My wife Risa and I each have our own practice. Hers is a Marriage and Family Therapy group practice, while mine is a consulting practice (with coaching and other things in addition). One of the results of this is that we usually have long days working apart, so we always try to spend time together reconnecting in the evening. One of our rituals is to find a TV series we both enjoy and watch an episode (or two, or three; yeah, I know, busted!) together before going to sleep.
Recently, we enjoy watching Madam Secretary on Netflix. Last night, one of Secretary Elizabeth McCord’s staff greets her first thing in the morning by saying, “I have good news and bad news.” In response, Elizabeth says, “I’m tired of bad news. Can’t we just have neutral news?!”
That got me thinking, and I recalled a Taoist parable about good news and bad news. It goes something like this. A farmer’s horse runs away. A neighbor sympathizes, saying, "Sorry for your bad news." The farmer replies, "Good news, bad news, who can say?" The next day the horse returns, bringing another horse with him. “That’s good news,” says the neighbor. Again, the farmer responds, "Good news, bad news, who can say?" The farmer gives this second horse to his son, who gets thrown and badly breaks his leg. “Such bad news,” the neighbor says, shaking his head. The farmer responds with equanimity, "Good news, bad news, who can say?" A few days later, the emperor's men take every able-bodied young man to fight in a war. The farmer's son, with his badly broken leg, is left behind and spared being killed or maimed.
At this point, I’d understand if you’re wondering where I’m going with these stories, but I promise that if you stick with me, they all tie together and culminate in an important insight I had this morning.
One of my morning rituals is reading blog posts on Medium.com, and this morning I read one titled “Your Work Is the Only Thing That Matters” by one Ryan Holiday. In this piece, Mr. Holiday starts off with a story about an exchange between Jerry Seinfeld and a young comedian. The comedian approaches Seinfeld in a club one night and asks him for advice about marketing and getting exposure. “Exposure? Marketing?” Seinfeld asks. “Just work on your act.”
Holiday’s point is that instead of spending time worrying about marketing, networking, and learning hacks on getting ahead, people should concentrate on improving their craft. As he says, the core of Seinfeld’s advice is that your work isn’t good enough. You need to keep your head down and keep improving. You still have a long way to go.
This is good news! I don’t have to worry about anything more than honing my skills and craft! I don’t need to learn how to market! I don’t have to network! I don’t have to juggle 15 balls in the air at once! Halleluyah! Then I heard the farmer’s voice in my head saying, "Good news, bad news, who can say?"
After considering Holiday’s piece, I concluded that as with almost all posts I read about business, entrepreneurship, and success, it has a kernel of essential truth, but then makes the mistake of generalizing and positing that this kernel is the be-all and end-all of truth.
In the case of Holiday’s post, I agree that we can all improve our skills in what we do, and that it’s important to do so. However, until and unless you become well known and people are lining up around the virtual block to get your help, you still need to learn how to do all the ancillary stuff of running your business, be it a consulting practice, a therapy practice, or any other small business. Once you become uber-successful, you can hire others to do a lot of those ancillary things for you, but for the first few years at least (and for many of us that extends until we call it a career), it’s all on us.
Uh oh! Bad news! It turns out there aren’t any silver bullets after all! I still have to market, network, learn to implement hacks, etc.! There aren’t any blog posts or podcasts out there that if only I find and learn their message, I’ll have it made. Maybe I’ve been wasting time all these years reading and reading and reading. But there was the farmer again, "Good news, bad news, who can say?"
After thinking about all this, I concluded that the benefit of reading, and listening, and learning the mechanics of running a small business, branding, marketing, connecting with an audience, is that all these are indeed critical to our success. Further, even though all of the blog posts proclaiming to have found the ultimate truth are over-hyping their kernel of truth, the important thing isn’t just to learn what they say and go out to implement it. No. The important thing is to stay engaged in the conversation. While critical, it’s not enough to hone your craft. You also have to engage in the context, in how to find and connect with people who will become your clients, and how to make sure that all the logistical details that allow you to help them are taken care of without breaking the bank.
"Good news, bad news, who can say?" Perhaps the fictional Secretary McCord had it right. It’s all neutral news, except in our heads. It’s there that we decide if something is good news or bad news. Either is ok, and neither is objectively true. In reality, it just is what it is. But it doesn’t matter much if we call it good news or bad, as long as we keep on doing our best, and learning how to do better tomorrow.
Client traffic been slower recently? Bad news! Or is it? Suddenly you have a ton of time on your hands for learning another therapy tool and developing new long-term relationships with colleagues and other referral sources. Good news! Or is it? As I see it, and as I say above, objectively it all just is what it is. Don't get caught up in drama over it. Just keep on going on an even keel and you'll be just fine.
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