… the one-eyed man is King

There’s an old cliché: “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is King”.

Get into the right circumstances, and what appears to be a disabling condition turns into a key advantage.

Think, for a moment, about what you have to do to undertake your own due diligence about the future and your prospects within it.

It’s a problem not unlike an onion, in that it’s built up in layers:

There’s what’s close into the centre: your aspirations, real talents (which may not be tapped into much in what you’re doing today), your current job skills, and the like.

Then there’s the circumstances immediately around you: your organization and how it’s managed, its pace of change vs your expectations, how it plays in the broader scheme of things (is this an organization that is cost-centred, customer-centred, innovation-centred, etc.)?

Around that is the environment that organization plays in: its markets, their maturity, the state of competitive play.

Finally, on the outside, are the macro-conditions: the state of the general economy, world trade patterns and the like.

None of us can know all of the layers well enough to make flawless decisions. There’s simply too much to know (and some of the information is deliberately hidden).

To some extent, we are all operating blind. So being a one-eyed person is an advantage, not a disadvantage.

But it does require relentless honesty.

That honesty comes with some hidden costs. Suppose, for instance, you live and breathe plant management. Suppose as well one of your favourite books of all times was Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s book The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement — and so you know you want your career to be a moving upward through more complex problems of optimizing plants and their throughput of sales and production.

Now think about globalization for a moment. You also want to live in Canada. How many large-scale plants are there going to be for you to achieve your career aspiration, given the movement of manufacturing offshore?

Most people would either grudgingly accept that moving will be in their future, or decide to move away from their chosen career into some other sort of role that would allow them to stay put. They’d be unhappy in sales and marketing or finance, for instance, rather than joyfully doing what they want to do with their lives.

The one-eyed amongst the blind would think about something else. What makes a business?

Well, Peter Drucker once said the purpose of a business is to create a customer. Jane Jacobs, in her works on cities, said that the growth of a city came from import substitution: the city starts producing for itself what it used to buy from elsewhere (and, in turn, it starts exporting it to other cities, thus growing the economy).

Could you outperform the globalized plants with their flood of cheaply made products? Could you (and here’s another cliché) “build a better mousetrap”?

Before you assume that nothing makes up for low labour rates and mass production lines flooding the world with product, remember two things:

China imports from Germany, Germany doesn’t import much from China. The country with one of the world’s top three labour rates is more than economically competitive.

People buy products that do a better job.

Maybe the one-eyed man sees that his career aspirations of “ever bigger, ever more complex” should instead be “ever better, making ever more customers” instead.

Size isn’t everything. Neither are titles or corporate names. What matters is you diligently becoming the best you you can be.

As I’ve told every graduate student I’ve ever taught (in three different faculties at two different universities over nearly a twenty year period): “be prepared to work for yourself for at least part of your career”. What that means is simply what we’ve been talking about today: be prepared to see the world differently than those around you.

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