Self-Reliance, Emerson Style

Your business’s future is not guaranteed. The same can be said for the future of your career; it is not pre-destined. Prosperity will not happen to you. But (good news), you have the opportunity to make prosperity happen.

Our popular culture has overly embraced concepts like “destiny” and “fate” and terms like “meant to be” and “your time will come.” These ideas are dangerous, because they encourage people not to rely on themselves but on imagined, scripted wheels of history that will escort them to a rosy future. If we think of ourselves as passengers on the way to a pre-determined future, we may be sorely disappointed when we arrive.

"Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string.It is up to you– and only you– to invent your future.

A person in a failing business once told me, in a moment of desperation, that he was confident that God would take care of things for him. I cautioned him not to assume that God cares for his competitors any less than for him. What gives any of us the right to sit back and wait for success to happen? We have only the right to try to create a great future.

In Twelfth Night Shakespeare wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” If you were not born “great,” you must not wait for greatness to be thrust upon you. It is up to you to achieve greatness. If you are a believer, consider this possibility: Maybe God will be more impressed if you attempt to achieve greatness than if you expect God to do the work for you. If you are not a believer, sitting back and waiting for a comfortable future to happen to you is no better than playing roulette on a wheel with an infinite number of slots. No matter what you believe, I encourage you to have faith in this: We live in a tough world that serves as a stage, but does not provide a pre-written script.

So how do we go about the process of inventing our futures?

The man must be so much that he must make all circumstances indifferent.The first step is personal responsibility and self-reliance. (With homage to Emerson by use of quotes from Self-Reliancesurrounding this text.)

I take this approach in my work on clients’ businesses and on my own: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” No matter what goes on in the world around us, the biggest variable in our success is what we do.

Do you work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.Circumstance affects our results, but we cannot let a blame of circumstance distract us from what we need to do. On the contrary, circumstance should inform what we do. Look out the window at the outside world, and study closely what is happening. Then, turn and look in the mirror and say to yourself, “Ok, now it’s time for action.”

I see the power of this kind of self-reliant thinking and action every day, especially in this time of economic upheaval. On the negative side, those who chose to “hunker down” in late 2008 and early 2009, waiting to “ride out” the recession through unthoughtful, across-the-board cutbacks and a paralysis of positive action, are still suffering. But I hear stories, more and more frequently as we move into the last months of 2009, of companies who, through vigorous resolve and action, are creating success within the current turbulence. Sure, there are industries and sectors, such as real estate, where the circumstantial pressures are great. But just yesterday I spoke with an apartment building owner whose properties, just last week, reached full occupancy. Was there some luck involved? Maybe. Was her relentlessness in pursuing tenants a key part of this success? Certainly.

Once you accept your central role in creating your own future, the next step is to ask, “Who do I intend to be?” or, in the case of your company, “Who do we intend to be?”

The picture waits for my verdict.As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” Consider this: There are an infinite number of possible futures for you and your business. What do you really want? What future do you want to create? Who do you intend to be?

When I press executives to create a picture of the future they want, I usually see two things happen:

  1. It is clear they haven’t really thought about it.Once, in a workshop with the top 15 executives in a company with $85 million in annual revenues, I asked each person to write down what he or she thought revenue would be in 4 years if things went well for the company. Answers varied from $150 million to $1 billion. What were they going to do, I asked, invest for a billion and overspend if they end up at $150 million, or invest for $150 million and be unprepared to grow to a billion? And this was only a lack of clarity about revenue growth; can you imagine how fuzzy everything else about the future was for this group?
  2. They are afraid to articulate anything about the future because they fear it is a forecast they will have to live up to. Forecast “sandbagging” is the enemy of creative thinking about the future. In an effort not to fall short of expectations people choose not to dream.

Choose the future you want for yourself and for your company. Your picture of the future can evolve later, as you learn new things.

None but he knows what that is what he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.Choosing a future depends on an acute understanding of what’s going on now, in the present. For some thoughts on this, please see my last newsletter,The Things That Matter.

The next step is not to procrastinate. The future starts NOW. Once you have a good idea of where you want to be in the future, you will see more clearly what you can do in the next five minutes. Continually connecting the present moment with your future is one of the most critical pieces of inventing your future. You are always inventing your future. Always. Right now. And now. And now. Everything you do– yes, everything– has an impact on choosing one future for you out of the infinite number of possible futures.

