In my previous posts, I talked about the need to change how we think about the region. We need to avoid thinking we're doomed, while at the same time avoid deluding ourselves into thinking things are great or that a miraculous comeback is going to return us to the status quo ante. Rather, we need to embrace the cold hard reality of our situation and realize that we have severe challenges and a tough road ahead of us, but we're equipped with skills and our very existence should infuse us with the will to carry on. The region is like a 45-year-old middle manager, parent of three, who just got laid off. The region, and each of us, is Larry. In my most recent post, I detailed the entrepreneurial mindset and offered it as a way forward for Larry. I'd now like to talk about some additional shifts in mindset, as well as practical tips for implementing the entrepreneurial mindset in your day-to-day life to be the best Larry you can be.
Nobody owes you nothing
Before diving into the practical tips, there's a big mindset shift I'd like to encourage, and that's to drop your sense of entitlement. I grew up in a family of car mechanics and truck drivers and the phrase was 'Nobody owes you nothing' which presumably was meant to convey that no one owes you anything. If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina and the Great Contraction (that's what I’m calling the last two years), it's that we're on our own. If the best we can expect from the government is a helicopter to get us off the roof when our house is under 20 feet of water, then we're all in trouble. I'm not saying the way things are is right, but this is very clearly the way things are. Complaining about the weather doesn't make you any less wet.
The benefit of dropping your sense of entitlement is that you'll stop waiting for other people to provide for you and start to do what you can to provide for yourself. By accepting responsibility for your own fate, you give yourself the power to impact your fate. Armed with a newfound sense of responsibility and power, here are some things you can do starting now.
How to innovate everyday: Be awake and aware
Entrepreneurs value innovation - and so should you, Larry. The practical way to innovate everyday is to be awake and aware. Cast a half glance at every action you take and every thought you have and ask yourself "Is this the best way, or just a way?" More often than not, the way we do things, the way we think, isn't the best way. It's just the way we do it, and we aren't awake and aware enough to ask whether there's a better way. I'm not saying you should relentlessly pursue a new way to do everything, but rather to be open to opportunities for improvement. Notice that I'm talking not just about doing, but also about thinking. Innovation can be found not just by doing things differently, but by thinking about things differently. Think about that for a while. Done? Great, let's move on.
Taking action: Do one small thing
If you started walking a mile a day, then by the end of the week, you'd be seven miles from home. I bring this up not to display my damaged and antiquated sense of humor, but to emphasis the cumulative power of small actions. Any small action, performed again and again or taken in conjunction with other small actions, can achieve a huge effect. So look for some small action you can take (on anything really - even if it's moving the garbage can closer to the curb by an inch) and take it. You're trying to build a propensity for action within yourself, so force yourself to take some extra inch of action every day.
How to embrace failure: Keep score
We can't begin to embrace failure until we acknowledge failure. The way to acknowledge failure is to keep score. Each day ask yourself - did you do better than you did the day before? Score yourself against yourself by comparison. Now here's the crucial part - some days you're going to lose and lose big. Don't beat yourself up when you take a big loss. Remember the entepreneurial trait we're trying to apply is embracing failure - not choking the life out of it. Failure is always an option. Figure out why you failed, or how you failed, or whether you really failed given that you may have in fact learned something from the failure. The more you engage in this process of self reflection and assessment, the more you'll realize your opportunities for learning and improvement.
Expect instability: Prepare for another crazy day
Entrepreneurs are conditioned to expect instability. They know that each day brings new challenges and new opportunities. Emulate this behavior by starting each day acknowledging the reality that something is going to happen today that’s going to be unexpected and interfere with your plans for that day, even if just for a moment. What you're doing in this exercise is building up your ability to mentally adapt to change. Change comes whether we want it to or not, and by preparing for that change, (i.e. expecting instability) we are better able to deal with and master that change.
Focus on serving others: Say yes.
Each one of the previous tips were very internally focused. Little bits of thought and action that involved you and your entrepreneurial, mental muscles. On this final one, I'm encouraging you to apply some of that focus externally. Do that by trying to say yes to one request a day. Once a day, when someone asks for help, say yes. Make it your goal to say yes to a request for help once a day. Here's the tricky part: don't expect this to achieve anything or benefit you in any way. Focusing on others, whether it's helping someone open a door, helping your team leader on a challenging assignment, or helping a client, is its own reward. It's good to do good. Remember, as discussed earlier, drop your sense of entitlement. Don't expect or demand that good things will happen to you because you say yes to others. Having the opportunity to help is the reward for helping.
In my capacity as Training Leader at Bizdom U, I work with entrepreneurs every day trying to maximize their potential and the potential of their enterprises. In many ways, I've learned far more than I've taught. The main lesson I've learned about entrepreneurs is that they have no special magic. There are certain patterns of behavior that they engage in, and while some of them naturally engage in those behaviors, just as many have made the conscious decision to engage in those behaviors: valuing innovation, taking action, embracing failure, expecting instability, and serving others.
