In our last chat I referred to Steve Jobs 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. He concluded his comments by quoting from the back page of the final issue of “The Whole Earth Catalog” where readers were encouraged to “Stay hungry, stay foolish!” So I shared four different ways to “stay hungry”. But should we also “stay foolish”? Think about it…
As a business owner you work hard to hang on to the success you have achieved. But sometimes hanging on too tightly may cause you to lose your grip on the very things that, if you loosened up a bit, you might actually be able to hold onto a little longer…and maybe enjoy a little more. So are you thinking right now “Has old Chuck has lost it?” Well, bear with me…
When both Steve Jobs and the Whole Earth Catalog advised us to “stay foolish” they weren’t telling us to be reckless. They were suggesting we keep alive that “inquisitive little child” that resides within each of us. Sadly, as we get older and start wearing our “grownup clothes” the voice of the child within often grows weak. For example…
IBM, one of the biggest and most successful businesses in the history of enterprise, nearly went out of business after years of astonishing success and market dominance. According to Harvard Business School professor and author Richard Tedlow “1984 at IBM was the most profitable year for any company in any industry in any country anywhere in the whole world!” Yet a short six years later they teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. Why?
Naturally there are a multitude of reasons for any company’s decline. But maybe the biggest problem at IBM was they started believing their own press releases and started taking themselves way too seriously. They lost their “foolishness” and replaced it with a rule-bound culture that became overly focused on maintaining IBM norms such as making sure real “IBM’r’s” wore blue suits and garters to keep their socks pulled tight. Seriously.
Now no company loses their sense of exploration and foolishness overnight. The CEO doesn’t arrive to work one morning and announce that “Beginning today our staff will stop having fun and start taking themselves seriously!” At least I hope they don’t! Instead this “seriousness” (and the complacency and arrogance it breeds) creeps into the business slowly and sometimes almost imperceptibly.
This “seriousness” displays itself in both big and small things. It happens a little every time you’re called on to make an uncomfortably tough business decision such as the gut-wrenching action of letting a much-loved employee go. And then it increases when you narrowly dodge one more financial bullet. Here’s the deal: It’s easy to get so caught up in the daily press of doing what needs done just to keep the doors open that you stop taking time to enjoy your business. (And just maybe your life!)
And even when your company becomes an apparently huge success it’s easy to start taking yourself too seriously. This leads to the deadly sin of feeling like you actually had control over the factors that led to your success in the first place. (When in reality much of our success is due to both “serendipity” and the hard work of others!) Whenever I see a company (or an entrepreneur) falling into this trap I know it’s time for them to lighten up.
When you started your business nobody had to remind you to be “foolish”. You were like a little kid at “Chuck E. Cheese’s”! Everything was new and exciting and every experience became a wide-eyed opportunity to learn and play and grow. Staying foolish was second nature. You hadn’t yet learned what you couldn’t do or didn’t know so you “explored your universe”! Please see if you can rekindle your foolishness and in the process enjoy, yes even luxuriate in each day!
That’s right- stop taking yourself so seriously and wake up that sense of foolishness that may have grown a bit tired. We don’t need to dance down Wall Street wearing a hula skirt (Sam Walton, Walmart CEO), or hide in an overhead luggage bin on an airplane or settle a legal dispute with a public arm wrestling contest! (Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines CEO). But we’d all find it helpful to heed Steve Job’s advice to “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” Now stop reading and go have some FUN!
Chuck Violand (more about Chuck)
CEO Violand Management Associates