17th November 2016

Is it useful?

In ‘Alice in Wonderland’ there is a passage where Alice comes to a fork in the road and so she asks the Cheshire cat which road she should take. The Cheshire cat simply asks, “where are you going?” to which Alice honestly replies that she doesn’t know, so the cat retorts “then it doesn’t matter”.

Life is full of forks in the road, some obvious, very many less so and the decisions that we make will dictate where we end up. In any given situation not knowing where we are going or what we are trying to achieve severely limits our ability to make a good decision.

I often get asked by clients “Am I doing the right thing?” or “Should I be doing X or Y?” It causes a great deal of frustration when I simply reply by asking, “what are you trying to achieve?” but the question is absolutely fundamental.

You see there is no right and there is no wrong, there are only choices. The efficacy of any choice is dependant upon what that choice is designed to achieve. When you come to a fork in the road, neither the left or the right fork is correct, but one is likely to be more useful in getting you to your destination than the other. But as the cat pointed out, if you have no idea where your destination is, then neither road is any more useful than the other.

Asking whether something is useful is a great opportunity to reappraise what it is we are trying to achieve. Something is useful if it helps you get where you want to go. Behaving well is useful if you are in an environment that depends upon relationships and reputation. Knowing your numbers is useful if you are in an environment that seeks to optimise those numbers. Learning is useful if you are in an environment where what you know matters and improves performance. Practising is useful if your environment values and rewards high performance.

Peter Drucker once observed that “My ancestors were printers in Amsterdam from 1510 or so until 1750, and during that entire time they didn’t have to learn anything new.”  For 240 years it wasn’t useful to learn anything new. It was, perhaps, useful to perfect some old techniques, to master what had already been learned, to be able to perform at a higher level than your predecessors but not useful to learn anything new.

Is it useful to learn something new now? It depends where you intend to go. If you are happy to stick with where you are, if you are happy that the knowledge, skills and attitudes you have gathered so far are enough to last you for the rest of your life, then it isn’t useful to learn anything new, but if you want to keep pace with change, if you want to get ahead, if you want to make more, be more and have more tomorrow than you do today then having a workable strategy to learn more would be more than useful. It would be essential.

I wonder what your strategy is to be better tomorrow than you are today, or is that not where you are going?