A Decade’s Worth of Reflection

Tom Peters

The year winds down. I've begun my 50th year. Perhaps now's a good time to reflect on what I've learned in the decade since In Search of Excellence was published.

1. Unintended consequences outnumber intended consequences. I'm always amused, amazed—and angry—that audiences think I'm exaggerating when I say, "I don't know anything." Well, damn it, I don't. The world is a complicated place. Strategies rarely unfold as we imagined. Intended consequences are rare.

2. Certainty is a delusion. I don't understand anyone who purports to understand anything for sure. Yeah, I know you gotta have faith in something to get yourself out of bed in the morning. But I disbelieve at least as much as I believe. It's not cynicism. It's good sense.

3. Fiction beats non-fiction. Avoid non-fiction! It's too unrealistic. This year I've reveled in Paul Bowles, Heinrich Boll, Julian Barnes, and Max Frisch, among others. Only the best fiction conveys the richness of life.

Non-fiction, especially in my field of management, is sterile. Only rarely does a Soul of a New Machine (Tracy Kidder, 1981) edge business writing toward the border of good fiction. The problem: Non-fiction aims at explanation. Fiction "merely" portrays. Embrace Boll. Take Porter and Peters with a shaker-full of salt.

4. Success begets failure. If you (or your company) do luck out and find something that works, you're in trouble. History says you'll try to make history repeat itself by doing the same thing again and again—and again. Which leads to disaster, since times change and the reasons you succeeded in the first instance are always more complex than you think. (Obvious counter-strategy: Do the opposite of what you did that made you successful. Trouble is, that's nigh on impossible.)

5. Democracy and markets are untidy, but effective. American democracy is an eternally unfinished, messy experiment. Markets are far too complex to comprehend; their evolution is not pretty. But they work. Beware the champions of order!

6. Try it. That's my plea to me, you, and corporations alike. This follows logically from Nos. 1 through 5 above. If you don't have a clue as to what's going on or why, you might as well do something and see how the world reacts.

The essence of science, after all, is not generating hypotheses (which, rhetoric to the contrary, are usually post hoc rationalizations), but empiricism—i.e., experiments. Business translation: Who knows why the world buys your nifty new product or sneers at it? The only way to up the odds, even a teeny bit, of winning a race every now and then is to enter as many contests as you can. If I could imprint that single idea in managers' heads, I'd be ecstatic.

7. Vermont farmers have a lot to teach us. I live among rural Vermonters most of the time. They can do a million things. The average "hick" in my neck of the woods is a talented, crafty, multiskilled, networker/trader/businessperson/entrepreneur who makes "empowered work-team members" pale by comparison. Many of my neighbors are degree-less and diploma-less, but could outwit the average staffer/manager in big corporate America without raising a sweat.

8. Lighten up. How I despise stuffed shirts! It's raw, unadulterated prejudice on my part. Fact is, I like and trust people who put their feet up on tables, who let loose a four-letter word from time to time, who screw up and then laugh at themselves.

So much of senior people's time is spent posturing, holding cards close to the vest. How sad. Live, I say. Live.

9. Neckties are diabolical. I'm financially well off. Well thought of by some. So why, when I go about my business, do I still wear a tie? Ties bind, constrain. A man with a tie is mentally constipated. I hate ties. I hate suits. I hate me when I give in and wear them. Why do I do it? Beats me.

10. Smile if it kills you. Some Buddhist writing I've encountered endorses smiling, even forced smiling. The physiology of smiling diffuses a lot of anger and angst. It makes your body and soul feel better, not to mention the bodies and souls of those around you.

11. Each day is a miracle. The sun rises over the eastern mountain on my farm. Fog settles into its shoulder. The goats goat. The sheep sheep. The horses horse. Each breath of wind, snow flurry, bit of good news, clump of bad news, is, in a word, miraculous. Enjoy. Stretch it out. You ain't going to be here forever.

12. Beware true believers. Without them nothing happens. With them, most of what happens is for the worse. Unless you believe, you won't be motivated to move ahead. But "to believe" is to be duped by a false god.

13. Reject simple explanations. According to the press, I make my dough as a "guru." Revolting! That's not my take. I just talk about stuff I've seen, try to confuse people I talk to. Yet most who attend my seminars are looking for answers. Thanks for coming, but how tragic. There are no answers. Just, at best, a few guesses that might be worth a try.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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