or the impending threat of this happening), rising costs and all too often declining earnings, the devastation of the financial system, etc. While it’s true that most of us are pretty fortunate when compared to those truly suffering, or when contrasted with prior generations, this can be cold comfort when a crisis hits home and the world suddenly feels like it’s caving in.

No matter who we are, no matter how great or small our real or perceived accomplishments, we all face adversity at some point in our lives. This may take many forms, and it may come in cycles, and it may even be highly relative (i.e. one person’s adversity is another’s opportunity), but ultimately, it is part of the Yin and Yang that underlies life.

There is a wonderful Lakota writer (whose blurb bills him as an “historian, educator, motivational speaker and Lakota craftsman,” to which I would add “philosopher”) named Joseph Marshall III whose work I believe deserves to be widely known. While his fiction and non-fiction books are firmly rooted in the oral storytelling traditions and values of his own culture, the messages are universal and eternal, and are further evidence of the common threads underlying many philosophical and wisdom traditions in both the East and West.

In 2006 Mr. Marshall published a slim volume (just 125 pages, but its impact far belies the efficiency of the message) entitled “Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance” which is one of the books that I keep close at hand for inspiration and comfort. The book contains a brief prose statement of a grandfather speaking to his grandson as they sit beneath a cottonwood tree to mourn the premature death of the boy’s father. As the boy struggles to understand why life can seem so capricious and difficult at times, the grandfather gently explains the meaning behind his words, and provides the comfort that age and experience, translated into wisdom, can provide when we are receptive to hearing it.

I would like to quote a brief excerpt from the preface, in which Grandfather addresses his grandson, which also serves as a bookend to tie the lesson together:

“…You did not ask to be born, but you are here. You have weakness as well as strengths. You have both because in life there is two of everything. Within you is the will to win, as well as the willingness to lose. Within you is the heart to feel compassion as well as the smallness to be arrogant. Within you is the way to face life as well as the fear to turn away from it.”

If you ask me, this is a rather powerful and concise summation of the human condition. I cannot do justice to Mr. Marshall’s own interpretation of this work, but will simply offer a few of my own observations on the passage above.

“You have weakness as well as strengths.” As self-evident as this may seem, I have learned from years of dedicated martial arts practice that within weakness lies a potential source of strength, and within strength lays exploitable weakness. For example, in Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu, we are taught not to oppose strength with strength, even if we are physically stronger than the opponent, but rather, to release or re-direct that force so that the opponent’s energy is used against him or her. Do we not often see how strength can breed arrogance or over-confidence, otherwise known as “hubris,” and that this has often led to the downfall of those exhibiting it?

“You have both because in life there is two of everything.” Is this not yet another acknowledgement of the concept of Yin and Yang, of equal and opposing dynamic forces that contain traces of each other and cannot exist independently of each other?

“Within you is the will to win, as well as the willingness to lose.” Quite frankly, this is deserving of a posting on its own. Suffice it to say for now, the implication is that winning and losing are choices that we make, consciously or not, and that while the path to victory may be convoluted and torturous, it is incumbent for us to realize that no matter how dire the circumstances, we can still pull through.

“Within you is the heart to feel compassion as well as the smallness to be arrogant” How easy it is, especially when operating from a position of power, to feel arrogant or otherwise entitled to our current lofty status, whether it was well and truly “earned” through hard work and perseverance, or simply handed to us by another. It is in these times especially that we should feel compassion and count our good fortune and do what we can to inspire, encourage and help others, for one day our positions might be reversed, and we will be grateful to receive the compassion of another.

“Within you is the way to face life as well as the fear to turn away from it.” As the Latin says, res ipsa loquitur. It speaks for itself.

Whenever the night seems darkest, the dawn is about to break. Whenever you feel that you lack the strength to take another step forward, place one foot in front of the other and take that step. Keep in mind that, “This too shall pass” and that, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

Above all, just keep going…

P.S. I received an e-mail from Mr. Marshall informing me that a short video for “Keep Going” was recently posted to YouTube. Please check it out!

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