Is quality free? Philip Crosby in his book, Quality is Free, believes it is when we adopt a Zero Defects policy. An enterprise can achieve quality in its products and services without having to pay more.
Quality may be free but value is not. At least to consumers searching for the best products and services. We have to pay more for better value.
Consumers may perceive a Mercedes car as better value than a Toyota, for example. This may be because a Mercedes Benz car runs faster than a Toyota on an autobahn or expressway. If the consumer’s criteria are a car that can go fast and at the same time has a luxurious interior, the Mercedes would win over a Toyota. The consumer would need to pay more for the Mercedes, however.
There’s no cost to getting products to conform 100% to specifications. Enterprises just need to ensure systems are following instructions to meet the standards that lead to zero-defects quality.
But there is a cost if we want a product to be superior than another in a particular performance category.
Quality is free for the managers who oversee their operations to reduce defects.
It isn’t free for the customers who expect better value.
The Jesuit priest in his homily for the Catholic mass service I was attending with fellow high school students many years ago declared there were no Catholic patron saints for business people. At least there weren’t any who could be a model for those who led corporations and enterprises.
Communities, like the barrios in my hometown country of the Philippines, would have a patron saint, a person to pray to for whatever intentions, be it for good fortune or for assistance in a crisis. The barrios would hold fiestas, or celebrations complete with parades and group parties, on the feast days of their respective patron saints.
Hospitals, courts of law, retail stores, and schools also would have patron saints as their divine sponsors. Many would name themselves after their respective patron saints.
A saint can be patron for more than one group or place. Many churches, for example, schedule the blessing of animal pets on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, even though a tour guide at Assisi scolded me once that St. Francis is first and foremost the patron saint of Italy.
St. Homobonus was no multi-millionaire but he apparently succeeded as a merchant in his town. He was honest and helped people by donating some of his profits. St. Homobonus was a devout Catholic and Pope Innocent III was impressed enough to canonise him in 1199, two (2) years after St. Homobonus’ passing.
St. Homobonus, to this day, is the one and only patron saint for business enterprises. Except for a church in Rome and a commune in Bergamo, Italy, he is a virtual unknown. The Jesuit priest erred in overlooking St. Homobonus as the patron saint for business people but we can forgive him for his mistake given that many business enterprise executives haven’t even heard of him.
The Jesuit priest’s point of his homily is that being saintly contrasts with the practice of the business profession. Business people pursue profit and the accumulation of wealth on top of gaining competitive advantage, power, and esteem. The saintly priorities of sharing possessions with the less fortunate, helping communities, and working for a Divine intangible God are not in the to-do lists of typical business executives.
Many business people are good people who lead morally upright lives. Many raise families who are faithful in Christian teachings. Many successful business leaders have very respectable reputations for sharing much of their wealth with less fortunate communities. Microsoft founder’s Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffet are citable examples of business magnates who have given much of what they have to charities.
Despite how good business people may be or how much they donate, most, if not all, enterprise executives wouldn’t make the cut for sainthood.
A ‘good person’ who worked hard, lived a pious life, and shared profits with poor people probably won’t qualify for canonisation in the 21st century’s Catholic Church. By modern canonisation rules, candidate saints would need to pass three (3) levels before being considered recognised as such:
Venerable: The Pope would need to notice a deceased saint’s heroically virtuous life or offering of such a life;
Beatified & Blessed: There must be a miracle attributed to the candidate saint;
Canonisation: A second (2nd) miracle after the attainment of beatification.
I doubt very much St. Homobonus would have been able to pass these standards, and thus more so we could doubt business people would even be in the running even if they aspired to it.
Are business people evil? They definitely don’t share the same priorities with the leaders of the Church. And because they don’t, we probably won’t see business people being model saints in the near future.
But aspiring to be saintly can be good for business. Accumulating wealth to generate positive cash-flow and sharing a lot of the profits with communities would boost an enterprise executive’s place in the community. Lowering prices for poorer people to afford buying needed products and services may also help an enterprise gain greater market share. And investing in sustainability by mitigating pollution and tapping renewable sources may lead to accolades of popularity and fame for the enterprise and its stakeholders.
