Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thoughts on the Present

The tale of the Christmas Carol was a political diatribe at the time to convince the wealthy to consider the state of those less so. However, over the years the tale has become less about the wealthy and the poor and more of a personal tale of redemption. It is a tale where the protagonist has an opportunity to consider his priorities and their validity, or lack thereof. He does so though a personal introspective journey. He is not joined on his journey by others, although their effects are felt throughout. Nor is his journey something public as it occurs in the evening from the comfort of his dressing room (although comfort is noticeably absent throughout). This course has been for me somewhat of its own Christmas Carol. I am bothered that some question the lack of relevancy of the information that has been presented. I realize that my situation is somewhat unique with how impactful this information is, however, I maintain regardless of your situation this course has immediate relevancy in any situation. It is a bit like the Christmas Carol in the fact that the book, or any of the subsequent retellings, has a lesson to be gleaned regardless if it is read by a destitute person in July or a wealthy person in December. The cautionary tale of looking at the shadows of things past, the state of things in the present, and visions of things that may be, is a vital internal journey we should all take. And we should take it frequently. The journey will likely not be public, nor will it be comfortable, but it does need to be taken. Once we have made it through the proverbial night of specters we need to retain the lessons learned.

So what exactly are these lessons? What lessons are there in the Christmas Carol? It is not merely a lesson on Christmas generosity. The story addresses the idea of a business and what running a business well encompasses. It addresses the idea of charity, both to those we know and those we don’t. It ponders the idea of family, both those genetically related to us, and those we treat like family. It examines the employee/employer relationship from several different angles. [The most notable is of course Bob Cratchit, although the story is rife with other work relationships. A Christmas Carol has the main employee/employer relationships such as: the partner Marley, the servant of Scrooge who steals his belongings upon death, Scrooge’s memory of his early employment; and the more subtle relationships that abound: the bakery, the poor houses, the butcher, the boy to fetch the turkey, the solicitors etc.] These lessons are all individual but not autonomous. The more I considered the story the more it seemed like a perfect analogy for this course. In the course there were individual lessons on each of the spheres but they were not independent. The information and discussion about the changes and impact of technology was simultaneously a conversation about how we interact as a society. How we interact as a society was at the same time a discussion about how there has been a shift in our concept of self. Likewise the lessons were not segmented into business lessons verses personal lessons. The study of power not only impacts how my business interacts and functions but also how I personally pay taxes, have electricity or the resources I have to educate my child. The spheres combined to make a whole and the whole encompasses not just a commentary on business but also on life, and therein on self.    

It may seem to be a bit of a leap to translate such a personal, and iconic, tale to the realm of business but indeed I think that just the point. The two are inexorably intertwined. As an entrepreneur you are your business, and the converse is equally true. To think otherwise would be to separate the self from the actions of self. In some respect we are what we do. It would be absurd to think that our actions during the hours of 9-5 don’t matter, or that they matter any more, than our actions outside of that time.

Scrooge was visited by four ghosts. We generally think of the three ghosts (past, present and future) but forget the first specter in the story- Scrooges partner Marley. Marley not only sets the stage for the coming of the other ghosts but he also provides the impetus- the chain. The chain forged in life that he is wearing in death. Now granted most of us, especially in a business sense, don’t have such a massive punitive outcome awaiting us if we act poorly. But we do have negative outcomes, both financially and personally, that will come to be realized if certain choices remain unchanged. This is a paradox in the story as well as in all our lives. If we use the motivator as fear frequently our worst fears will be realized. It is the difference between working to make something happen and trying to have something else not happen. In the story Scrooge thinks of nothing but the future. But his motivation for the future is really fear of the past. His miserly ways are centered on the idea of never loosing the wealth he has amassed. Scrooge is running away from poverty, not working towards creating wealth. It is ironic then that when this future is realized, where the financial wealth remains, other consequences make him poor in all the other ways. Scrooge has financial wealth but personally he has nothing. His worst fears are realized. It is when he realizes these fears, refocuses, and starts working towards something, that the future becomes bright.

