In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired;
In pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.
This week I discovered another liminal dimension: the doorway from business ownership to owning a business. We business owners pride ourselves on keeping many balls in the air while dropping few. Yet, “in the pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.” What if we reframe dropping as a good thing? Here’s why I think it is.
Those of us who live in Colorado may remember the tragic deaths of fourteen firefighters battling a blaze at South Canyon outside Glenwood Springs on July 6, 1994. Attempting to understand and prevent future deaths, researchers like Karl Weick+ at the University of Michigan studied potential causes of those deaths. They found the deaths eminently preventable.
In each of the fourteen South Canyon cases, the firefighters died within sight of safety. They could have reached it if, and only if, they had shed their gear in order to move more quickly. The most tragic finding was one man who died a mere 250 feet from safety, discovered with his backpack on, chainsaw in hand (Weick, 6).
Why in the world did all fourteen fail to drop their tools? What seems like common sense to laymen was unthinkable to these brave professionals. Weick identified many reasons, but one is directly applicable to financial advisors and, in fact, any business owner:
There is evidence that some people at South Canyon didn’t know how to drop their tools…the firefighters didn’t drop their tools because they didn’t think of their tools as separate from themselves.…Firefighting tools such as the Pulaski are named after famous firefighters. These tools are designed solely for firefighting, and their skillful use is the mark of a seasoned firefighter and central to that person’s identity. The fusion of tools with identities means that, under conditions of threat, it makes no more sense to drop one’s tools than it does to drop one’s pride or one’s sense of self. Tools and identities form a unity without seams or separable elements (Weick, 6-7, emphasis mine).
Consider Norman Maclean’s# 1992 reflections on firefighter identity at Mann Gulch: “When a firefighter is told to drop his firefighting tools, he is told to forget he is a firefighter and run for his life” (Maclean, 273). “When fire fighters are told to throw away their tools, they don’t know who they are anymore, not even what gender” (Maclean, 226, emphasis mine).
If you think this is a phenomenon unique to firefighters, consider that Weick’s research also covered other professionals. For example, NASA engineers on “the Challenger project failed to drop their launch routines in the face of increasingly severe burn marks on O-rings and approved the launch that killed seven astronauts.” (Weick, 6)
In the days before child abuse awareness, pediatricians diagnosed children with seeming inexplicable injuries with “multiple unsuspected trauma syndrome” because it was unthinkable to pediatricians that a parent would harm a child. The outstanding work of Henry Kempe in the 1950s in Denver changed the diagnosis to the current unfortunately common “battered child syndrome.”
Go back to the image of juggling balls in the air. Now imagine those balls are your tools: they could be accounting, investment management, risk assessment, creating a social media presence or trade execution. We have a natural blind spot causing us to either over utilize and over identify with tools, or to undervalue them. Consider how many business owners might move to profitability by either raising prices or releasing poor-fitting clients. The terrifying truth is that we must be willing to drop our tools or metaphorically face certain death.
Think of the things we might unwittingly say even to ourselves to indicate this lack of separation of our identity-as-business-owner from being an owner who has a business:
- “I am a financial planner/ wealth advisor / your personal CFO. “
- “I do what I love so that no matter what I get paid, I’m still happy.”
- “When we complete this next initiative (and then the next one and the one after that), then I’ll be ready to step back and work less.”
- “No one can do this as well as I.” Really?
- “I don’t have time to work on my business.”
This week’s tool is very simple. Ask a loved one: “What ‘tool’ of being a business owner do I need to drop? What tool do I use to over-identify with my business? Who am I apart from my business?”
Next week: What else might be involved in the Mindset shift from “business owner” to “owner of a business”?
* cited in Muller, W., p. 134 in Sabbath: Restoring the sacred rhythm of rest. New York: Bantam 1999.
+ Weick, Karl and Organizational Behavior Teaching Society Journal of Management Education, Vol. 31 No. 1, February 2007 5-16 DOI: 10.1177/1052562906293699
#Maclean, N. Young men and fire. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992.