The two-edged benefits from being saintly and capitalistic may not bring canonisation to an enterprise’s executives in the long run but it might be a viable strategy nonetheless in getting desired results.
And isn’t that what business is for? To make money, grow in influence, gain esteem, and become the market leader?
We don’t like being called stupid. It’s insulting and the one who says it obviously has bad intentions against the person he’s labelling as stupid.
But what does stupid mean, anyway?
It is not the opposite of smart. Smart describes cleverness, ingenuity, intelligence, and innovation. Ignorant would be the best antonym of smart as ignorance implies lacking education or awareness. Ignorance is not necessarily insulting as it points to a deficiency in learning or skills, although many of us don’t like to be called ignorant nonetheless. Stupid, however, rudely puts down a person’s character. Calling someone stupid is abusive and disrespectful.
As much as stupidity is an insult, however, it is a trait that realistically and frequently occurs in our society. Stupidity happens when one decides and acts against common sense without any logical basis and it results in more harm than benefit. Martin Lindstrom, author of the best-selling book, The Ministry of Common Sense, defines common sense as:
‘Common sense refers to the judgment and instinct that has been shaped and refined by experience, observation, intelligence, and intuition. … Common sense is the sum total of our ability to separate right from wrong, efficient from inefficient, useful from pointless, valuable from worthless, orderly from sloppy, clean from dirty, dry from soaked, secure from hazardous, mature from childish, beneficial from harmful, and prudent from ill-advised. Common sense is practical. It’s reasonable. It’s iterative. It’s dynamic. It’s obvious, or rather, it’s supposed to be obvious. When it’s working, common sense often leads to a sense of happiness, productivity, and an improved quality of life.’
-Lindstrom, Martin. The Ministry of Common Sense. New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2021. Page 26
We can add that common sense is grounded on personal values and principles shared with the community we live and work in. Going consciously and willingly against common sense is what we would call stupidity.
Examples of stupidity are:
Getting married to someone one is not in love with, not compatible with, or just surely will not get along with;
Littering streets or sidewalks in front of one’s own residence or place of business;
Running a red traffic light despite opposing & oncoming traffic;
Investing in a company that is showing and forecasting certain decline in income & cash;
Voting for a person who has a criminal record and is not qualified for the position not only from what people say but also explicitly based on a sovereign nation’s constitution that one agrees with wholeheartedly;
Hurting people we love;
Biting the hand that feeds us.
What we hold for ourselves as the right things to do are what we would express as consistent with our values and principles, what we wholly accept from our education and experience. When we go against these values and principles, that’s stupidity.
If some of us say that we don’t have clear values and principles, then we have a bigger problem: it means we’re rudderless, meandering, and have no idea what to do or where to go. We would still have common sense and it probably would tell us to get a handle of what are important to us before making any further decisions. Deciding and moving without knowing what we want and what we hold dear is just plain stupid.
Stupidity does not mean jumping on a bandwagon like going with friends to buy the same clothes to look groovy with the current fashion or buying the same new gadget everyone else is showing off. As much as it may look illogical to spend impulsively on stuff just for the sake of prestige, we do it because we decided there and then based on what we see as important, in which in these examples is how we look to other people. It becomes stupidity when we spend impulsively even though we place more importance to saving money and being humble. In short, we become stupid when we go against our own beliefs and standards.
Stupidity offers no justifiable or logical explanation for actions. It’s putting away reason in favour of none.
Why then do we do stupid things?
Stupidity often is the result of self-deception that often exploits our emotions. We do stupid things because we lead ourselves to believe that doing so would somehow make us feel good. We go all-in at an eat-all-you-can buffet of desserts even though we are diabetic. We buy crypto-currency from a friend that promises high interest returns even though we know that the friend’s crypto money is fraught with risk that already has caused bankruptcy with a number of investors. When we act stupidly, we turn off our consciences which warn us that the stupid thing we are about to do goes against everything we stand for.
Stupidity is an obstacle to productivity. Stupidity deserves no place in business as enterprises exist from the values, principles, and visions of their owners. Productivity comes about from enterprise stakeholders defining what they want and thereby steering performance to fulfilment of those wants.
Yet, despite the clarity of values, principles, and policies, some enterprises still allow stupidity to seep into their organisations.
