Time to be optimistic in the Year of the Ox
Ian Dyason. 13 February 2021.
It's spring time! The birds and bees are in the air, a season of renewal has begun. It is time to look to the new year with optimism and expect better things to come. After all, we have just emerged from a dark year, one where we have been tested in more ways than ever before. Some of us were better positioned to ride that storm, some of us were not. But all of us have gotten past this dark year to emerge into the glimmer of a better year to come. What we now need is to build in Determined Optimism.
Determined Optimism is more than just looking forward to a brighter future; it is the active process of ensuring that the expected outcome of a better year will ensue. This means that we will have a hand at making it happen, and not just rely on chance. Here's how we will do it...
(1) Decide to be optimistic
Everything that happens in life provides us with a lesson. Some lessons are harder to swallow than others; but that does not make the lesson less valuable. It is up to us to decide how to deal with it.
Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh's pessimistic friend, is a sad animal. Whatever happens will be seen in a negative light. If there is one thing we can count on from Eeyore is his ability to turn anything bright to grey. There are usually two ways of perceiving any event - the optimistic way or the pessimistic way. The optimistic way is to look forward to the positive outcomes that can come; the pessimistic way expects negative things to happen from that. For example, let's say we start a business and it is not firing on all cylinders. After three years, we seem to have burnt through all our savings, and it has not even contributed to one-fifth of our previous salary. This happens a lot. Optimists will take this and say, "I think I have a lot to learn from business. I think I will need to learn from this, and change something to make things better." The pessimist will take this and say, "You see! I should have listened to my instinct, as well as to my wife who keeps telling me to find a real job. I am hopeless. I should not have been so smart (keh kiang, to those who understand Singlish). This business will be the death of me!" Same event, different thinking. I am not saying that the optimistic response will see the person continuing with the business; but it would not tie him down into a depressive state of wallowing in self-pity. Everything that happens in life provides us with a lesson. Some lessons are harder to swallow than others; but that does not make the lesson less valuable. It is up to us to decide how to deal with it. So when life deals you lemons, decide what you want to do with them; you could set up the proverbial lemonade stand, or you can just throw them out because you don't like lemons. The decision is yours! But I do hope that you will decide on the optimistic response.
(2) Forget the Why...Start with the What and the How
If you do not know how you can achieve what you want to achieve, then no matter how many 'whys' you have started with, you are still stuck with the question of delivering a result.
Regardless of what you decide to focus on in this Year of the Ox, you need to be good at it. If you want to score straight A's in school, then you must learn how to solve your maths problems, your physics problems or the like. If you decide that you want to grow a consulting business, then you must learn how to be a good consultant. You need to learn about your target customers' pain points, you must learn how to solve them, and you must learn how to deliver the solution in a cost-effective way. If you do not know how you can achieve what you want to achieve, then no matter how many 'whys' you have started with, you are still stuck with the question of delivering a result. While I am not against starting with 'why' (a famous Simon Sinek term), I am all for knowing the 'what' and the 'how'. Knowing 'what' I am solving and 'how' I will solve it will make the 'why' clear. For example, say you are an executive coach, and someone reaches out to you and asks for help. She tells you that she is suffering burnout and is contemplating changing jobs. But she is concerned that she might not be able to sustain her lifestyle and she wants coaching to get clarity. If you start with why, any of these questions will make you look incompetent,
"Why are you feeling burnout?" or
"Why do you need to change job?" or
"Why do you need clarity?"
So starting with 'why' does not help. However, by saying something like, "Burnout is caused by several factors. Let us uncover which factor is affecting you, and from there, decide how best to meet your other needs like your lifestyle requirement. How does that sound to you?" This is a very direct 'what' and 'how' question that gives the coachee confidence that you know how to help. Can you see that talking about the 'why' with no 'what' and 'how' does not help anyone? So in the Year of the Ox, I would suggest that you focus on your 'what' and 'how'. And if you are unclear about how to do that, I would recommend that you build your repertoire of competencies so that you have a full gamut of 'what's and 'how's that will lead you to meet your 'why'. Having 25 years of MNC experience in two or three companies within a singular domain does not make you a good coach or consultant because you don't have breadth, just depth. Build on the breadth in the Year of the Ox.
(3) Build a supporting network
Working alone is the thing of the past; we now need to embrace the new normal of searching for, and co-opting, our supporting network.
