The “rules” of five and ten

If you’ve ever gone panning for gems or gold, you know that you sift an awful lot of sand and grit to find something.

Still, you’re willing to do it, even though only one in ten thousand (or less) of the items you sift through is worth the effort.

Wallowing around in popular modern culture can be like that. You name the cliché, there’s a guru making a living from it. Pulling all the commentary together in one place is like looking at several years’ worth of the health section of a newspaper, where coffee is going to kill you/is essential to your health, and the same for red wine, chocolate and bacon.

Management literature is similar, except that first, the ratio of wisdom to nonsense is far less than in the health section and second, coffee, red wine, chocolate and bacon can all be taken in moderation regardless (unlike most management advice).

So I speak with trepidation today about two rules that come out of Allan Holender’s Zentrepreneurism 3.0: The Inner Game of Conscious Business — but both contain a gem worthy of the time of anyone undertaking personal due diligence with purpose (as opposed to just trying to make sure they’re not about to be blindsided by events).

The first is his notion that the five people you spend the most time with are your key influencers.

For those of us who chart our own course away from the world of jobs as entrepreneurs and self-employed contractors or consultants, the ability to choose the five who will be influential is wide open — a live possibility to be seized upon.

For those of us who work in organizations (of any size larger than five), though, the odds are pretty good that the five we spend the most time with will mostly be found at work (if you’ve got a partner at home, it should be clear that that person is likely one of your five).

That means that the kind of people your organization tends to attract and reward are mostly likely the ones influencing you daily.

As Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel showed in The Addictive Organization: Why we overwork, cover up, pick up the pieces, please the boss and perpetuate sick organizations, the places we work deform gently but surely over time.

Peter Drucker tells the story in one of his books of a hospital where, whenever the management team thought they’d reached a key decision, they would test it by appealing to the memory of a long-retired but influential nurse by asking what she would say about their choice — and how this often led them to rethink and improve the outcome.

That’s the positive side of organizational deformation. More often, we get control freaks, slight sociopaths, and other deformed personalities leaving a permanent mark on “who we are” and “what we value here”.

As a part of your diligence process, you need to spend time analysing the nature of the place you work — and what changes that may be creating in you (that could ruin your future, subtly but surely).

After all, in today’s world, organizations don’t show loyalty to staff. You have to be prepared to deal with being dumped into the street long before it’s a worry.

That means, in turn, that even if you are a cubicle jockey or corner office maven in an organization, you should be selecting the influences in your life, not letting them default.

Holender’s other idea is a little more contentious. It’s that what you did at ten years of age is a signal for what you should be doing now.

He takes this idea from his own experience: at ten, he would sit in one room of his house with a microphone and a record player and “broadcast” to the kitchen (where the speaker was) his own attempts at being a radio personality.

That he comes back, again and again in his career, to media work is not a surprise. Every step away from it seems to lead him back.

The trouble, of course, with “what you were doing at ten” is that most of us were doing things that don’t, on the surface, seem to be in line with any career choice. (In my own case, I was playing baseball, riding my bike around the neighbourhood, making mix tapes on an open reel recorder, and doing a lot of reading — oh, and being a Wolf Cub in the Scouting movement and a Grade 5 student.)

Where I think Holender’s “rule of ten” can be applied is if you look into that for insights into how you might see the world.

I was a lousy baseball player, one of those ones who was “afraid of the ball”. All the practice and playing time in the world didn’t cure me of that. The insight I take away is one I’ve used as a manager ever since: if a person isn’t performing well in their job, look to their strengths, not their weaknesses, and find a way to let them use their strengths (rather than just terminate them for being weak).

Riding my bike turned into a life-long passion for how communities are put together, what makes a city tick, what makes a place a good place to live. It drives a lot of my volunteer time today.

Making mix tapes shows up today in earning money from writing, from the many stints I’ve done in radio work, and in my willingness to keep figuring out how to communicate ideas in more ways that work for others. This path isn’t limited by “retirement age”, because it can (and will) be followed until the end. It is the source of my not fearing the future.

My reading continues, because I’m an autodidact, always learning, and because I do so much learning on my own, I don’t worry about the boundaries of disciplines, which gives me insights I can apply with clients for my consulting and advising work.

So there is (in my experience) something to the idea that what you did at ten may matter today, although how you apply it probably requires more digging than a simple “replicate it” (as Holender himself does).

Still, consciously approaching who you are and where you might go with that makes a lot of sense. Spend some time on that, as part of your personal due diligence program.

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