Outswimming

Thomas Watson Jr., former chairman of IBM, liked to tell anecdotes about his father, Thomas Watson Sr., who built up the company. One of them went like this: "Father was fond of saying that everybody, from time to time, should take a step back and watch himself go by."

This was the elder Watson's way of saying that everyone needs to step back once in a while to check their perspective. Good advice for everyone.

Perspective in business is important. Perspective in life is very important. Perspective has many definitions, such as the ability to understand what is important and what isn't. It's the capacity to view things in their true relation or relative importance.

Humorist Will Rogers once wrote on keeping one's perspective about other people: "You must never disagree with a man while you are facing him. Go around behind him and look the same way he is looking, and you will see that things look different from what they do when you're facing him. Look over his shoulder and get his viewpoint, then go back and face him and you will have a different idea."

Businesses need to keep perspectives fresh or risk failure. Products may come and go, or they may have stood the test of time. Businesses that look at things from their customers' perspectives, rather than resisting change because "we've always done it this way," are more likely to be around for another generation of customers.

Let me give you an example: At our envelope company, our motto is "To be in business forever." The advent of e-mail and paperless transactions certainly has impacted our customers in the ways they do business. Traditional correspondence and billing envelopes have declined. In response, what did we glean from our customers years ago? They advised us to focus on advertising mail, and we invested heavily in that direction. Today, direct mail (advertising mail) is on the rise and coexists and complements the internet.

The Japanese have a saying: You can't see the whole sky through a bamboo tube. In other words, look at the whole picture. Don't be too quick to judge.

You also need to look for the silver lining. Problems will arise, plans will fall apart, and your parade will get rained on. But if you look hard enough you just might be able to find a blue sky.

Are you having trouble seeing the silver lining? Feeling burned out can negatively affect your life as well as your career. These techniques can help you regain your perspective and your passion:

• Fill in the blanks: "In my life, I was once (blank) and now I (blank)." You'll find the answers very enlightening.

• Reflect on the past. Figure out when you were happiest and what got you the most down. How does your perspective change when you compare your current situation with previous challenges?

• Try writing a page or two on what you would like to do with the rest of your life. Don't worry about practicalities or priorities. Just create that dream list.

• Record your thoughts, feelings and hopes, or tell them to a trusted friend. With someone to witness them, you'll feel responsible for making some changes.

Albert Einstein explained perspective in the simplest terms when he was asked for an explanation of his theory of relativity that would be meaningful to lay people. He wrote: "An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour."

Mackay's Moral: When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at often change.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.