You Call It Old, I Call It Experienced

Dec. 21, 2004
Don't dismiss business lessons from the past

Today, my challenge is to make deep noises from my belly sound like profound utterances from my brain. I've been challenged by a young, successful entrepreneur who accuses me of being (in not exactly these words) an old coot living off the intellectual fat I've accumulated over time. He took vicarious pleasure in hinting (expletives deleted) that in my current groove, I'm only a short step away from my grave. I like readers to disagree with me. I sometimes take a provocative position to provoke disagreement. It helps me know when my halo is tilted. And while I am aware many corporate offices are decorated with a variety of funny-looking objects that are expensive, take up space, don't always work, tend to gather dust, and are kept for purely sentimental reasons, it's not necessarily true that they are all former chief executives like I am. Sometimes they are genuine antiques of surprising value. But back to my disturbed reader. Experience has taught me that there are two kinds of fool. The first says, "This is old, therefore it is good." The second says, "This is new, therefore it is better." The truth is, success requires respect of both old and new ideas. I'm living proof that staying power can sometimes be more important than brain power. I have wear on my tires. And sometimes my carburetor doesn't work. I drive on cruise control more than I used to. But I still have value and I can prove it. I'm old enough to have lived through the Great Depression of the 30s. Only a handful of today's chief executives can make that claim. I spent four years helping to fight a World War. Few of today's chief executives can make that claim. I've survived the peaks and valleys of many business booms and busts without going belly-up. And all that experience has taught me not to take success for granted. That surprises are every day occurrences. That today's success can be tomorrow's obsolescence. That the world of business alters as we work in it. And that it's subject to change without notice. Young entrepreneurs will learn that business is a continuous rat race. That their competitors are training faster rats. And that brash, one-year wonders will never again be masters of their fate. Now, their competition will determine their market share. Their competition will determine their pricing. Their competition will determine which of their product lines will continue to be successful and which will not. But, most insidious of all, companies they don't consider competitors today, will inevitably become competitors tomorrow. I compliment my young reader on his instant success. But I caution him that his success will be temporary unless he develops offensive strategies to counter his competitor's efforts to put him on the defense. In competitive situations, we have choices. We can choose to be the underdogs or the upperdogs. We can choose to watch things happen or make things happen. We can choose to lead or follow. My young friend can continue to manage by instinct. It has worked well for him thus far. But this old codger would advise him to stop every once in a while and take a look backward. Because the farther backward he looks, the farther forward he is likely to see. Looking backwards will allow him to learn from other people's successes or failures. As a wise, old mentor once told this know-it-all youngster: 20/20 hindsight leads to 20/20 foresight. And to 20/20 insight.

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