Setting The Right Direction

Fred Smith directs us to critically consider how we set our direction.

By Fred Smith

Persistence in the wrong direction is as foolish as dedicated incompetence. It reminds me of the old saw where two men were going down the road and one of them said, "aren't we going in the wrong direction." The other answered, "yes. But we're making such good time I hate to turn around. "

It is important to re-set goals in light of current reality. The term "current reality" is one of the most important keys in my life. It keeps me from fantasizing what might have been or regretting what was, and keeps me focused on what is. In order to keep my goal-setting in light of current reality, I find it helpful to make a list of my alternatives—not my wishes or fantasies, but actual alternatives—and then choose the best. Sometimes the current reality dictates we stay where we are because we have no practical other alternative. One of the best decision-makers I ever knew was Harry Bade, Vice President of Mobil. When I asked what he considered in making decisions, said, "First I ask myself if I have a choice. If I have no choice, then I don't have to make a decision." It is easy to slip into the wasteful habit of spending time talking about alternatives that don't exist.

In developing a persevering attitude there is always the question of timing. When do you give up on an alternative? In a laymen's meeting a couple who had lost their fortune by staying with an unrealistic venture asked, "when do you cut and take your losses?" For me, I have tried to cut when the odds go against me and the trend is unfavorable, especially if I am not able to see a specific fact that would change the odds and the trend.

So often we hold on wishing for the best without objective reason. Winston Churchill is famous for his "never, never, never, never give up." I am particularly fond of the bumper sticker philosopher who said, "When the horse is dead -----dismount."

As you assess the current reality in down times a possible alternative is "re-potting. " This is a term Peter Drucker uses a good deal in talking about the advisability of changing careers in the middle of life. It is something we hesitate to do when everything is going great. It may be the best alternative when things have come to a standstill. Before repotting, take a personal inventory. Consider your ability to survive financially during a change. Think about your gifts, your talents and your satisfactions. Peter talks about young people who make the mistake of being driven by their craving for a BMW and materialistic gain. They get out of school and immediately go into something to "make the most money immediately." They get caught in a career situation that brings little satisfaction. They have to stay in order to provide the lifestyle that they have established.

A great many people are working at things which are profitable but are not satisfying. Money alone will not continue to satisfy the thoughtful person. This is a good example of "making such good time that it seems a shame to turn around" even though the road is definitely not going in a viable direction.

Mr. Starnes of Pinehurst, North Carolina runs a very large and attractive crafts market. I asked him how he got into that business. He said he was a metallurgist in New York City who got tired of commuting. One day he left the office and just didn't return. He went up into Vermont and New Hampshire in the out of the way places. He found excellent craftsmen with no market outlet who would consign him their goods to sell. So he opened the shop.

For most of us, change is forced because we hesitate to change until it is necessary. Oftentimes people look back at difficult times and say, "that was the most fortunate event in my life for it caused me to change courses and I got it right this time." I heard someone talk about the "blessing of second chances."

Roger Hull, former Chairman of the Board of Mutual of New York, loved to tell the stories of individuals he had to release in the corporation who came back years later and said, "it was the best thing that ever happened to me. " They looked at their current realities and set an appropriate path to fit their talent and need for satisfaction. Who we are becoming, not just where we are going and how fast we're getting there makes a difference.