Some examples of stupidity in enterprises:
A large financial institution that offers 24/7 online banking convenience to clients and then declare that said services are not available after 5pm weekdays and all day on weekends;
An airline that has a mission statement that puts utmost importance to its passengers but has a policy where staff can bump off and forcibly pull a person off a plane even if the said person has a confirmed paid ticket who was already seated by the very same staff;
A beverage corporation demands that its No. 1 retail customer pay full price for deliveries received by the latter even though the corporation agreed in a written contract to a 10% discount;
An insurance company launches a customer service portal that always crashes and when it does work, is difficult to navigate, while at the same time charges penalties for unpaid billings which the insurance company doesn’t post on the portal or is just not accessible to by its clients;
A milk supplier that mixes cheap but poisonous ingredients into its finished product that ends up sickening consumers who drink it.
The results of stupidity are added cost, other than setbacks in reputation and even possibly, punishment from regulatory agencies. Productivity suffers and so do the enterprises in which the executives allowed stupidity in the first place.
No one likes to be called stupid. But stupidity happens; it is a fixture among us humans which we can all prevent via our common sense. Stupidity represents our intentional proactive decision to deviate from standards and beliefs we ourselves had set. We are stupid when we purposefully act against not only our common senses but also from our own values & principles.
Stupidity happens among enterprises when it shouldn’t as per collective standards and beliefs that underlie their existence and purpose of being. As much as we may blame human nature and resent being called stupid, we have no one to blame but ourselves when we decisively act against what we firmly believe in.
Many graduating high school students apply to colleges and universities. Many turn to rankings to find out what college or university would be best to apply to, given whatever interests the graduating high school students may have. US News and World Report’s Best Colleges list, for instance, relies on ranking factors that are based on statistics and data surveyed from many schools. US News even offers subscribers to make their own rankings based on the data.
Students would tend to apply to the schools they see on the top of the rankings. They then would visit the schools to check out the facilities and assess the costs. Some colleges would hold orientations for applicants to promote their schools as an attractive place to study.
Applicants also ask people they know who had graduated from colleges and universities. What do they think about the alma maters they graduated from; would they recommend the schools? Applicants would sometimes put a lot of weight on the word-of-mouth testimonies of people they know than with the rankings of schools, never mind how thorough the statistical computations that led to the rankings.
It can be kind of ironic that applicants would decide based on word-of-mouth testimonies than the statistics of surveys and rankings. Colleges and universities, being institutions of higher education, are where we supposedly would find the best methodologies for research and instruction. Decisions based on word-of-mouth would seem to go against the rationale of scientific studies which underlie much of what college students learn especially if they are enrolling in majors that require a lot of math.
Word-of-mouth is indeed subjective but it becomes the deciding factor because, for whatever their worth, rankings don’t satisfy all applicants’ expectations.
When it comes down to appraising how good a college education is, it is the student who decides. It is the student who evaluates based on criteria the student defines and sets. Rankings can’t cover all the criteria of all students. Students have varying expectations which no survey can fully satisfy.
The same applies for the everyday decisions we make. We as individuals have our own sets of criteria and expectations. Statistical surveys such as polls, lists, and market research may be available and comprehensive but they can never sway everybody towards whom to vote for, what to say is best in style, and what products to buy. We don’t rely solely on data and ratings; we also consider the opinions of other people, especially from those we trust.
People more than ever rely on what others say, especially as social media technologies dominate inter-personal communications in just about everywhere. Opinions and unsolicited advice abound, together with accusations of fake news and prejudicial news reporting. We live in a world where we have so much data such that we don’t know what’s accurate or not, or what’s right or wrong. Everything can be questioned and we are left on our own to decide what to accept. (Sometimes, we are even forced to accept information from the pressures of so-called authorities).
Education is not only about learning how the world works but it’s also about training ourselves how to adapt to it, if not change it. We need education to learn how to assess what information to accept, analyse, and draw conclusions from. We educate ourselves to form our own values, principles, and expectations. We educate ourselves in learning to experiment and formulate our own pathways in line with society’s standards while at the same time, introducing changes which we feel would benefit ourselves and others.
