Friday, February 6, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Measure what's relevant

There is all kinds of advice out there in the media ether on how to survive this latest economic downturn. What to do with your retirement investments, how to manage stress, even how to talk to your kids about what's happening. And it's great advice on surviving, though very few people are talking about how to thrive in this current state of affairs. And why should they? I mean who thrives in a desert, right? 

Actually, a lot of life survives in a desert climate, and in this economic desert we would do well to think about how geographic deserts burgeon with life, mostly below ground and on a small scale. It involves taking a lesson from Darwin and adapting to change. And I don't mean adapting for right now and then looking forward to going back to the way we were before. Survival of the fittest doesn't mean changing for the short-term and going back to our same old ways somewhere down the line. The dinosaurs are not coming back. Ever. And neither are Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns to name just a few. Investment banking has all but vanished from Lower Manhattan and if you don't believe it go see for yourself - take the subway down to Wall Street and have a look around. It's eerily quiet and desolate. There are a lot of cavernous, columned buildings standing empty. These are the modern day dinosaurs. The meteor has struck, and it changed everything. 

With the economy top of mind for nearly everyone, I hear a lot of people throwing around phrases like "the market is way down" or "the Dow is plunging". I some times wonder if most people actually know what that means. The Dow is a set of 30 companies that are considered fairly stable, prosperous, large companies. Or at least they used to be stable and prosperous. Take a look at the list. It's not a pretty picture of America: Caterpillar, General Motors, Citigroup. (Notice the absence of companies like Google and Apple.) Should we judge our economic future on these kinds of companies? Doesn't sound like a wise idea to me.

I'm not an economist. I do have an MBA and I was an economics major in college. I was also a history major in college, and the one thing history shows consistently over time, as does biology, is that things change and in order to survive and thrive we need to adjust. Permanently. None of this "we just need to ride out this latest cycle until things get back to normal." This is the new normal - change. Radical and rapid. And I think it may be time to dump the Dow as an indicator of our future. To keep it is analogous to judging the future of life on Earth by the fate of the dinosaurs. 

We need a new perspective. Going forward, it will be small businesses and entrepreneurs that drive innovation and prosperity in our country. And this is a reason to rejoice. For the past few years, we have talked about the rise of the individual and personalization. Little did we know at the time that this trend wasn't just about ipods and Facebook. It will serve to underpin our entire economy in drastic and never-imagined ways. 

Change is never easy. There will be casualties in the process: big companies will go under, there will continue to be layoffs, and individuals will have to re-frame their lives. The longer we resist that re-framing, the worse off we will be. Rip off the band-aid and accept that change has arrived and will continue. It's time to we get to work and figure out how we are going to adapt and learn how to survive and thrive in the new economy. Stop lamenting what was and look forward to what we can have a hand in building.       

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