Covid19 has isolated many of us so much so that we feel like we are alone even though we are working remotely with our team. The physical isolation causes us to feel the mental separation. We also had to work out how to balance our personal life with the professional requirements of our work. Lastly, we still needed to perform and deliver results, and we were hesitant to bring all these difficulties up because it may cause us to be seen as less capable than our colleagues. The last thing we want is to hear our boss saying, "You are now working from home. You have all the freedom to do what you want, and you still can tell me you can't get that done?" But in the Year of the Ox, we need to build greater resilience. We now know that WFH is the new normal, and instead of isolating ourselves, we need to build a supporting network. We need to collaborate with more people, bringing them into our circle of safety (another Sinek term). It is important to realise the limits of our capabilities, and get help to enlarge that. We must discard the old ways of thinking - that it is weak to ask for help - and build a more resilient mindset. Asking for help is a very good thing to do because it allows us to acknowledge the limits of our capabilities (it could well just be a capacity problem), and get the help we need to move ahead. Working alone is the thing of the past; we now need to embrace the new normal of searching for, and co-opting, our supporting network. It was Napoleon Hill, the author of Think and Grow Rich, who in 1937 exhorted us to build our mastermind group. I suppose what goes around comes around because what worked then, works again more than 80 years later. So in this Year of the Ox, gather your support network, your mastermind group, and drive for the future as an alliance! Oh and one more thing, your support network will help keep your optimism up. And that is very important.
(4) Grow your base
What I have learnt from leading successful businesses, as well as running my own business, is to make an assumption about your business volume, then halving it. And once you have done that, halve it again.
Some people have unrealistic expectations. They think that just because they have set up shop, the customers will show up. Even Lim Chee Guan does not have snaking queues outside their bak kwa shop (famous BBQ pork seller in Singapore) outside of Chinese New Year! So if you think that you will be a constant hit, day in and day out, you will be deeply disappointed. This is very unrealistic. And if you have built your business or professional service based on such unrealistic expectations, you will be sorely disappointed very quickly! What you need is a business or professional services model that will help you manage the ebbs and flows so that you build in space to operate more realistically. What I have learnt from leading successful businesses, as well as running my own business, is to make an assumption about your business volume, then halving it. And once you have done that, halve it again. That would probably be more in line with reality. And what if, at this volume, you cannot sustain? Then you need build in a second or even third line of defence. For example, let's assume you are operating a coffee joint. And after adjusting your assumptions, you realise that you cannot meet your overheads. Then what do you do? Actually, contrary to popular thinking, instead of shrinking, you need to expand by opening up two or three more joints. By doing this, you consolidate your costs by having a central kitchen, or you co-opt several central kitchens to help deliver baked products to you. By doing this, you expand your base, not contract it. You need to grow your earnings base so as not to be lying idle. Cutting your overheads, working alone, doing everything by yourself, is a sure-fire way to failure. As the famous saying goes, you cannot cut your way to greatness. Indeed, if you want to grow your value, your earnings, your brand, your profits, you have to grow your earnings base.
(5) Advance your resources
being in Singapore is a good thing - you have all the opportunities to advance your resources - so long as you have a compelling value proposition! And herein lies the rub! Many businesses, professional services firms, organisations, jobs, don't have a compelling value.
Finally, we are all familiar with the notion that money makes money; and more money makes more money. We cannot achieve what we want without resources. In a way, that is why we want to have a supporting network; even if they cannot help us advance our resources, they can find those who can. No endeavour has ever succeeded without resources. And here's the good news - it is not difficult to get them. If indeed you have a valuable proposition, you can attract all the resources you need - from angel investors, venture capitalists, financial institutions and, in Singapore, the government. As a capital market, Singapore is well established; hence there is no lack of avenues for capital. And we also have good people in Singapore who may well be drawn to your vision, your mission and your values to want to be a part of your organisation. So, being in Singapore is a good thing - you have all the opportunities to advance your resources - so long as you have a compelling value proposition! And herein lies the rub! Many businesses, professional services firms, organisations, jobs, don't have a compelling value. They are not investable in because there does not seem to be potential for growth. Here's a test - if you are a business owner, try to secure a loan from your bank. As you know, banks are the MOST risk averse organisations so, if they are willing to loan you, say, $100,000, then at least you know your business is worth $500,000 or even $1,000,000. And if your business is worth that, you can seek capital from investors to bump it up to $2.5M or $5M. But if the banks are not willing to give you a line, then you also know that there is limited potential in your current business. In that case, go back and build in more value. And remember, value is not determined by you - it is determined by your customers. If your customers are wont to lose you, then you have value. But if you don't have a steady stream of customers, then you might like to work on your value proposition. Build value to build your resources. Build your resources to grow your base.
So, five things to build an optimistic Year of the Ox: (1) decide to be optimistic, (2) Forget the Why... start with the What and the How, (3) Build a supporting network, (4) Grow your base, and (5) Advance your resources.
I wish you a very healthy, prosperous and value-increasing Year of the Ox!