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All Business is Personal

All Business is Personal

There are no objective, impersonal “laws” of business. Even all those numbers and ratios won’t change that. At bottom, business and organizations are deeply personal and horribly messy. Until we accept that, we won’t get far in improving how they work.

It’s fashionable to see business as an impersonal activity: as a world governed by objective numbers, financial ratios, and so-called “business fundamentals.”

It’s not like that. Not at all.

At the heart of all business transactions are two intensely personal relationships . The simplest can be summed up in four words: You sell, I buy. That is business. Without buying and selling, there can be no profit, no investment, no reason to produce anything beyond what each individual needs to survive. Do we always buy rationally, based on impersonal factors like price, value, or features? No. We buy from those we enjoy dealing with, even if they are not the cheapest, or even the best in absolute terms. Emotions are as much part of making decisions as thoughts or facts.

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As soon as you move beyond individuals making and selling their own goods, on their own, you encounter the second personal relationship. This takes seven words: I work for you, you pay me. Whether it’s in a two- or three-person business in a back room, or some global behemoth employing tens of thousands, this is the essence of any employment contract. Do people always employ those best fitted for the job, in purely rational terms? They do not. They typically employ people they feel most comfortable being with; the ones they think they will probably enjoy having around.

I bring this up because it helps us realize that there are no impersonal laws of business. There is nothing like the “law” of gravity, or most of the “laws” of physics: nothing that works every time and everywhere, regardless of how anyone feels. Business is a series of interactions and relationships between human beings. As they change, so do the interactions. And, like everything else that humans do, beyond purely instinctive, physical actions like breathing, these relationships are, at their heart, matters of choice.

How we arrange to buy, to sell, to work, and to be paid for working, are activities that are as they are because that is how we have chosen to make them happen. We only treat the current patterns as inevitable—as inviolable “laws” of business—because we are so used to them. Yet the modern corporation is barely 100 years old. Recorded human history covers maybe 4000 years or so. So our way of doing business, which we treat as the only possible way to arrange for commerce to take place, was unknown for at least 97.5% of that time.

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Should that suggest that we have found the ultimate answer to commercial human interactions? That modern, Western capitalism is the ultimate pinnacle of mercantile achievement? That seems unduly arrogant, even for today’s capitalists. Is it the best answer we have found so far? Probably, yes. Is it the best we can ever find? I don’t think so. Should we stop trying to find others ways? Definitely not.

I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about relationships in the workplace, especially those between bosses and subordinates. The realities of organizational power and position mean the top jobs are not always held by either the most able or the best leaders. Besides, bad leadership, bad attitudes, and poor management practices are highly contagious. Just being around mean-spirited, aggressive, dishonest, and narrow-minded people, means that some of it will rub off on you. If that wasn’t bad enough, we have unprecedented access to virtually instantaneous communication . . . and mostly use it to waste time, check up on one another, circulate stupid jokes, and feed our personal paranoia.

Do those observations suggest a rational, impersonal, and nearly perfect understanding of set laws of business? Or do they rather indicate a messy, often poorly organized, and imperfectly understood series on person-to-person interactions, characterized mostly by personal emotions and individual neediness?

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Our present way of running our organizations are woefully inadequate to what is needed. If burnout and stress are common place—as they —it is because we have chosen to allow them to be so. Like primitive farmers, we utilize slash-and-burn techniques and have not yet reached the point where we can consistently “farm” our finite resources to increase the availability of talent and creativity for the future. We just consume what we have today in grabbing for short-term profits.

It’s easy to give up hope. The task of changing ingrained attitudes to work and business seems beyond anyone’s ability. But it is not beyond the power of many people, working together. Every small step to reject the culture of mindless, short-term, “grab -n-go” management is a step towards finding a better approach. Like drops of water coming together to carve through solid rock, people can change what people have created. Sooner or later, what today we see as inevitable will become as silly and outmoded in our eyes as the penny farthing bicycle or women wearing huge feathered hats and whalebone corsets. How long we continue to fight the forces of change is up to us. The longer we do, the harder the change will be when it finally comes.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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