Bad Days, Family Wisdom, and Entrepreneurship

Dec 28, 2012

Photograph: music2work under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

One of the joys of fatherhood is discovering the insights and blunt wisdom of children's books. My eleven-year-old daughter, Truitte Rose, used to have a favorite book titled "Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" by Judith Viorst. I couldn't read it to her enough. It chronicles a day in a boy's life where nothing goes right.

I too had a bad day last week at my company, Corporate Rain. I hit my chair dealing with client crises, fighting a cold, losing a valued associate, dealing with a minor credit card fraud, and reading a dense legal contract. On the side of my desk there was a Mt. Everest of overdue sales calls I needed to get to. And this was before noon. I was frustrated. I was angry. I was having a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

As an entrepreneur, I've learned that a day like this can be dangerous, not because of the circumstantially difficult day, but because of my internal reaction to it.

On such a day I invariably feel I have to push hard—to move, move, move—to rush, rush, rush—to compensate. And when I give in to this feeling I make poor judgments. I make mistakes. I insult people and lose my temper. My whole mien becomes frenetic, forced, faked, and joyless.

As an owner, it's hard to slow down while Rome is burning around you. You're responsible. (Only you can prevent this forest fire!) I've had to learn the efficiency of hitting the pause button, of not making crucial decisions on such days. For me, when I have a very bad day, everything sort of emanates from a dark, bleak, shrunken part where I exist only as a miasma of cosmic insufficiency; that essential place where dwells the cowed and frightened child, as well as the cornered beast. So my "professional" response is to assume the trappings of a sanguine and competent businessman and push through. But, in fact, the real good me is not present. The fact is that on a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day I am in reality one dark, primordial, primal scream inside: a rootless Edvard Munch template, an enraged troll.

Over the years I've lost money, sales, friends, and reputation on days like this. While grinding my teeth and determinedly … getting ... it ... all ... done. I have frequently caused myself and my company harm under the guise of mechanically doing my duty to God, country, and the capitalist way. Only slowly have I learned to overcome this hubristic folly.

I was an actor in my younger days.  One of my first professional roles was in a play in Los Angeles called "Darkness At Noon," based on a novel by Arthur Koestler. I played a tortured political prisoner. It was an especially intense role and my rehearsal process was unhealthily over-committed to the point of almost masochism. There was an old Portuguese actor in the company named Lorenzo. He'd had a long and picaresque life and he was kind, wise, and a generous acting colleague. One day in rehearsal he took me aside, sat me down, put his hands on my very tense shoulders and said simply, "You can't push the river, Timothy.  Flow with it." That's all he said.

I think it's hard for an entrepreneur to follow that advice. Entrepreneurs live to push the river. But the fact is, they can't.

I remember years ago speaking to my mother about my utter misery over a failed love affair. She was appropriately sympathetic, of course. That's a mother's job. Then she said, "But you know, Timothy, there's little I can say that will cheer you up. There's only one thing I know to do on really bleak, dark days. The only thing I really know to do on such days is to clean my toilets." In other words, do those mechanical things you can do when you are overwhelmed or not at your best.

Or, if things are bad enough, as Scarlett O'Hara says at the end of a very bad day in Gone With The Wind. "Home. I'll go home ... After all, tomorrow is another day." Not bad advice, Scarlett.   

Timothy Askew is Founder and CEO of the elite New York and Texas-based sales execution firm Corporate Rain International. He holds advanced degrees from Emory University and Claremont Graduate School and is a published poet, occasional public speaker, and ordained minister, as well as a former actor, opera singer, Broadway producer, tennis pro and bartender. 

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