Rankings and the science behind them help us in the decisions we make, such as for what colleges to apply to. But there’s a lot more in the form of word-of-mouth and testimonies that also matter, never mind how subjective they may be. To make sense of science, word-of-mouth, and the avalanche of social media information, we need to be educated in not only knowing how things work but also in building our own expectations and criteria.
A Roman Catholic church at San Mateo, California had one parish priest who not only said the Masses but also cleaned the premises, drove the car to buy groceries & supplies, and pay the bills. Volunteers would come to help on Sundays but the parish priest was practically on his own on weekdays.
Contrast this with a similarly sized parish in San Juan City, the Philippines. The church has at least three (3) priests on site at any one time. It has an office staff of three (3) employees as well as three (3) “contractors” (workers from an agency) who cleaned and maintained the church premises, and three (3) security guards who rotated on duty 24 hours a day. Ask any of the three (3) parish priests if any of them can handle the church alone and they would probably say no.
Head counts are quite low in organisations and small businesses in First World places like the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Europe, where the costs of wages and benefits are high in relation to total operating expenses.
In less-developed countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where the cost of labour is predominantly much lower, head counts in organisations are higher. Organisations could afford to have more people on their payrolls.
Factories in low-wage-cost countries tend to be more labour-intensive, that is, they employ more people rather than invest in automation. The opposite is true in high-wage-cost nations where enterprises prefer to put in machines to minimise manual labour.
From the late 1990’s to today, enterprises in the developed countries have outsourced much of their materials and services to those located where wage rates were low. Apparel firms had their products made in Bangladesh, for example, where the low cost of labour more than offsets the cost to make the same items in America and Europe. Service industries likewise locate their call centres and backroom operations in low-wage countries in Asia rather than in their home countries in Australia or America. American automotive companies have invested in assembly plants in Mexico where wages are much lower than in the United States. Head counts in any of these aforementioned operations can number up to the thousands.
In nations with low-wage rates, high head counts are the norm. Such as the parish church in the above example, organisations don’t hesitate to add people to their payrolls. Households hire domestic helpers to clean homes, cook meals, and take care of children and the elderly. Enterprises employ workers not only to staff operations but also to do menial work like cleaning, guarding, and running errands.
The opposite is true in high-wage nations. Like the parish church in San Mateo, enterprises and households hesitate to hire workers, especially for menial jobs or regular maintenance. Families would do the cooking, cleaning, and any home fixing by themselves. One would hardly find security guards or more than one custodial worker working in an office. Factories would opt to automate rather than employ workers for production.
Even as some wealthier households or businesses engage contractors like part-time gardeners, housekeepers, and maintenance personnel, most people in homes and enterprises in high-wage places would opt to do things they can do themselves than hire and pay a worker full-time.
In low-wage societies, however, some families and organisations would not even consider a do-it-yourself option. They would refuse to do the laundry, clean bathrooms, or do simple repair jobs. For some, it would be beneath them to do so. For many, it would just be more convenient for someone else to do the job. This kind of thinking not only applies to the wealthier people but even also to low-income groups where it would be not surprising to find domestic servants working for families in poor neighbourhoods.
People in both low-wage and high-wage countries would agree that productivity improvement comes with lower head counts. Each, however, would have a different notion on how many people would be the ideal for their respective organisations. Enterprises would base their productivity performance by comparing themselves with the competition. Households would look at their budgets or just see what their neighbours are doing.
Lost in the discussion would be the impact of having people do work for us versus doing it ourselves.
When we do things by ourselves, we become familiar with the tasks and details of the job. We gain hands-on experience and this can be helpful for our careers, if not for future projects.
On the other hand, when we engage other people to do work for us, we become more productive or have more time to do other things.
There’s value in doing things by ourselves and there’s value in having other people do work for us. It’s a matter of balance and what goals we are working on to achieve.
For example, there are engineers I know who made ideas into realities via drafting their own drawings by hand, fabricating prototypes in machine shops, pouring the concrete together with construction workers into building foundations, putting together the circuits and testing them, and they themselves fixing the plumbing. These engineers have become very well-versed in their professions. As these engineers became older, they left more of the hands-on jobs to younger apprentices but their experience and familiarity made sure that the novices did their jobs right.
