I spent 14 years in public accounting practice, 20 years in manufacturing management, and 2 years operating my own business. I learned a few things along the way. I learned some things that can't be put into textbooks, and some others that shouldn't be discussed in polite company.
Since I learned a great deal of it at the hands of fools, charlatans, thieves and pirates, not very much of it is stuff that I can mention in an interview—not that I'm ever likely to score another interview. You're not supposed to say negative things about your former employers in an interview. Sounds like sour grapes. Brands you for a bad attitude.
Be that as it may, it's all still useful information. It's part of a body of experience that enhances my acumen and gives me a basis of reference in which to frame sound decisions. It makes me valuable, even if my value is, by force of circumstance, lusterless. My worth is not readily apparent, nor even much in demand. It is real.
Too bad, really. I think a lot of organizations could profit from my experience. Knowing what not to do, how not to proceed, is more than a little useful when some young whippersnapper MBA sets out to shake things up based on what he learned in school...or even worse, when some overwrought executive tries to manage a unique organization in a unique situation using platitudes he read in Business Week.
Platitudes are the death of creative thought. Platitudes become rules that govern behavior that ought to be governed by circumstances. Platitudes are buzzwords of the mind. Platitudes are conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom begets conventional results.
Some platitudes spill over into life outside of work. They take on a broader, more pervasive, and more dangerous life. They end up fueling the kind of mind-numbing mediocrity that makes reality TV possible, the kind of wholesale disregard for accuracy and truthfulness that characterize the current presidential election cycle where candidates can say virtually anything that they think will advance their cause and a good 98% of voters will either believe or not believe based solely on what makes them feel better.
Here are some bits of conventional wisdom that need to be retired because they've either lost their meaning or didn't have much to start with:
- It is what it is. Really? This is the business equivalent of Que sera sera. Usually uttered as a kind of lament that things have come to this sorry pass, and it's time to deal with it, what is left unsaid is that, most often, things should never have got to this point. It's because somebody didn't do their job early on that hard choices have to be made now. If you do actual productive, value-added work, you understand that hard choices mean somebody is going to lose their job, and it's not going to be the fool that screwed up in the first place. Stop saying 'it is what it is' because what it is is something it didn't have to be.
- Think outside the box. This is never a good place to start thinking. Stuff is inside the box for a reason. Somebody else has already given it a lot of thought. The stuff inside the box usually works quite well. Sometimes it's been working so well for so long that people have forgotten the reason for it. This does not in any way diminish its usefulness. It's okay to think outside the box, but you shouldn't start there. You shouldn't think outside the box until you have exhausted what's inside the box.
- Bring a sense of urgency. Managers who say this want you to treat everything you do as if your job depended on it. Sadly, if you work for one of these managers, it just might. Urgency ought to be reserved for urgent matters. Bringing a sense of urgency to the mundane just increases the likelihood that you will screw up. Slow and methodical wins the race because you don't have to do anything twice...or thrice. The problem with urgency is that the more you expend, the more is required. The faster you go, the more undone and incorrectly done things pile up on your plate. Urgency is like a fuse. When it's burned to the end, something blows up.
- The higher the risk the greater the reward. This probably used to be true, but the Wall Street compensation model has turned it on it's head. Wall street has insulated itself from risk. Speculators can take spectacular risks, reap spectacular rewards, and when they screw up they are backstopped by the government. This means the taxpayers. That's bad enough, but the risks they take on Wall Street are often taken with investor money. This also means taxpayers. The taxpayers are at risk twice, and all the money—both times—goes to pay big Wall Street bonuses. Just last week, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate got burned to the tune of $700 Million in it's derivatives portfolio. Buffett is thought to be the savviest investor on the planet by many. Buffett doesn't even like derivatives, so his exposure was on the light side. Still, somebody got Warren's money because in every derivative contract there is a winner and a loser. Except of course when the loser can't pay. (Remember AIG?) Then the taxpayers have to make up the difference so that the winners don't suffer. After all, they won, didn't they.
- Sometimes you are the windshield. Sometimes you are the bug. This little ditty is so completely meaningless that it begins to sound like wisdom. 'Sometimes you are the driver, and sometimes you are the bug,' makes much more sense. The windshield is just there. Sometimes it gets bugs on it. This is especially true in May and September in Florida when the love bugs are out in force doing what they do. As a way to die, this one is as good as any—in flight and getting your freak on. In terms of platitudes, this one is like a pair of bugs splattered on you windshield. If you're the driver, you're going to have to clean up the mess. The problem is there's no real upside. Bug, windshield, or driver, it doesn't matter. You're screwed.
- There's no such thing as a free lunch. Oh yes there is. Just ask Mitt Romney. He gets a lot of free lunches. He's trying to arrange it so he gets even more. Rich people get away without having to pay their own freight. This has been true forever. Mark Twain's delightful little short story, “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note,” is proof enough. If people think you're rich, they cut you slack they would never cut for regular folks. They give you free stuff. They curry favor. They suck up. After a while the rich begin to feel like they have done something to merit all the deferential treatment. They begin to believe that they are somehow better than the rest of us. They let their sense of entitlement grow unchecked. Sooner or later they get the idea they would make a good president, or, as I like to call it, Oligarch-in-Chief. Better yet, they get the idea, not unlike the Koch Brothers, that they can buy a president and as many legislators as it takes to permanently rig the game in their favor. There is this much truth in the platitude, though. Somebody still has to pay for the lunch. It's just not the guys who eat it.
- You make your own luck. Not so much. You can be more or less attuned to your fortune according to the dictates of your personality. You can even change the number of bars in your 'good fortune' signal with forethought and focus. What you can't change is the fortune that actually comes your way. Some of it is completely arbitrary—capricious even. Some of it is sponsored by the guys above who are eating free lunch at your expense. If you are having a run of good luck, recognize it for what it is. Do not nurture the notion that you probably had it coming to you because if you do that, when you then consider the plight of those who have not been so fortunate, you will likely have become a dick.
- There's no I in TEAM. Well, there's no TEAM in innovation either. Just try to think of one really great idea that came out of a committee.
- Time is money. This has been crap since its inception. Time is way more valuable than money. It always has been. It always will be. You can earn money with time, but you can't buy time with money.
- Give 110%. Can't be done. Everybody know this, so why say something this stupid? Maybe it's just the precise nature of my accountant's dark heart that finds this so objectionable. I prefer to think it's because even in the purely metaphorical sense, this is just bad advice. The best you can hope to give to anything on a consistent basis is about 70%. The rest of your systemic capacity is taken up with staying alive and working out your next meal. If you are still single, you lose another chunk of fundamental effort, both voluntary and involuntary, to the search for a satisfying relationship...however you choose to define it. So, realistically, you've got somewhere between 40 and 70% of usable productive capacity left over to devote to the dumb ass who's asking for 110%. If you give everything you've got left, you're going to burn out, and sooner rather than later. Then you'll have even less juice than you've got now. You need to hold something in reserve for when you really need it. Whoever is asking for 110% will not know when that is. They have let their sense of urgency overwhelm their faculties so they are useless to the rest of us. This is why they are in management...or consulting...or politics...instead of doing anything productive. Chances are pretty good that whoever first came up with this 110% idea did it in a committee.