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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Big visions, little details

Ed Stephens Jr.

The bubbly zest of the New Year inspires grand notions of doing great things in the coming 12 months. Yes, behold the view from the vista of fresh optimism: There’s an entire year of new territory to be conquered with grand visions.

Well, not that I’m against grandness, but by the time late January rolls around most of us are mired in the details of normal life again.

Indeed, the wheels of grandness seem to grind exceedingly fine. This time around, I’m making my peace with it.

So meet the New Year: same as the Old Year.

We might as well get down to business then. The west Pacific is still the most dynamic part of the world after all, and business is an important thing to heed. Heck, it’s probably the only thing to heed, unless you want to spend your golden years begging for a pension that may never materialize.

An economist once characterized entrepreneurs, the true engines of any functional economy, as people who “get things done.” That’s a bull’s eye description if there ever was one.

Another wonk observed that the secret of business is that before you do one thing, you have to do a thousand other things. Here, too, we’re in bull’s eye territory.

To summarize: Things. Done. Details.

Got it? Yeah, me, too.

But here’s what I think: Not all things and details are created equal.

Or, more accurately, not all contexts are created equal. Some lend themselves to a neatly systematic way to roll over the details, while others are a buzzing swarm of random tasks that defy any orderly way to address them.

An example of a systematic gig is college. Any college has already defined the entire system: the rules, the options, and what constitutes progress. You just climb the ladder, one rung at a time, try not to spill too much beer on your toga, and presto, the day comes where you’ve finished the gig.

And the workforce? More of the same, usually. Large, bureaucratic employers offer defined paths and clear steps for progression. Sure, there are details to be faced, but they’re lined up in straight order, so you don’t juggle them as much as methodically mow them down.

Even the swashbuckling Rudyard Kipling noted, “It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones who win in the life long race.”

Point noted, but that only applies in certain situations, and the lush empire of Kipling’s days might not have universal, nor contemporary, applicability.

Which brings us to the opposite case of the organizational plodder. I refer to the entrepreneur, and especially the small-fry who can’t just spray money at all the nagging obstacles of establishing a business.

It always looks simple and orderly in books or magazine articles: “First you write a business plan. Then a random banker gives you a couple of million bucks to play with, because, well, that’s what random bankers do. Before you know it you’re ready for mezzanine financing. Soon, before the lease on your 5-series BMW expires, your IPO will go live. But don’t be greedy! Wait until after the checks clear before trading up to a 7-series.”

Maybe it goes that cleanly in some cases. But I can’t recall seeing any first hand.

The cases I’ve seen, and have even been involved with, were largely based on flailing away at seemingly random details. And once you cut into one detail, it divides, amoeba-like, into more details, especially if you’re involved in an international business.

You’d think this is a ripe eco-system for an economist. Maybe it’s not. Economists are always looking for the relationship between the input and the output in order to optimize the inputs.

But an entrepreneurial situation is often too murky to offer such clean relationships, or, for that matter, even any dirty ones.

Of the successful entrepreneurs I’ve known, all have been highly competent, but most have not been particularly analytical. Most never went to college. They were simply more interested in hands-on realty than in theory. They are doers. They roll up their sleeves and get to work. Period.

As for myself and my humble array of little projects, this situation deserves constant attention, lest I get bogged down in trying to optimize decisions that simply can’t be optimized. I’m analytical by nature and by training, but that’s not always the magical solution to everything.

So for me, 2013 is really an opportunity to get better at tending details, and most especially the random, mundane, and unrewarding ones. If you’re on the same boat, and some of you are, then I may not have any answers, but at least I’ve given you a whole lot of commiseration.

Anyway: Meet the New Year. Yes, it’s the same as last year, but this time around we already know it.

Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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