Vigorous Pursuit of the Moment

Tom Peters

Naming anything—a child, a company, a book—is tough. You’re more or less stuck with your decision. Naming a boat is not easy either, at least if you grew up near salt water as I did, and harbor anthropomorphic notions about large, floating objects. After much deliberation, I named my little craft “The Cromwell.”

Oliver Cromwell is an important historic figure, to be sure. But, truth is, I don’t know much about him. I do know that he once said, “No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.” The boat naming was in tribute to that line.

Partly, it was meant to be humorous. I am a lousy navigator who always tries to keep land in sight—I seldom know whither I am, let alone whither I am going. But Cromwell’s words capture a fundamental truth. These days, for individual, corporation and economy, knowing not whither you are going is an outright necessity.

Personal success, as I see it, is about 99 percent passion, 1 percent plan. Moreover, the passion must be for the present. The best authors work and rework a single sentence. (It’s said that Tom Robbins’ daily output is often “just” a paragraph—so artfully crafted that he rarely goes back to correct what he’s done.) The best fiction writers let their stories evolve, take on a life of their own. They’re surely not plotted in advance!

Of course, a lot of bad writers do exactly the same thing, and their work is merely confusing. So I’m hardly advocating “let it all hang out, baby.” Tom Robbins’ paragraph a day is equal parts passion and perfectionism. But planned? Never.

(The formal practice of Zen Buddhism may be the best example of this concept. There is no more rigorous and demanding discipline, including rock climbing and neurosurgery. Yet the goal is “goal-lessness”—to become intensely in tune with the moment.)

“Knowing not whither” has a clear corporate analog. I’ll tip you off to my upcoming “1992 Most Valuable Players” column: Former AT&T Chairman Charles Brown will get an MVP award. With just a signature, he allowed old AT&T to be destroyed. Subsequently, the eight Bell entities (new AT&T and seven regional companies) grew an astounding 300 percent, from about $50 billion in market value to $200 billion—in just a decade.

Brown, in effect, decapitated monolithic Ma Bell. Each of today’s eight pieces may have corporate planners, but at least they are energetically pursuing eight different paths—which ends up dramatically increasing the odds of high market value overall.

In a sense, that’s the story of Silicon Valley. The Valley is the most frenzied—and successful—1,300 square miles in the world economy. Each of its thousands of players, small or large, is aggressively pursuing a dream. Though many Valley companies have planners, the spectacular result, like it or not, is an accidental product of Brownian interaction—overall planlessness and a collective passion for the here and now. “The Valley” per se knows not whither it is going.

Adam Smith, of course, “got it.” His metaphorical invisible hand and Cromwell’s knowing not whither you are going are synonymous. Trouble is, to sign up for Cromwell’s—or Smith’s—dictum is to fight hundreds of years of belief in the power of hyperorganized, logical solutions to economic and social concerns. Twenty-five years ago, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, writing in The New Industrial State, summed up modern economic dogma. “The size of General Motors is in the service not of monopoly or the economics of scale but planning,” he said. “And (thanks to) this planning—control of supply, control of demand, provision of capital, minimization of risk—there is no clear limit to the desirable size.” I bet Galbraith would like to eat those words today!

Last March, by contrast, Vaclav Havel in a speech to world business leaders called the collapse of communism “an end not just to the 19th and 20th centuries, but to the modern age as a whole … the proud belief that man, as the pinnacle of everything that exists, was capable of objectively describing, explaining, and controlling everything that exists.”

In the end, we’re faced with a major emotional paradox. The fact is, most readers of this column do favor markets and dismiss centrally planned economies. Yet we instinctively resort to local master plans to “get in control.” The problem: Those plans help achieve a sense of control at the expense of real “control.” Real control flows from allowing numerous, impassioned champions to vigorously pursue the moment. That is, creative artists or Silicon Valley firms must chase, intensely, what makes sense at the time.

Perversely, the odds of success increase to the extent that we let go of the master plans. In the past, when market feedback loops (e.g., product lives) were much longer, we could at once maintain the illusion of control—plan! plan! plan!—and somehow muddle through. But with feedback loops shriveling to nothing, that luxury is long past. Tapping energy and imagination, and having the nerve to know not whither we are going, may be the chief task for tomorrow’s leaders.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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