Sunday, April 23, 2023

When The Music Stops

Fear of losing what you love is a hell of a thing. It's personally my most difficult fear to overcome. For years I would have revenge fantasies of what I would do to the people who harmed my loved ones. Completely made up punishments, for imaginary bad guys, for crimes not committed. This would occasionally crop up and dominate my meditation practice. I thought I was a freak until I learned a famous teacher had to work through the same issues. It's one thing to accept your own mortality, but to accept the impermanence of what we love is a curve ball. 

We have worked so hard to build our businesses and it's easy to give into the fear it will all go away. And it will absolutely go away one day, in some fashion. Like death, we don't know how, we don't know when. 

This type of fear, and the suffering it causes, arises because of our intense ego investment. Every news report about the economy, the pandemic, the state of American democracy, all feed that fear. Fear sells, and we are buying. Our minds can spin out of control, thinking about the terrible destruction, caused by imaginary problems, created by people trying to sell us insurance and pillows. If it bleeds, it leads. And when it comes to our fears, it feeds.

There is the obvious fact you can't take it with you. You will one day need to turn in the keys, perhaps pried from your cold dead hands, overly dramatic Charlton Heston style. You are personally invested in your business and the thought of its loss, of everything you've built going away, is unbearable. Here are a few ways to overcome this fear of losing what you love:

The first way to alleviate this fear, a temporary solution at best, is to re-invest in what you love. Although it's temporary, it can bring comfort. It's a practical solution that ignores the universal impermanence of it all. But from a business perspective, where we ignore inconvenient universal truths, I think this is good advice.

If you want to weather the storm, you prepare for it. Having my business narrowly survive COVID, you can't go wrong with a big pile of money. Saving for a rainy day is a good plan when a storm is coming. Money in the bank brings clarity and long term thinking. However, at a certain point, money is pointless. A few years ago, with a few hundred grand of government money in the bank, I would tell finance people I don't need more money, I need sales. I needed the blood to flow again through the clogged arteries of my business.

Reinvesting in your business will increase your overall future income. A 10% decrease in sales ten years ago would have crushed me, while now it would be mildly disappointing. My business is larger. There is muscle and fat. There are reserves of both cash and inventory and we are amply staffed. I could go on a spending diet myself, and easily fix my 10% decline. A decade ago, I would have prayed for the business to just fail. We would have had to cut into muscle and make painful sacrifices.

Reinvesting in staff means paying them more, which helps with retention and future recruitment. I'm about to start traveling and having better paid staff is an insurance policy and an accelerator for future recruitment, two things I very much need when I'm relying on other people from 2,500 miles away.

The second way to alleviate this fear of loss is to invest outside your business. By having a backup plan, we are loosening the ego attachment to our one thing. Our ego is still involved with outside investment, but we've spread the risk, we've loosened the attachment. We all know the threat of our businesses failing doesn't go down over time. It stays relatively constant. Besides our own old age, sickness and death, something as basic as a city construction project, a failed lease renewal, or a disaster could wipe us out pretty quickly. COVID was a wake up call to this. 

I've been running my business for 18 years and I have another 18 years until I'm done (more or less). I've seen public tastes change in my favor. Who is to say they won't change in the other direction? Investing in myself, rather than pouring more money into my business, means saving for retirement. I've only been saving in earnest for a few years. There's never a good time, so you might as well start now. Saving for retirement will let you sleep a little better at night, overcoming the fear of your businesses eventual transition. It will also give you freedom later in life to say that's enough. The bigger and more arrogant my vendors get, the more I find myself saying, that's enough.

The third way to alleviate the fear of loss is to get a life. Begin to divest yourself from your ego attachment. Building a business is an all encompassing endeavor. Once you've got a profitable business, it will remain all encompassing, if you let it. A small business will take all the time you wish to give it. You are good at this. You have learned to achieve micro satisfactions that comes from a job well done, even if you're ultimately left with nothing but the fear of its loss. I know rich people who have regrets that their wealth came at the expense of time with their family. They would do anything to get that back. Seek satisfaction, solace, and spirituality outside the business. 

Find your spiritual path. My older friends and I talk about the Hindu stage of life called Vanaprashta. You've raised a family, you're accomplished professionally, now is your time to explore spirituality, knowledge, and peace. As I've gotten older, I've thought many times education is wasted on the young. All the best questions occur when you're older. You don't have to turn your back on your business, but you can certainly de-emphasize its importance in your life. It sounds crazy, I know.

Spend more time with your family. Work on your declining physical condition. Take vacations that aren't more trade shows. When we place such a strong emphasis on one thing, the fear of its loss can be debilitating. Hold on loosely. If you are not your business, who are you? Spend some time finding out. You won't lose focus, you'll gain clarity. Clarity reduces suffering.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Mexican MacGuffins (Ramblings)

On a big trip through Mexico five years ago, it was once my job to pick a lunch place. I tended to go with the flow and this was my chance to step up and help guide the journey. I found a restaurant on Google Maps, led us to the town, and the place simply didn't exist. Just a dirt lot. This happens sometimes in Mexico. Mexico is a place best experienced for what it is, rather than what you want it to be. 

