Advice for the Young and Not So Young

Tom Peters

A couple of months ago, I addressed 2,000 undergraduate psychology students at Cornell University. "One feels required," I said, "because of the nature of the gathering, to conclude with that most adult activity: 'Advice.'" It was aimed at 20-year-olds, but I think it applies equally to 47-year-olds (like myself).

1. Don't think, do. "We don't plan, we just do," says Harry Quadracci, founder and president of the matchless printer, Quad/Graphics. "Whenever we get in trouble, it's because somebody's been thinking again. ... We're very poor generals, but we're very good street fighters." A top Canadian oil and gas wildcatter apparently concurs: "This is so simple it sounds stupid. But it is amazing to me how few oil people really understand that you only find oil and gas when you drill wells."

Thinking, planning, analyzing—good stuff. But the problem with 20-year-olds, 40-year-olds and, tragically, 60-year-olds is a failure to treat life as an experiment. "Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly," declares Ralph Stayer, the innovative chief of Johnsonville Foods. In a talk to undergraduates in Wisconsin, he expands: "The point is, things get better as you go along. The first telephone and airplane were very crude compared to what we have now. The important thing is to get started." Bravo!

2. Fail with flair. "(M)ost people," Oscar Wilde wrote, "die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes." Novelist Tom Robbins agrees: "So you think that you're a failure do you? Well, you probably are. What's wrong with that? ... If you've any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure. Seek it out. Learn to love it." Sadly, all too many newly minted college grads, and 40-year-olds, fear failure—which in the end is to fear living itself.

3. Listen naively. But don't just "listen," also "hear." Most of us are lousy listeners—with friends, spouses, co-workers. We're even worse "hearers." The listening part is relatively easy. It's about hanging out, dropping in, leaving your office door open (or, better yet, not having one). Hearing is about empathy. There are a ton of books with tips for hearing (if you're the boss, always talk last so as not to cut off others' opinions). But most advice oversimplifies. If you are not empathetic (by this point), I don't know what to tell you—except, only half facetiously, don't be a boss.

4. Ask DUMB questions. Allen Puckett was the best consultant I ever worked with. His distinction, despite an abundance of IQ points: He asked the dumbest questions imaginable. That was and is central to his success. Bosses, new graduates and high-paid consultants share one vexing problem: Most believe they are supposed to know the answers. Watch top brass wandering around a factory. You seldom hear them ask an interesting (dumb) question. They are afraid of tarnishing their image (self-image). They forget that it's a whole string of "What the devil is that?" queries that gets you to the nub of any problem. Workers on the line, like all of us, are delighted to talk about what they do. So ask.

5. Get others involved. In the Brownie troop, the army platoon, or the factory, there is no implementation until there is engagement and commitment. Getting others involved takes lots of time—not to mention listening/hearing and trust. But it's time that must be spent. The leader's chief role is gaining and building on others' commitment. People (workers) come to us with motivation. Then we go about destroying it with demeaning attitudes and humiliating rules. Years ago, Peter Drucker said, "Ninety percent of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get the job done." Amen.

6. "Go to the sound of the guns." The late Lt. Gen. Melvin Zais offered this advice to his would-be commanding officers. Translation: Go where the action is. The answer to the problems that beset the crew at the loading dock is, guess where? At the loading dock. In short, the best generals and company chiefs spend the most time on the firing line, the least in the office.

7. Have fun/Make it fun. Fun is not just the domain of fraternity parties or Saturday nights at the country club. Don't be afraid to cry and laugh. All human endeavor is about emotion. Zest, joy, pride—and fun—are near the heart of any successful enterprise. It's good for you. It's good for others. It's good for business.

8. BE INTERESTING! See steps 1, 2, and 7: Do. Fail. Laugh. Weep. And listen to Paul McCartney: "I used to think that anyone doing anything weird was weird. I suddenly realized that anyone doing anything weird wasn't weird at all and that it was the people saying they were weird that were weird." Life's too short to waste suppressing emotions, fearing rebuffs (from asking dumb questions), or even a firing or two.

Got to go. Must get back to a couple of interesting failures I'm nurturing.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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