Survival in Business
"What do you do with a life of work? Face it in the morning" -- Iggy Pop, "Zombie Birdhouse"The Question, er... Problem How to survive in business? Why ask? It isn't a new question; it's older than Willy Loman, old as business itself in all its forms. So why is the question interesting to us now? Why are so many people asking it so frequently in so many different ways?My first serious experience of the question experience began about ten years ago, when post-50 WWII-vintage employees were first being cashiered or shuffled off to early retirement. Their certainties regarding careers and nest eggs and retirement funds were under fire -- on fire -- and now they are ashes. Many of the folks who endured that wave of change are now in new late-life careers, and some are doing nicely. But there are folks on the street who look in trash cans for lunch or haul scrap metal for income. And there are some who lost even more in the bump and grind of a paradigm that still isn't done shifting, who would like to die but don't know how to wish for that because wishing is an expensive luxury, just too over the top for daily life.I do computer work for a large company that engaged in repeated re-engineering fests and then topped them off with a merger, which in turn engendered more reorganizing -- all done to the tune played by a national economy of diminishing resources -- more and more of less is less. This has meant job changes, jobs lost, and internal political crises that would make Dilbert choke. Nothing about it has been simple or easy to endure. Certainly, even with the best of intentions, the daily business enterprise was no golden chariot of hope. And now, in this mix of hard-working professionals under unusual stress, the manner in which "survival" and "the job" have obscured each other has been interesting.Certainly, some people here have experienced gain and opportunity, and others, revelation. I speak from personal experience, and intuition isn't a substitute for a professional sociological study. However, it seems to me that for all the danger in the turmoil of modern business, there is evidence of a luminous world. The light doesn't mitigate harsh realities, but gives perspective and balance, a way to navigate. Working with this light I've found some solid business advantage, and clues to answers for fundamental life issues, and -- at least -- a way to look at events.Answer(s), sort of... The answer? Plastics. Honest. Internet, too. And you can sort those letters into an equation that contains the number of the stars and all the names of God, and there you'll have an answer. The answer is also written in the wrinkled left corner of Bogart's mouth in the last scene in The Big Sleep before Bacall kisses it away, and tomorrow the Dali Whoosis will scratch it from his nose. The answer hits the mind like a mountainous wave typhoon-tossed on ancient rocks, and flops on bread like the beef from a cheeseburger. What follows is what it has meant to me in my tired, wired, and occasionally terrified business existence.[b]Plastics. The answer offered, at times, is to fit the pattern of exchange. To become what the world wants. A popular answer, but sensible. It's an obscene simplification to some; an obvious truism to others -- and the final measure of professional and personal ability. Do I have a comment on the difficulties of being plastic? Yes, but let's hold it for a moment, so other answers can show themselves.[b]Internet. Resources are there, I've heard, to create more jobs and more buy-sell-consume relationships, and maybe just plain more. But to me it seems that survival is a matter of connecting. For that reason, Internet is a metaphor for life as well as a reality of software and hardware and an emerging area of business opportunity. To survive, you must transform your products, yourself, and you must assist in the transformation of others. In short, you must connect. Get and give access. Talk and be heard. Translate and effect change.The path to connecting is beset by ogres of mechanism. Many prophets see the shadows of the technically wise dancing away from the technologically thick. And it's true, the world of those who would be connected contains some who cannot afford it. They can't reach, and they hate the fact. There are also those who cannot make the turn of mind -- so simple to some -- that allows them to understand the language of the technological world. And there are those bound to old technologies to whom the new stuff does not come across. And those who are direct and personal in a way that is outside PC/MAC boxes. Whatever the condition of those who wait, above all the searchers waves the banner "Link or be Lost."[b]Number of Stars (the names of God). This is creativity: Out-wrestle the angel of re-engineering on the salty desert of forgotten souls. Break that creep's hip. And hold on because he (or is it she?) has been cloned and the clones watch the WWF* all night long and laugh at "The Fifth Discipline" long into the day. The answer is to design yourself a career from the shambles of screaming business need, even as you pull it in pieces from the bombed-out ruins of business as it used to be.There really is no limit to what you can do. Start your own business. Call client after client after client. Learn new tools, new concepts, new markets, and make what you can't find. Breathe deep and respond with 360-degree service 24 hours a day. Do not give up, and do not judge yourself: you are not too big or too small or too fast or too slow or too tired or hurt or confused. You can feast on honest visions and truth and share with others in the same spot -- you can eat on that beast for years. The powers of creative human spirit are as numberless as the stars and brighter.There is a story about a computer programmed by monks to run through all the possible names of God and pronounce them; it is related to the ancient lore about how saying the secret name of God will extinguish the universe. The story ends with the main character racing up a snowy slope while the computer races through its program. Reaching the top, the man sees the stars begin to wink out. The function of creativity may be the reverse of technology -- or maybe not. There is value in abiding -- but not today. This is the transcendent's answer: go for it.