The work you do is not just about the work you do. It is about the future you create for yourself, a future that is an epiphenomenon of every action you take. What did you do this morning? Did you make progress toward creating the future you want? What about this afternoon?

The civilized man has built a coach, but lost the use of his feet.We can’t lose sight of the need for self-reliance and the role of personal responsibility, even for one minute. We need to focus on what we can do, not what the world does to us. For example, as you do your work, try to ignore the news, to some, important, extent. Learn from the news, of course, but don’t take it too seriously. Inherently, the news is about macro factors, not about you. So, just because you hear about the economy, the President, the Congress and the price of oil every time you turn on the TV, don’t assume it is more important to you than you.

Trust yourself, and your colleagues in your organization, to invent the best future for you. You can’t count on anyone else to do it for you.

A man who stands on his feet is stronger than a man who stands on his head.

Steve Yastrow

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Posted in Invent Your Future, Newsletters
6 comments on “Self-Reliance, Emerson Style
  1. Dan Gunter says:

    Steve, great post. I was particularly struck by the mention of the man who said “God till take care of [him].” In a recent consultation, I was hit with the same words. I had to ask them “Why do you think God gave you feet, legs, hands, arms, etc.?” The reply I got was “To move around and do things.”

    My next words were “So, he might open a door. But if He doesn’t appear, pick you up, and carry you over the threshold, I suppose He could be hinting that YOU have to actually use those appendages to get there yourself.”

    Similarly, I have a very close friend who constantly makes comments starting with “If I ever win the lottery, I will…” followed by things that might be very difficult but could be achieved nonetheless through planning, hard work, and patience. I’ve also heard lots of people say things like “We’re going to have children when we’re financially ready.” Yeah. Uh huh. I’ve NEVER heard someone say “We were financially ready, so we had a child.” They got pregnant. They had a baby. They adjusted their lifestyle accordingly.

    I see it this way:

    Your intentions create your conscious thoughts.

    Your thoughts create your actions.

    Your actions create your circumstances.

    Nowhere in that equation or chronology does “chance, luck or fate” appear. Unexpected events will happen. But the long-term consequences of such events is not about luck or chance or destiny — it’s all about knowing where you’re trying to go and using that as the compass which guides your actions and reactions, both of which start in your mind, not somewhere “out there.”

  2. Dan Gunter says:

    Just reminded myself of the story of the man in a flood. It had been raining heavily for days. The news said “A flood is coming. Evacuate immediately.”

    Sitting on his porch with water up to the steps, a boat with two firemen approached. “Get in, they said.”

    “Oh, no” the man replied. “God will save me.”

    A while later, the man was on the roof of his porch. Floodwater reaching the top of his windows. Another boat approached. “Jump in. We’ll rescue you.”

    “Oh no,” the man shouted. “God will take care of me.”

    Now perched atop his chimney, water above the ridge of his roof, a helicopter lowers a ladder to him and the voice on the loudspeaker says “Grab the ladder. We’re here to save you.”

    “No need,” he shouts. “God will take care of me.”

    The man drowned a little while later.

    Standing at the “pearly gates,” St. Peter announced to the old man that his name had been erased from the book. He was condemned to spend eternity in hell for his lack of faith.”

    The old man said “WHAT??? I thought God would save me?”

    A voice boomed out “Well, I sent two boats and a helicopter.”

  3. Thanks Dan, as always!

  4. Judith Ellis says:

    Great newsletter, Steve! Thank you for the inspiration and initiation to move forward. Regarding God and business, for me Old Testament Scripture says it best, “Go to the ant you, sluggard; consider its ways and be wise.” The ant seems to work like none other in both building now and preserving for the future. I also love the story Dan retells. Thanks again, Steve.

  5. Judith Ellis says:

    Oh, and how I love Emerson! Thanks for that too. Excellent relevant quotes by Shakespeare and Yogi Berra also. Great!

  6. Thanks for coming by Judith – always great when you’re here! I think Emerson is more pivotal and influential on our modern world than any of us can realize.

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