Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wish Not One Man More

You run a small business. The economy that is rocking behemoths like GM is threatening to swallow your little boat whole, or smash it against rocks. Your car just broke down. You've just found out that your cholesterol is dangerously high. And your oldest kid is getting into trouble at school. What do you do?

There are two ways - one bad and common, the other rare but good. The first, I'll call the "If Only" way; the second, the "Despite" way.

The "If Only" way responds to problems by imagining and longing for a world where the problem does not exist. "If Only" I hadn't started my business in 2008. "If Only" I'd taken that safe job. If only my client hadn't gone bankrupt and became unable to pay my invoice. And it involves thinking enviously about the lucky people who are not experiencing your troubles. Basically, it is to live with the worldview that life is supposed to be easier than it is.

The "Despite" way, by contrast, requires a view of success that is impressed not only with what we achieve, but with the size of challenge we overcame to achieve it. Its response to adversity is not to wish the problems would go away, but to think:
"How cool will it be when I succeed *despite* this new challenge"
For example, many people started businesses in that cauldron of technology, Silicon Valley, and in the boom time of the late 90's. I, on the other hand, started my business in the economic basket case called Scotland, and at the start of the 2001 tech bubble collapse. If I succeed despite those disadvantages, I reckon I get a higher seat at the winner's table than my counterparts in San Jose. And those who are starting now, in the face of the current mess? I had it easy. You guys are my heroes!

Perhaps the best example of the "Despite" mentality is the King's St Crispin's Day speech in  Shakespeare's Henry V. Westmoreland, concerned by the size of the much larger French force, wishes that the English had more men. Henry's response is one of the most inspiring speeches in English literature, and it focuses on this fact -- that success, glory, and honour are best seen relative to the size of challenges overcome in reaching them.
"What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
Today we entrepreneurs and business leaders face our own Agincourt. The challenges are immense, and the fear is real. But if -- no, when -- we make it through. Think of the glory. We can look back (and put on our resumes) that we lived through this time. We few. We happy few. We band of psychotic nutters. :-)

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