[b]Bogart's Mouth Before. In all of his movies, Bogey's mouth turns up and down in a curious way that no one can replicate. Bacall knew how to access what was there, with her own curious combination of humor and love. This is another version of the answer: survive. Flex your stomach -- that part of your body containing the tan tien, and the highways that connect your gonads to your heart and points north.Laugh. Let your energy tumble through you. Love. And share it. Before the film noir shadows get your goat, or hers, or his. Face what is going on and move through it, protecting your interests as best you can. Make deals and keep your power handy. Realize that the rules don't work quite right any more, and there are more bodies in the shadows than anyone who is paid to count is willing to count. And some of our eyes are cried dry. Compassion and sadness have bottomed out: that's a component of the answer, but a silent one. The people who are surviving, for the present, have felt from the start the changes you are drinking. This is the film noir version of the answer. This mouth-corner thing. It has a secret, and there is only one way to get at it.[b]The Dali Whoosis' Nasal Treasure. The fruit of dust in the nose. Not quite a pearl. Now, some folks take this literally, and see some Holy Him sneeze, and try to grab it. Those folks are the same as those knights of yore who carried holy papal poop in a hankie going into combat. Sure, yeah, you can do that excremental magic thing. But metaphor is about knowledge and change. This answer says that your profit in business may not be what you expect.What benefits you may be a cast off -- an idea or process or proposal or relationship that was lost once but can be transformed, reborn, to a new level of value. This possibility is an upshot of the speed of doing business, the new tools, and the new and undefined problems the world is facing. This version of the answer is usually found deep inside sources that urge you to face the new. Don't fear the old, either. Just don't be tied to it.Value is relative, and in a radically changing world, what is high one day is low the next. And vice versa. What is rare, it seems, is vision. Your vision can make a difference, as can the visions of others (and their curses). What can you make, and who will value it?[b]Waves on Rocks: Take a Number and Don't Push. Counting experiences and recounting results of tests can be like counting waves in a choppy sea. Case studies will only take you so far. And standing in line will get you a little less far on your way. In the turmoil of world economic upheaval, part of the message is that you are lost, there are no jobs, life is tough. So get lost. And don't push.The big companies are searching madly for the next panacea and not finding it. Software firms are frantically chopping out new and better ways to do things that might ultimately prove useless, but no one is asking. Little companies are showing up and disappearing at light speed, and the "this is my new company, I'm the Prez and actually the employees too" folks are coming and going at a slightly faster rate. It's a jungle out there, in an LSD sort of way.[b]Did You Order This? So the problem is on your plate. The slimy overcooked fast-food-burger of a world economic situation has been dropped on your plate, vegetarian or not. Did you order it? Yes, and no. And even though no one is really asking you, Bub, there it is. You can deny it, sidestep it, ignore it, whatever. There are many ways to dance with Kali. But the way you lay down your footwork will have an impact on what music comes your way. It will affect how tired you get, how you feel about yourself, and how you look to the world, not to mention how the world looks. You see, for this burger, you will pay.Answering the Answer Like a Telephone, or Not Answers leap at us like insects that dive into the headlights as you cruise country backroads on mid-summer nights. Outside the lights is the saving power, the world that cradles all else. If learning contributes to your ability to survive, and ambient learning is said to be the most profound, then the dark world is one to attend to. Once your eyes adjust, you find it is a bright world, and the headlights in the darkness merely point to it.In corporate life, the relationship between light and dark has become inverted. There is no point of reference. You don't really know where your headlights are pointing, how fast the car is traveling -- or where. On the job, you accomplish a task, and brace yourself. You take sick leave as a kind of vacation, and vacation as a kind of risk. Surviving often seems to be an issue of mysterious references and a matter of speed."He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."We are not all examples of Willy Loman