Thus it is through the lens of the future we are able to live in the present. But it must be a goal of the future, not a fear of the future. Like Scrooge we need to consider in business not only the financial success but also what a full picture of our future looks like. We need not to fear the coming of new things but rather embrace them and try to direct them. The fear of the past, and subsequently the future, is a huge motivator when it comes to the changes we have discussed. People fear technology. They fear unemployment. They fear the looming deficit and a return to recession. Their fears ultimately will be realized if they don’t revise their goals. If they spend their days fearing unemployment, and railing against a future where their job doesn’t exist, they will miss the opportunity to create a new job. By the time they realize their error likely their worst fears will have come to pass. However, if instead, they look at the present through the lens of where they would like to go they may find options to create a bright future.

Also, it was the visit from Marley that alerted Scrooge to this picture and made him open to the information the coming ghosts were going to share. Had Scrooge not seen Marley the story would have been a different tale all together. In our lives, both business and personal, we need to keep our proverbial eyes open to the visit from Marley- the indications of the future that may be if our actions are not changed. Some of these indications are financial: a steep drop in sales, a loss of market share, or a general change in financial health etc. But so many of these indicators are not financial: employee involvement, personal satisfaction, company social responsibility etc. Like Scrooge we could be healthy financially but headed for an unsuccessful future.

Which is perhaps the crux of the whole conversation- what is your definition of success? This course left me with infinitely more questions than answers. In all the popular retellings of the Christmas Carol the story is quite dark but is made light at the very end when Scrooge learns his lesson, goes forward keeping Christmas well, Tiny Tim lives and all is right with the universe. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, life is not nearly as tidy. We do not have such simple measures by which success is gauged. Nor do we have the convenience of lessons being so overtly delivered and defined.

We do not get visited by ghosts (well, at least most of us don’t) that extol the areas that need our attention. We don’t have a visit from Marley that warns of us explicitly of what our future may hold. We don’t have the luxury of viewing the past by returning there. Nor do we have the ease of knowing which of the shadows of things that have been are relevant to what is to come. No the past is messy and jumbled. It is painful, encouraging, exciting, relevant and irrelevant all at once. It is only through the lens of the present that we try to filter the lessons of the past. What has lead us to where we are? What have we forgotten that would best be remembered? What have we remembered that would best be forgotten? What is important to us today?

For the present one doesn’t think they generally have the experience of being able to spirit in on other peoples worlds to observe. However, with the proliferation of information, and degradation of privacy, we do somewhat have that ability. With Facebook at once I can be both at home and celebrating Christmas with my friend in South Africa. With YouTube I can be a fly on the wall at a fortune 500 company’s annual meeting. With social CRM I can be doing them all at once. So in the multi faceted world of technology and information where do you go? What do you do? How do you know what is relevant to your future, both personally and professionally, and what is merely a side note? Our guide through the journey of the present is the future. It is where we want to be that defines what we should be focused on now. But what is that? Where are things headed? Where would we like them to be headed? Are we looking at things that will be or things that might be?

Which brings us to the future. In the Christmas Carol the future is a dark and forbidding place, a place full of death and despair. But these are things that may be, not things that will be. By the end of the movie the future is a place of life and joy, a place of success and bright days ahead. Unfortunately life is, again, not as clear cut. The future holds most certainly some dark and forbidding elements. The earth’s resources are being consumed at an alarming rate. The population continues to expand at an exponential rate that economically is unsustainable. Technology is marching forward making jobs obsolete and futures uncertain. But technology is also providing infinite possibilities. Technology is making our lives easier and may well be the answer to the population and environmental quandaries of our present. A few years ago there was a very short article in a business magazine about how an entrepreneur defines success. Certainly part of success is measured financially, but there are other measures as well. Success can be measured also by flexibility, fulfillment or impact on surroundings. The inevitable question for the future is how do you define success? With all the countless scenarios, both good and bad, what are you striving for? How can you make that happen?

So what does it all mean? Where does that leave us? I think it leaves us trying to keep Christmas better than any man alive, which is to say striving towards making our personal and professional visions of success a reality. To do this I think we need to not be motivated by fear. We need to open our eyes to the Marleys in our lives. We need to consider the past in light of the present and the present in light of the future. And we need to do it constantly. Like Scrooge brought some Christmas to everyday we too need to consider the lessons learned, both positive and negative, and integrate them into our actions. This is exactly what this course has been for me. A constant journey to consider the past, present and future and examine where it is I want to go. Now I just have to work on the continuous process of defining where that is. A personal and professional journey? Unquestionably. Comfortable? Decidedly not. Necessary and relevant? Absolutely.            

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