My Most Controversial Advice

As business owners so much gets thrown at us on a daily basis. It's mind boggling. On the one hand, it's hard to surprise us. But on the other hand, we don't like surprises.

When I'm working with a fellow business owner for the first time, I like to get a feel for what I now think of as their 'surprise tolerance.' Do they obsess over the "What Ifs" in their world?

And what reports from the industry are they seeing and how often? Since time and attention are like currency, I want to know how they're spending it.

It turns out that the answers to those two questions say a lot about the overall health of your business, and not in the way you might expect. In fact here's my advice: stop clicking on all those industry trend links for a while and put all the industry forecast reports away.

And the What Ifs? It's okay to think of those systematically and strategically, but it's not okay to think of them nervously or obsessively.

The Boat

To explain why I would give such advice, I need to tell you about the boat. See, when I was a kid, my dad was full of surprises. He once drove up in the driveway with a motorcycle on a really hot day and drove us kids one at a time to the river for a swim.

He was always pulling some contraption out of the bed of his truck to tinker with, and it was proven that when he popped the trunk of the family car, a new bird dog might fly out. Life was never boring.

At one point he ended up with a 29 foot sailboat given to him by my mom's brother. My sisters were off at college then, and my dad and I spent a lot of time on that boat together! We didn't know a thing about sailing, but that didn't stop us.

Picture this: We leave the still waters around the dock and head out to the bay. The wind picks up there, and we hoist the sails. Now we cruise out of the bay to the wide river, and up ahead is a line of choppy water where the river widens once again. That's the Albermarle Sound. We hit that and we fly!

Our first trips out were trial by fire. In fact, I now suspect that anything my dad taught me to do was designed that way.

We learned a lot of lessons the hard way on that boat, and I ended up out on the bow wrestling with the jib (the big sail at the front of the boat) in rough waters and winds of 35 knots more than once. I still remember the day I got back to the stern and Dad declared I had my sea legs. That was like graduating.

The Weather, Not the Wave

Without sea legs, you get knocked around like a pinball from the moment you stand up.

With sea legs you can get around the deck easily and do the job you're there to do quickly.

I had my sea legs on that boat once I knew exactly where I was headed and what I'd be doing when I got there. At that point you're like a part of the boat, and the next move it makes becomes almost irrelevant.

And if you're wondering what any of this has to do with your business that's just it - we all want sea legs in business, too. We want smooth, efficient operations that come from practiced actions. We don't want to be easily knocked off our feet by the next wave.


Out on the water, winds can shift very suddenly. But an experienced sailor doesn't think in terms of surprise, exactly. It's more about focus, and the constant adjustments you're making to navigate the waters. Every spiraling tell-tale (the little flag attached to the sail) has a corresponding action. You've memorized those actions. You've checked the weather, and you know your boat like the back of your hand. You keep your eye on the horizon, on your intended direction.

Again, it's all about focus. A good sailor isn't focused out on one single wave in the distance, and a good deck hand doesn't necessarily need to know it's coming before it gets there. I think a good business owner should be the same. The tell-tales should be embedded in the business as part of its design.

So that's my beef with the latest industry predictions and constant trend reporting. When I see a business owner with that hyper focus keeping his finger on the pulse of his industry, consuming social media from his industry constantly, I see a problem.

Of course, you need to keep an eye on the weather - interest rates and unemployment rates affect us all; growth rates for your market and coming changes in the tax code or new competition and new regulations can be critical. But you don't want to be a pinball, bouncing off every new prediction.

It's not good sailing, so to speak.

Like I said, it's controversial advice to give. But I say if you want to sail, don't sit huddled and sweating on deck fiddling with the emergency radio dials. Build a beautiful boat and learn every inch of it. Then sail it.

Josh Kaufman in The Personal MBA says it this way:

Instead of fixating on predicting invisible and unknowable threats, it’s better to channel your energy into enhancing your ability to handle the unexpected.

How do you handle the unexpected? Stay focused on good design basics and constant improvement.

Focus less on what may or may not be coming, and more on what you and your business are capable of doing. That's how you fly!

Libby DickersonComment