deferred, looking for a chance to take a dramatic final drive to profit. But somewhere in the flea market of dreams shared and lost is one that says that business is not just for profit, but for some kind of "common good." Joined with this notion is a moral imperative to help the helpless, to protect the innocent, to heal and feed and clothe, maybe even before you check ID. It seems like a lost dream, but check the dumpster -- because with it is an intimate index of personal value.Many employers are looking to serve world markets by encouraging 24-hour, 360-degree service. The home office, business casual attire, high-techery of various sorts, and flex-hours are means to accomplish this end. It is a challenge to all concepts of limits, including those of identity. With the home office, those who were used to corporate office vistas will find their place of toil mere feet from their beds instead of a train ride away. Two-way video connections will bring the many less than perfect business partnerships gazing into your home. How do you draw the line? What is too much? Sez who?You have to draw lines where there were none. Mark conditions that are acceptable or unacceptable to you. Define darkness: uncertain job conditions, layoffs as a way of life, costs going up, businesses going down, the rich getting fewer but richer, security no longer an economic buffer against the trials of retirement but a guy with a muzzled dog who patrols the L, or a corporate mug who leers at your ID hoping it doesn't explode. And define what should be: the right to enjoy your work, the right to openly share information, the right to integrate health concerns for mind and body with the demands of work, the right to be treated with respect and to define ergonomic aspects of the environment you work in.To an extent, you might find yourself making conscious the processes that once were bureaucratically submerged. You might find yourself -- living in a shotgun shack? -- working subversively to attain positive goals. You might ask yourself -- my God, what have I done? -- while playing the managerial role that others with the title formerly abdicated. Whatever the method, whatever the process entails, the goal is to link survival with life, and put business in perspective. To show light and dark where they actually occur.Terrance DePres, in his work "The Survivors," studied concentration camp populations with a desire to understand why some folks survived and others did not. He studied Nazi camps of the 1940s and Russian camps of the 1950s. He noted that Western civilization generally does not revere survivors. Rather, it prefers the hero who achieves some end and then meets his own. Surviving is somehow linked with collaborating. Compromise. Cowardice and betrayal. He also related an observation made by a survivor of one of the German camps. In that camp, each prisoner was given a three-inch square piece of tattered cloth for cleaning. That was the primary tool of hygiene for a person immersed in a world of filth and degradation, a world where thousands of inmates had as a latrine one overflowing pit spanned by a two-by-four.The survivor noted that it seemed that when a person stopped using that cloth for cleaning him or herself, that person began a decline toward death. Those who survived, he said, used a few water drops from a leaking joint in a rusted pipe to dampen the cloth each morning and scrub themselves. Of course, it made little visible difference, but these folks tended to survive. They kept a perspective on light and darkness.Business conditions are not those of concentration camps. It is, however, interesting that the language of the documents the Nazis used to construct the final solution were thick with euphemism and abstraction, and with the language of business. Directing thought to a clear vision of what you are doing and why is to challenge such invisible movements to destruction. It is not an escape from pain or confusion. Building perspective and defining value are acts of creation. This can represent a growth of consciousness -- which usually involves pain. Generally, there is also a feeling of lightness, of spirit, that comes because you have linked respect for life with what you do to sustain it.Is This a Prayer? Do I Have the Correct Deity? Buddha change my oil. Fix my engine. Rebuild my heart. Breathe for children who cannot. Heal my cousin's crippled hands. Give life to those children burned in central Europe in the slave camps. Take the radiation out of Chernobyl and redeem the genetic structures of the plants and animals who have been damaged by standing in the rain since the accident. And be sure I don't get laid off.Trust in God but Tie Your Camel? You Have a Camel? Survival seems to be keenly and essentially linked with the ability to maintain perspective. To define the quality of the life you lead, you must retain the ability to distinguish foreground and background. It is no use linking business with life if your heart starts and stops with the time clock. There must be separation, even if you love the thing you do. Without work of some sort, without an income, you have a problem. But without a self, you have a bigger problem. You become a commodity rather than a participant.Like the Ancient of Days inscribing the universe in Blakes' etching, you must draw the line. The story is about you, and you are as flawed and limited as the circle you draw--but if you do not reach down into whatever universe of business you occupy and make your mark, then there is no story at all.*World Wrestling Federation.