And there are also engineers I know who have never touched or would even know one drafting pencil from the next. Or who has never operated a lathe. Or who doesn’t know how the cement should be mixed before it would be poured. Or who has no idea how to seal a pipe leak. They, from the instant they graduated from college, wholly relied on technicians and contractors do the work for them. They may have been productive in getting projects done but there was insecurity whether the projects were accomplished rightly.
Different cultures, places, and individuals have divergent views on how to do jobs. Some people do things by themselves and gain valuable expertise, while others pay and delegate tasks to other people so they can be free to do other things.
The price of hiring and employing people plays a big part in whether we do things by ourselves or we delegate someone to do it for us. But we also should consider how much we want to gain in experience and how much we want to achieve before we really decide which path to take. As much as we have limited budgets, how much we want to do in a given time will drive our decisions whether to go on our own or find people to do the work for us.
There is always an advantage in hands-on experience and there will always be benefits in being more productive.
When the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 catastrophically caused a sudden global economic recession, enterprises went on the defensive to keep their businesses afloat; executives promised stakeholders they would transform their organisations to become more resilient.
Risk management was the popular precursor to resilience. In risk management, managers laid out possible threats and prepared for them. A factory would invest in fire-fighting equipment, for example, and trained personnel in fire safety & prevention. An office would install state-of-the-art cyber-security software to protect itself against computer viruses and malware. But as much as a factory prevented fires and an office stopped cyber-threats, an enterprise couldn’t anticipate all risks, much more so when it came to supply chains.
Supply chains cross through enterprises and thus make it difficult for executives to anticipate and mitigate risks for operations and links not within their spheres of influence. Executives, thus, turned their focus from identifying threats to gearing their organisations to coping with disruptions. Executives may not know what disruptions are coming but they believed they could improve systems to bear with them, much like a ship battening down its hatches to go through any storm or a house-owner laying down a strong foundation to endure any strong earthquake.
Resilience, therefore, became a popular buzzword for businesses especially those reliant on supply chains. Not wanting to be hit hard by the next coronavirus surge, natural disaster, or transportation disruption, enterprise executives executed resiliency strategies such as building up inventories, increasing manufacturing capacities, and sourcing materials from multiple vendors.
Enterprise executives learned, however, that strategies for resiliency can and do lead to trade-offs with profitability and growth. When North American retailers such as Target and Walmart built up inventories in the wake of supply chain transportation delays from 2021 to 2022, they found themselves ending up with more stocks of items that didn’t sell as fast as they thought they would. The retailers didn’t anticipate changing demand patterns as they prioritised having stock in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and global transportation disruptions. They ended up paying more in wasted effort and resources.
Productivity, however, is not a popular buzzword in the business community, more so among supply chain managers. One does not see productivity often in mission statements, even among industrial engineers, who used to champion the term in the 1980’s.
Instead, many people equate productivity with labour performance or how well we manage our time. Not many people see the view such as that of Michael Mankins in which productivity is about getting more from a fixed input of resources.
Productivity is like velocity, which is not speed or about how fast we are going with what we have or with less but how fast we get to our destinations with what we have. It’s about setting challenging objectives and doing better than expected with the resources we allocated.
Resilience’s worth is in the productivity that results from it. An enterprise that has resilience but has no productivity will not go anywhere; it won’t be profitable and it won’t grow.
What both resilience and productivity have in common are that there is no single performance measure for either of them. As much as executives extol resilience, there is no universal metric for it. When executives say they want resilience, they usually actually mean they want their businesses to be stable & steady profitably.
Productivity also is more of a concept than a goal. Its measure, like resilience, is in the results, as in profit & growth and also in areas such as delivery timeliness & completeness, customer satisfaction, low costs, and market share dominance.
Resilience and productivity are buzz-words but the former has become more popular while the other has been relegated largely to worker performance and individual time management. Resilience, however, works only if there is productivity. Both are not measured by universal metrics but by the results desired by enterprise stakeholders.
Executives may want their supply chains to be resilient in the wake of frequent and damaging disruptions but they can’t go anywhere unless they link resilience with productivity. They already do ask for productivity and resilience in the results they want; the idea is to find good solutions to achieve them.
There are times when we wish we were somewhere else doing something else. We may think this while we are running around in the middle of a busy day doing so many tasks which we wonder if they’re worth doing in the first place.