By relentlessly and ruthlessly engaging in these behaviors, entrepreneurs take responsibility for and control over their fate. Our region unfortunately has an overabundance of deferring responsibility and surrendering control of our fates. If we break ourselves of this habit of passivity, and each of us take responsibility for ourselves, and behave entrepreneurially, in school, at work, in all the aspects of our lives, we will be able to overcome our challenges and maximize our opportunities, and hopefully be the best Larry we can be.
In my previous post, I talked about how we need to change our metaphor for thinking about the region. Rather than bemoaning the 'death' of the region, celebrating the 'life' of the region, or waiting expectantly for the 'rebirth' of the region, I proposed thinking of the region as a guy named Larry: middle aged, middle manager, with lots of obligations and financial issues. By thinking of the region this way, we can approach the region, and more importantly our individual parts in it, with an honest and realistic assessment of the limitations and the possibilities before us. Personally, I believe the best way to overcome our limitations and take full advantage of our possibilities is by adopting an entrepreneurial mindset.
The entrepreneurial mindset is perfectly suited to conditions of limited resources and uncertain prospects. Running a business is always a matter of resource allocation - you never have enough time, money, or attention to do everything you'd like. Even if you had enough time, money, and attention, you're not on a well worn path – you can't be certain of the success or failure of your actions. You make decisions, you try things, you hope you don't fail – but you just might. Entrepreneurs thrive in these situations – and you should too. If you're not living in a world of limited resources and uncertain prospects – you're probably not living in Michigan in 2010.
So what do entrepreneurs do to survive and thrive in these conditions? They value innovation; they take action; they embrace failure; they expect instability; and they focus on serving others.
Why value innovation? When you have limited resources, it helps to be clever about how you allocate those resources. Ultimately, starvation induces innovation. When you lack resources, you don't achieve success by acquiring new resources, you achieve success by stretching out the resources you do have. That's the essence of innovation – adapting something to a new use either through wholesale invention or clever re-purposing.
Why take action? There are two widely different reasons why a bias for action is a key entrepreneurial activity. The first is that very often the only tool at your disposal is your own will to action. If that's the only tool you have – you need to use it, and no better time than the present. Stop thinking – start doing. The other reason to do something (anything really) is the antidepressant quality of activity. Nothing invigorates like doing something – and when you're in a world of limited resources and uncertain prospects the last thing you want is to be depressed.
Embracing failure doesn't mean becoming complacent with failure. Instead entrepreneurs treat failure as a successful experiment. When you fail – and properly analyze that failure – you can definitively know what doesn't work. By failing you start to gain an understanding of causality and move out of a world of uncertain results into one of more and more definitive results.
If I can offer a quote in this regard, it's this one from Walt Disney: "Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
In our region, you'd think we'd have no problem expecting instability. You need only look to the coaching and quarterbacking woes of the local minor league football franchise to see how endemic instability is around here. And while we can certainly rail against that particular bit of instability, we should embrace instability – it's the new normal. We can't rely on our government for stability (how many mayors have we had recently? How balanced has our state budget been?) We can't rely on our local industries for stability (examples abound). Instability is our new status quo and embracing it means we'll spend more time adapting ourselves and our behavior rather than hoping external circumstances will change and stabilize.
Finally, entrepreneurs focus on serving others. This is one of the least acknowledged aspects of entrepreneurship - but easily the most crucial. To achieve success entrepreneurs need to satisfy and serve their clients. To keep clients happy, entrepreneurs need to keep their team members motivated, maximized and happy. Entrepreneurs therefore have no choice but to be focused on serving others. It's a damn shame that the people who create companies that create opportunities for others and create the stuff we want are viewed as self-centered and greedy, when in fact the only way to achieve what they've achieved is through service to others.
Having detailed the entrepreneurial mindset, my next installment will focus on practical tips for implementing this mindset even if you're not feeling much like an entrepreneur.
Nascar Owner Felix Sabates set off a firestorm with his incendiary comments about Michigan and Detroit. I won't repeat his comments in full here; frankly I find his comments to be particularly cruel, given the current economic situation in the state. His efforts at humor were about as funny as putting a blind person in a strange room, taking away their cane and dog, and then breaking both of their legs as you leave the room. Not funny at all. My own attempt in explaining Mr. Sabates' comments would properly be categorized as a metaphor.
Metaphors serve as a symbolic linkage of one concept to another in an effort to describe or illuminate the primary concept through the description of the second. That’s some fancy talk for saying that metaphors are shorthand ways of talking about things that help us understand those things. I’d like to talk about some of the metaphors we have for the region and whether those metaphors are helpful. I’d then like to propose a new metaphor; one which will hopefully resonate with you, dear reader, and offer a basis for the region to move forward.
