Good Fortune

Yes, you've got to be profitable, but ...

By Anthony Noel

I'm writing this column on December 28, 2004. Two days ago, a massive earthquake struck beneath the Indian Ocean. Centered near the island of Sumatra, it triggered tsunamis, which struck the shores of at least 11 countries in the immediate region.

By the time you read this in February 2005, the final totals of the event's devastation will be more clear. But even at this early juncture, the toll in human life is hard to process: Official estimates, as I write, put the number of lives lost at over 40,000. [Ed. note: As of press time, that number topped 200,000.]

While the scale of devastation can be largely attributed to the waves hitting heavily populated coastal cities and resort towns, many of those who lost their lives were residents of fishing communities. Simple people, they counted on the sea for their livelihoods, and, in some cases, for nothing more than their personal sustenance.

It's pretty easy to gauge your success on a fishing boat. Either there's a fish on your line or in your net, or there isn't. It doesn't get much more direct than that.

I spend a lot of time in this column exhorting business owners and managers to know their costs. And while the percentage of those who do is not as high I'd like to see it (100 percent), my gut tells me that the average custom shop owner is more aware of his numbers than his counterpart in the previous generation might have been.

That's largely due, I think, to the "re-engineering" of middle management in the corporate world, which started more than a decade ago. As it continues, more and more former managers, who once spent their free time in home shops, but suddenly found themselves downsized, are hanging out the shingle in search of custom work.

These men and women, thanks to plenty of practical management experience, just naturally bring to their own businesses a strong focus on the bottom line. Moreover, they have learned first-hand what today is a fact of life, though it was pretty much unthinkable just a generation ago: There is no such thing as "job security."

Today, we make our own security.

In past columns, I have mentioned that many who get lured into "the ownership experience" are enamored of the idea that they can "set their own hours." Only when they are halfway through their first 80-hour week do these novices realize that this simply means they are free to choose which 80 hours they want to work in any given week!

We in industrialized societies are fortunate because, though we may have to work big hours while establishing our businesses, we can, if we are smart, provide ourselves with a light at the end of the tunnel. It may take us a year or two (or even three) of 80-hour weeks. But if we are prudent about planning and profitability, we can bring on the help - be it human or machine in form - that will enable us to get work out more efficiently and even leave us time for a life outside of work.

Conversely, and thanks largely to the modernity of our society, we can also choose to keep our businesses small. Through marketing and communications technology, an increasing number of solitary woodworkers with traditional hand and machine tools are finding it easier than ever before to carve themselves a niche and do the work they love, while keeping the administrative and management headaches that come with a larger operation to a minimum.

At first blush, the seafaring fish catchers in communities dotting the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean may seem less fortunate to us. Their hard work is not over until there are fish on the boat, enough to feed their own families, at least. And so it goes, day in and day out. No weekends off. No holidays off.

Many of us would call that a hard life. But the ways of measuring good fortune are as numerous as people on the planet.

To one fisherman, a simple home with a dry floor - a small space with room enough for his spouse and children - may be more than he'd ever imagined.

To another, a sampan with a cook stove and a bit of canvas against the weather is even better.

Still another may hate fishing and be thoroughly dissatisfied with his place and progression in life.

But to each of these individuals, to any member of any oceangoing culture, in fact, I'm pretty sure of this: Anything's better than a tsunami.

We've all heard the old saying, "Success is a journey, not a destination." Success is also knowing what matters. It has a lot to do with perspective.

I'm talking about the need - and it is a need, a necessity - of stopping once in a while and taking a look around. Then being thankful for what you've got.

As crucial as it is to know your costs, it is equally important to know what you value.

As important as it is to pull back regularly and consider the larger questions - "Am I following the right course?" "Is this really what I want to be doing with my life?" - it is equally important to see the good fortune you enjoy in even having the ability to ask such questions, let alone answer and act on them.

It's what is known as counting one's blessings.

Here's hoping you never need a tsunami - real or figurative - to truly appreciate your good fortune.

Anthony Noel has written the "Management Strategies" column since 1994.


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