Many of us started out our careers aspiring to be artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs. We wanted to enjoy life and change the world. But as we grew older, our eagerness faded as realities took hold. We got into repetitive routines that didn’t bring us any closer to our dreams. We find ourselves doing stuff we’re not sure are important or relevant. We became bored, tired, and resigned.
As much as possible we should only be doing things that are important to getting to our goals. The trouble is we find ourselves with tasks that are not relevant to our personal roadmaps. Many of these tasks somehow would be classified as urgent but not really important to us.
In his teachings about time management, Stephen Covey says we face tasks that are either urgent, important, both, or neither. To manage time effectively towards our goals, we should be doing tasks that are in Quadrants 1 and 2, in which both are important. We should not be doing stuff in Quadrants 3 and 4, which are tasks that are not important.
The trouble is we usually are pressured to do tasks that are urgent, which are classified under Quadrants 1 or 3. Any task deemed urgent is classified as important if not to us but to someone else. Urgency originates from someone’s insistence to do something immediately. It may not be important to you but it’s important to them.
Urgent tasks often come from people who are important to us. If we are employees, it’s likely our bosses who’d tell us to do things urgent & important for them. Likewise, for those of us who are married; our spouses and children would demand that we do things urgent & important for them. Even friends would come to us to plead to do favours they deem urgent.
The urgent things that land in our laps test our priorities and because we receive them practically every day, we’re forced to evaluate the importance with not much time to spare. And because most of the people who give us these urgent things are those who are important to us, we end up doing them much to the detriment to our personal priorities.
When we get stuck doing mostly urgent but not important stuff, the stuff in the ‘Quadrant 3,’ we get caught in a cycle that gets us to nowhere nearer to our goals. Even when we hustle to do urgent but important stuff, the stuff in Quadrant 1, we would often find ourselves exhausted at the end of the day and likely not making much progress as most of what we did were likely fixes or disruption mitigation.
When we feel stuck doing urgent things for a long time, we become discouraged and that’s when we start to wish we’d rather be doing something else somewhere else.
What then can we do if we want to do more of the important but not urgent stuff, the Quadrant 2 activities, or simply the stuff we want to do?
There are outright some seemingly logical, if not radical, options:
Reboot. Quit our jobs, move out to another country or town, start a new business or finding an occupation we very much rather like to do;
Adapt: Look from a new mindset. See the positive side of the present routine. Change what you can and negotiate compromises with superiors & family members. In other words, live with what we got;
Escape: Do hobbies and join groups we like on our spare times. Travel. Don’t work after office hours. Allocate a “me” time to do the stuff we like and make sure not to read email, answer calls, or scan social media during these personal times;
Just Say “NO.” Refuse to do favours. Disagree with bosses on assignments. Argue. Stand our ground. Push back. Fight.
Unfortunately, there are repercussions as well as benefits to these aforementioned options. Saying ‘No’ and arguing can lead to harmful conflict, for instance.
To avoid repercussions, Stephen Covey says we should grow our circle of influence in which we become capable of convincing others to see our positions. This requires being proactive in doing things we have power over, or to put it another way, changing what we can change while acknowledging what we can’t. When we change what we can, our accomplishments help expand our influence and we get more things done consistent with our goals. It’s easier said than done, however, especially if we have small circles of influence to start with versus goals that are ambitious.
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix is a tool for how we manage and plan our schedules. The idea is to categorise whatever tasks are on our plates and see how many of each would go into each of the quadrants. It’s a way of knowing how we are choosing to spend our time.
If we’re doing a lot of urgent and important tasks lately, we should review our goals. Maybe they are too ambitious and deadlines are too tight?
If we’re involving ourselves with more urgent and un-important activities, we should ask why we are choosing to do them. Maybe we lack clear goals? Or maybe we really don’t like the goals we had set for ourselves in the first place?
When we wish we were somewhere else doing something else, it’s probably high time we review our schedules. The Eisenhower Decision Matrix that Stephen Covey champions is a good tool to see what we’ve been doing. It may show we may be doing more urgent tasks important for other people than for ourselves and that we may need to reboot, adapt, escape, or just say ‘no.’ We may also need to review our goals; maybe they are too ambitious or we are not really enrolled in them in the first place.