Metaphor: Michigan and/or Detroit is Dead
This is in essence what Mr. Sabates was saying. When you stop and think about the whole notion of the region being 'dead' you'll realize that this is a metaphor. A city or region can't be 'dead' since it can't in any real sense be said to be 'alive'. Plants, animals, humans - these things are alive. Cities and regions are geographic objects and not alive. 'Michigan is Dead' is therefore a metaphor, but is it a useful one? Does it provide us with any big insight or understanding? The plain answer is no. Dead things aren't part of our ongoing narrative. When we say something is dead, we usually mean it in that 'and gone' construct of dead. Dead things no longer contribute. Dead things are soon forgotten. And if the region is really 'dead' we may as well pack it up and move. But if we're not moving anytime soon, then the metaphor of death is pretty damned useless.
Metaphor: The Region is Alive and Kicking
Right next to the 'Michigan is Dead' metaphor, my least favorite metaphor is 'Michigan is Alive!' This metaphor really doesn’t work for me because it ignores the very real challenges and problems the region faces. Yes, there is vitality and strength here, and we're still not out for the count, but all is not well here, and blind rallying cries of "The Region is Awesome" or declarations of cool city-ness just encourage people to stick their heads in the sand.
Other Metaphors along the Life and Death Spectrum
I've heard people talk about the 'rebirth' of the region. This also gets obfuscated under the 'renaissance' metaphor. You’ll also hear about the 'resurrection' of the region. I’d like to propose taking all of these metaphors down to the hopefully soon to be decommissioned incinerator and burned up.
These metaphors simply hold out false hope that if we somehow hang in there, we'll be restored to our former glory or even worse, a new glory that will outshine our former glory. This simply isn't going to happen. And hoping for it to happen causes us to look for signs of resurrection, and fight anything that doesn't appear to be paving the way for rebirth. The destructive aspect of this metaphor rears its ugly head in resistance to right-size the infrastructure of Detroit and the region. It's as if we expect a flood of people to come charging back into the area and need to keep the infrastructure in its present state for when they do.
It also shows up in the overemphasis on job creation when it comes to entrepreneurial efforts in the region. Want to get some help getting resources into your enterprise - you need to speak in terms of jobs created, not in terms of innovation, resourcefulness, and creativity. To stretch my own metaphor here - expecting 'resurrection' puts us in a mindset of expecting miracles - and believing that miraculously every unemployed autoworker is going to quickly find a job of comparable pay and benefits in constructing windmills, homeland defense, green autos, or whatever the savior idea of the moment happens to be. It's simply not realistic to expect that to happen. And the sooner we abandon the expectation that it will happen, the sooner we can get on with the heavy work that it will take us to move forward. Don't get me wrong – I'm not trying to kill hope. Rather, I'm saying we need to quit expecting miracles and a cure from outside of ourselves. The hope and answers we need lie within ourselves.
And with that, I'd like to introduce a new metaphor for the region.
Metaphor: The Region is like a 45-year-old overweight middle manager with three kids and a mortgage who just got laid off; let's call him 'Larry'.
I believe Larry is a much better metaphor for the region. Larry's got a lot of problems. He's got debt to pay and people to take care of. Larry's 45 and overweight - and try as he might, he's never going to be 25 again. He's not going to be able to 'resurrect', 'rebirth' or 'renaissance' himself into something other than what he is. Larry's not dead, and while he's still alive, it's a rough life and road ahead of him. But Larry's got skills, he's got some resources, and Larry's going to wake up tomorrow with the whole rest of his life ahead of him and have no choice but to move forward. I offer this as a metaphor for a lot of reasons. First, a lot of us know a guy like Larry or are a guy like Larry (even if your name is really Debbie). Second, when you're a Larry, you soon realize that the only person who can help you is you, Larry. And there's power in this realization. The power to endure and the power to adapt and move forward.
The Way Forward For Larry
Let me end this by saying a couple of things about the words I've used in here. I've talked a lot about the region. Let me say, right here, right now, that I don't believe in "the region". "The region" is a non-entity. It can't do anything. It can't create, it can't plan, it can't dream, it can't hope and it most certainly can't do. Doing, thinking, planning, dreaming - these are strictly human endeavors and are undertaken by individuals. It is only through our individual actions that any real change can occur. When we talk about changing the region, improving the region, or doing any other number of things to 'the region', we’re shifting power and responsibility to something external to ourselves. That power, that responsibility, lies firmly with each of us as individuals - and it is our duty to exercise that power and responsibility on an individual level to improve ourselves. In other words, fix yourself and the region will be fixed.
In my next couple of installments, I'll propose ways that you can use an entrepreneurial mindset to adapt and innovate. In other words, to be the best damned Larry you can be.