Nominating the Most Productive Role Model

A few years ago I presented the results of a study designed to unveil many secrets of the most productive people in the world. A committee nominated 40 highly qualified people: symphony conductors and major league coaches, business executives and statesmen, artists and politicians. Much was learned. But we did not find one particular individual whom we would nominate as being perfectly productive.

To be perfectly productive means doing the right thing (effectiveness) in the right way (efficiency) all the time (occupancy).

Doing the right thing is the hardest -- and the most important. That's the strategic choice. We live or die with the outcome of that choice in business. Since the average stock-registered company has a life span of just 44 years, these choices can be deadly, or they can help your business beat the odds.

We also live -- or die -- with strategic choices in our private lives. All decisions have consequences, and not choosing is also a choice. Tomas Tranströmer expressed this subtle truth in the following poem (translated by Joanne Barkier):

"In the middle of life it happens

that death comes

and takes your measurements.

This visit is forgotten

and life goes on.

But the suit is sewn in the silence."

When we stop growing, the suit can be sewn. In nature, you grow or die.

The Nomination

I know of one highly qualified candidate as the most productive role model in the world. This candidate does the right thing, in the right way, all of the time. My selection may surprise you.

It's water.

Everyone knows the purpose of water: it is to reach the ocean. It follows its own laws, carefully deduced by scientists and engineers. The laws -- gravity and hydrodynamics, among others -- are transparent. So is water. It is on a mission that you cannot change, except momentarily. Water will always have its way.

The right thing for water -- its mission -- is part of a higher purpose, namely, what's right for this planet. A study of earth, its processes and creatures will reveal endless creativity and steadfastness of purpose. From the salmon seeking its birthplace to spawn and start the cycle anew, to the wolves hunting prey as a means of survival, the earth seeks and rewards ceaseless effort to fulfill its purpose.

The right thing for water is to reach the ocean, again and again. That is its mission, and it never waivers from it. There may be obstacles in its way, manmade or natural, but water always overcomes them. A rock is no match for the ageless persistence of water. A dam is only temporary.

Water is both life-sustaining and life-enhancing. It has been listed as the most important condition for life on earth, and for life on other planets. We are all water creatures. Our bodies actually consist mostly of water, and its absence will always be fatal to us. Thus, water is central to the purpose of all life.

Error is a frequent byproduct of this search for realizing purpose. And nature brutally corrects these errors when they occur -- usually by extinction. The koala bear, for example, survives exclusively on a diet of eucalyptus leaves. What happens if the eucalyptus forest disappears? Similarly, what claims can human beings make who build homes and businesses in a flood plain, then watch as their investments are swept away when the river rises and nature reclaims its waterway?

As the most vital substance on earth, water is vested with a host of intriguing properties. If you stop water dead in its tracks, it transforms itself. It evaporates and overcomes its bounds. If you turn up the heat, water evaporates even faster. If it gets cold enough, it freezes, yet readily thaws when the temperature is right. In fact, we even define temperature by the extremes of boiling and freezing water.

What Can We Learn From Water?

In the largest sense, we learn that an overriding purpose decides what is right for each one. From there, we recognize that fulfilling this purpose in the right way all the time eventually will bring you to its realization. You and your purpose will be one. Essentially, all obstacles can be removed or overcome. Beyond that, at times, transformation is needed. And if you do not do this, your business may die young, and so may you.

Norman Mailer notes in, The Deer Park: "Then there was this law of life, so cruel and just, that we must change, or else pay more to remain the same." Water changes all the time to fulfill its purpose. If we don’t change, we shall suffer the consequences; the stodgy, independent bookstore unwilling to counter the new Barnes and Noble store; the corner grocery that no longer thrives when Wal-Mart moves in; the upscale department store that cannot compete with Target.

The Chinese written character for "lake" is a combination of two signs: "water" and "0ld". Old water is water that does not flow, yet is transforming itself slowly, inevitably. The Chinese sign for "river" is a combination of "water" and "young". Young water is water that flows. Most people enjoy being near water, whether it is a lake or a river. But maybe water, when it moves to fulfill its purpose, becomes young again. Maybe we do, too, when we move to fulfill our purposes.

In Chinese, water is yin (female) and fire is yang (male). Nature uses fire as a cleansing force to restore and renew itself. Fire is doused by water. Water is present for balance.

Fire causes water to unfreeze, and clears the way for water to fulfill its purpose. Corporations, people, even countries all need to unfreeze at times to clear the way for meeting overriding purpose. Richard Leider, contemporary author, coach and environmentalist, says that we are “hardwired” to sit in front of a fire and to be in deep communion with nature. Maybe to let nature teach us how to fulfill our purpose?

Conclusion

To decide on purpose is our most important and difficult task. We move joyously and ceaselessly towards the right purpose; but the wrong purpose may kill us, literally and figuratively. People without a purpose have no way to decide if they are on the right track or not. So with organizations, and so with countries.

What does it matter if we do things perfectly when they should not have been done in the first place? And what happens, when our focus is on process, if what the process produces is not the right thing?

Think again about water. Such a simple substance. So obvious. So transparent. So very, very powerful. And amazingly productive.

It is vital to life. And so are the many lessons it teaches.

Care to share your nomination(s) for the most productive role model in the world? I would welcome your thoughts on the subject. Write me anytime at tor@tordahl.com. I look forward to hearing from you.