We classify what is urgent based on the insistence and demands of others and we categorise what is important based on our goals. We choose what we do with our time. If we bow more to urgencies, we do so because of choice not force. Whatever the urgency, it always come down to us to choose what our response is. That’s how Stephen Covey defines proactivity. That’s what we should always keep in mind.
So, what was that experience I went through in the late 1990’s which finally ended a few years later?
It was a time when I felt there was no meaning in life. I had low self-esteem. I felt there was nothing to look forward to.
It was a time in which I found myself asking or saying the following:
“Is this it?”
“There is no more?”
“What is there to look forward to?”
But was I only just one of the 10% to 20% of the population who was experiencing this? Were other people not going through this?
Even as it may be that most people don’t suffer a mid-life crisis, many do testify that they are at their unhappiest in mid-life. Happiness is a ‘U’ for many in which many individuals feel joy least in the middle of their lives.
Mid-life crisis is a matter of definition. It may not be a stage which every adult passes through at a certain age but it at least represents a time of unhappiness likely occurring sometime between the age of 30 to 60.
Experts can only guess why we feel unhappiest in our middle ages but we can guess that it is because we probably experienced loss of our loved ones like relatives and parents which are most likely to happen when we are in mid-life.
Many of us also plateau in our careers in our 40s and 50s, no longer seeing the prospect of promotion but rather the looming of retirement.
It is also when married adults in their later years see their children grow up and leave home. Empty nests become more the rule than the exception as parents get older.
Mid-life ‘crises’, which we can perhaps define as a time of unhappiness, can last quite long. For some, it can lead to clinical depression and mental health issues.
But I found for myself a cure. It came in a question with two words: ‘Who Cares?’
Much of my unhappiness was due to comparing where I was in my career and status with other people. Seeing other people get rich, have nice places to live, look like athletes, and have happy families made me want to be like them. The wealth, health, and looks of other people became yardsticks for me to follow and aspire for.
It didn’t help that relatives and friends would tell me how much they admire the rich and famous and then ask about my career and my social status. Friends and relatives would constantly be sending the message that ‘we should be like the rich and successful.’
I snapped out of my sadness when I asked myself, ‘Who Cares?’ Why indeed, should I and we care about what other people think? Why should we be striving to meet other people’s standards?
We as individuals decide our fates and whatever we decide is ours alone. Whatever other people may think is immaterial and irrelevant.
And as it turns out, few really do care. We live in a world where we have so much complicated problems to deal with. Of course, we do make the effort to help our relatives, loved ones, team-mates at work and sports, even strangers, when they are in need.
But all in all, most of the time anyway, we as adults are really on our own in this world. Some of us may work with large groups of people every day; some of us may be leaders or executives; and some of us may just be ordinary low-in-the-organisation-ladder workers who do the same routine day after day. We may deal with people or we do not. At the end of the day, however, we are always left to fend for ourselves.
It is a gift when someone does care, like when our parents used to take care of us as children, when one finds the sweetheart who falls madly in love with any of us and when the devoted spouse waits and serves us when we go home after a hard day’s work.
But most of the other 5 to 6 billion people in this planet could care less about any of us. Not that they don’t want to, but because many have so much on their plates to really give time to do so. We ourselves know this; many of us have enough already as it is to really think about other people all the time.
When we find ourselves not happy because we are wallowing in that low part of the ‘U’ of life, we should ask that question: ‘Who Cares?’ Does it matter that much about what’s making us unhappy? Is it worth it to wallow around for? Much as there may even be good reason to be unhappy (e.g., loss of a loved one, losing a job), what value would it be to sulk and ponder about it for long periods?
No matter the traumas we experience, the setbacks we go through, life goes on and most people don’t really care. The best in the end is to look at what we ourselves believe in and go from there.
We set our own pace, decide our own directions. People may tell us what to do but it’s us who finally determines whether we follow them or go our own ways.
We get ideas all the time. Many we quickly forget or shelve and most don’t prosper beyond the fleeting thoughts they had been.
Many ideas are originally not ours. Many ideas we notice while interacting with other people. We see some that seems worth the trouble to invest time and resources in such that we tell the people that we want to build from their ideas.