We walked around this beautiful, colonial town, and found a random restaurant where we sat at the last open table. The place was full of people with various handicaps, illnesses, and infirmities. This random town, it turned out, was a pilgrimage site. Some miracle or another cured someone a while back, and people flocked to it, hoping to replicate the experience. Lunch may have been the stated objective, but being at the center of an obscure pilgrimage site, so much suffering and so much hope, with no tourists anywhere to be seen, was the experience to be had.

A MacGuffin is a flimsy plot device, a reason to motivate characters, but not necessarily important in itself. Our trip next month to Mexico will be over three months, growing to six months in subsequent years. Three months still feels like tourism, but we'll see. We will be visiting Mexico's pueblos magicos, or magical towns. The pueblos magicos for me are a MacGuffin. 

Pueblos Magicos might even be a MacGuffin for Mexico, as the government's tourism board created a list of neat places for internal tourism consumption. They want Mexicans to experience the best of Mexico. For others on our trip, Pueblos Magicos may have more significance. For me, the PMs are an excuse to visit new places, experience new culture, but I honestly don't care a whole lot about any particular pueblo magico. The UNESCO World Heritage sites are more interesting, and they're a mutually exclusive list. Become a UNESCO site and they drop you from the list. The Pueblos Magicos are a lunch location in search of a pilgrimage site.

If you think you know Mexico, you probably don't. My amazement around every corner is why I keep going back. I had the same experience in Rome and Venice, although Mexico is a victim of colonialism rather than a beneficiary like Italy. It's not uncommon to come across a wonder, like a Mayan ziggurat, only to learn 80% of the ruin is still covered by jungle; because of course it is. 

Mexico is cursed and blessed with difficult geography. It makes travel an adventure, although Central America is about ten times more adventurous. Difficult geography means isolation, both culturally and economically. Cultural isolation means diversity, the chance to come upon a wonder over the next mountain. Economic isolation means I can afford to have lunch there. It also means infrastructure and transport are always a challenge, and there are few economic synergies that spread. Mexico is inherently isolated from itself, a mixed blessing.

Geographic isolation also makes security a concern, as many will warn us about murders and kidnappings. Lack of central control in the hinterlands (which is most of Mexico), means crime and law enforcement is primarily a local matter. If you were going to build a diverse fantasy world of regional wonders and lack of central control, you couldn't go wrong using Mexican geography as an example. Far off deserts with bandits, jungles with separatists, steamy coasts where pilgrims flock, and a central government high above in temperate highlands, where half the population lives and most of the treasures are hidden. I could run a campaign there.

We leave next month with our 30' travel trailer and just enough confidence to give it a shot. The better set up would be a van or truck camper, but it would be hard to live and work out of one of those for months. Instead we've got something far more comfortable and less practical. It's a fools errand, a search for magical towns with an impractical rig. My friends give the odds of a return trip at around 30%. I'm sure it will be an adventure, provided we enjoy the experience, and we're not insistent on finding the MacGuffins.

Saturday, April 1, 2023


We all have our conceits, subsystems that make up our personal operating systems. Conceits are the subjective way we want things to be, often for no particular, objective reason we can put our finger on. These conceits are deeply ingrained from childhood or learned along the way. They bring comfort. They make sense of the subjective feel of our businesses. They are inevitably about control, which is about fear. However, they also play important roles related to motivation and even safety.

When I built my store, I wanted it to be a place I wanted to spend time in. We walk into our stores slowly and know if it feels right, or if something is off. We don't just own this business, we inhabit it, like a tailored suit. Not everyone can appreciate your environment, and there are as many different environments as cuts of suit. There are certainly owners who build stores differently, along with customers who appreciate that build and who should really just go there instead to feel comfortable.

What might feel right for you, might make me a bit queasy. You can have a store that's too neat, too clean, too ordered, for a mind that finds comfort in the messy, dirty, and disordered. Perhaps neat and clean represents oppression to them, perhaps an aggressive parent who demanded order. I've had a customer tell me this. I grew up in the chaos of a large family and I find comfort in an organized, tranquil sanctuary. 

I might take a stand on some minor conceit that seems to make no sense. My line in the sand might be the choice of background music, or color of a wall, or it might be some irrational point of view. We don't chevron product here (because Gary needs his right angles). These subjective views are what make our businesses unique and our own. My conceits might be more substantive: Fixtures and flooring. Lighting. Uniforms. Greetings. How we treat people and view fairness is a conceit. Some stores are aggressive and predatory, because that's what the owner thinks is necessary in retail. The smell

Often these individual elements don't matter, although together they form a vision and make up the ineffable elements of your business. You certainly wouldn't want to change them, if they're working. I didn't say these are elements of a successful business, only that they're elements of yours. This provides a level of comfort and motivation, a true sense of ownership and yes, a sense of control. If you succeed here, you've conquered the biggest threat. Losing interest. If you ever move or remodel, you might feel a sense of panic as you haven't figured out the new vision. Everything is slipping away! The fear of separation from what you desire.

Most importantly, we don't sell games, we manage human psychology, and humans are mystifying creatures with vague and often incorrect degrees of self awareness. We need an environment that makes sense, as a baseline to engage in these mystifying experiences, with these mystifying creatures. The counter is an altar to this experience. It is an experience barrier and an experience facilitator. We are the high priests of retail relying on set, setting and ritual to keep us safe and sane. You will encounter every type of person in retail, and without this, there is actual, physical and mental danger. Subjective idiosyncrasies in the service of safety.

The Wizard’s Playbook: Magic Circle