This is how teamwork starts. When we build from someone else’s ideas, we say to that someone that their ideas have value. We send a message that the person we’re interacting with has value.
It’s definitely much better than killing an idea outright, which tragically happens more often than not. Rather than say an idea isn’t good, we ask instead “how can we build something from that idea?” The potential answers can become endless in number as we welcome more thoughts, more ideas.
People have ideas just like we do. And theirs can just be much better than ours. Another way of putting it is that other people have already thought about our ideas before we came up with them.
Many inventors build based on the ideas of others. Many inventions are far from what they were originally thought. Chances are, however, they developed from the tinkering and cultivating of other people’s ideas.
The late Steve Jobs of Apple took a class on calligraphy and it is said that the class inspired him to promote the very many fonts we see on Apple’s and other manufacturers’ computers today:
Note that Jobs said “we designed it all into the Mac;” he and his design team members built on each other’s thoughts to bring the breakthrough of fonts into personal computers.
We all have our ideas and some of us would like to get sole credit for the ones that develop into beneficial inventions. But in more ways than one, inventions are likely the products of teamwork, in which individuals cooperate to share ideas and make them realities. And the device that makes that happen is the building from each other’s thoughts.
A salesman boasted that his meeting with customers went well. He did all the talking and pushed his customers to agree to whatever he suggested. “Dominating the meeting is important,” the salesman said, “it avoids the meeting turning into a gripe session and at the same time, focuses on getting what we want.”
Many executives assert their agenda by dominating the conversations they have with their peers and employees. It’s a practice for some chief executives to summon subordinates, tell them what they want, and dismiss them, at the same time reminding the subordinates to get their assigned task done by a certain date and time. Sometimes the executives would ask if there are any questions, and if one or two subordinates ask, the executives would show some annoyance especially if the questions seem to contradict the executives’ wishes.
It doesn’t just happen in the professional world.
I have friends who’d call me in the middle of the day and want to get into a conversation. The conversation would turn out to be one-way in which the friends talk and talk about themselves and I listen and listen all throughout. They hardly ask about my situation and if they do, they’d ask, ‘how are you?’ and instantly after I say, ‘fine,’ they go back to talking about themselves.
Some friends thank me for listening although whatever advice offered would not seriously be considered. Most discussions usually end up as one-way conversations; it’s always all about them.
As much as we read about the importance of listening and empathy, most of us would just prefer to tell others what our views are and what we want. We’d just prefer people listen and follow what we say without argument. Listening and empathy offer opportunities for others to argue and most of us in this fast-paced world we live in just don’t have time for that.
We believe listening just adds to the time of a conversation or meeting. We don’t have time, we’d say, so we end up dominating the meeting and cutting the conversations short. We’d call it keeping the meeting in line with the agenda or sticking to topic; we really just want to send our messages without further ado.
Listening is an investment. It is an investment in which we spend some of that valuable time to hear and empathise what the people whom we talk to are trying to tell us. The trouble with this investment is that when we do it the first time, we have no inkling what the rewards or benefits will be.
In many first-time attempts to listen, we don’t experience any benefits, at least none that would have made the time we invested seem worth it for ourselves.
It is misleading to say empathy is a means to put ourselves in another one’s shoes for the sake of the other. Empathy is not meant as a charitable exercise. It is meant as a way to communicate for mutual benefit, i.e., for the benefit of the other person and you. It is a process not meant to get personally in-touch but for both or more parties to have a discussion steered towards mutually beneficial outcomes. We don’t listen to be nice; we listen so we can understand and cooperate.
Any conversation we get into or any meeting we attend is an investment of our time. When we try to dominate and steer the discussions, we should ask ourselves: will it lead to mutually beneficial outcomes? Or will it just result in marching orders to other people who may not really be enrolled to any ideas that are put on the table?
Domination of a conversation is attractive as it espouses power over others. Domination, however, implies a one-way form of communication and doesn’t really bring about mutually beneficial outcomes. It may lead to benefits for the one who is domineering but it likely won’t to the ones who were dominated, at least the latter will likely feel they didn’t feel any good from it.
Any conversation where all parties feel they got something good out of it is already a benefit. It makes any investment in listening that leads to two-way mutually beneficial results worth it.