Chaos or Calm: Make it a Choice, not an Excuse

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I had 15 free minutes today to write and I decided to take full advantage of it.  If you were to see my surroundings  you might ask how could anything meaningful come out of the situation I’m sitting in.  I’m at our Davidson Masterworks School of the Arts location this afternoon.  We teach music, art, theater, and dance, and all of them are going on right now at the same time.  I hear a blend of sounds coming from every direction – Bach, Beethoven on the  pianos….Cat Stevens, Irving Berlin  from the vocal studios…. a scale from a beginning trumpet student which really sounds great for a second lesson!  I can count at least five  different musical styles wafting through the walls at once.  Then there is the visual of what I am seeing through my large glass observation window – two parents signing up their children for art classes….two students from Theater Company quickly rehearsing  a duet for this year’s production of  White Christmas ….. and students laughing and catching up after a week of activities since last week’s rehearsals.  It’s chaos at it’s best!!!  Strangely, it doesn’t shut me down.  Instead it fuels me.  I love what I see and hear because it means there is life and activity at Masterworks.  This is EXACTLY  what I pictured in my mind before the school ever began.  I work really well in the midst of chaos!  It’s my happy place!

Now, contrast that with what I saw this very early morning as I passed my wife’s office door and saw the familiar sight of her methodically working over her long yellow legal pad.  She has Mary Kay people all over the United States she likes to  communicate with on a consistent basis.  I watched her working strategically on a list of negotiable ideas she had to convey in a group communication.  Her computer was shut, her phone was in another room, and the household stereo which she loves to have on was completely silent.  She loves the serenity and calm of the early morning to have time to plan and focus and keep everything on track.  I might add – our laundry room is off to the side of her office.  She already had a load in the washer and one in the dryer by 7:00 a.m.  She already was crossing off her to-do list….one by one, methodically.

Two different people – two different styles.  I thought for years that one was more productive and effective than the other.  Confession – I thought chaos is the straight up winner (my wife is laughing as she reads that statement…) But as I look back over the years I realize neither is better than the other – Chaos or Calm – it really is not the X factor for the entrepreneur.  I have heard many entrepreneurs “blame” their situation or their lack of progress on their circumstances.   I have heard those who claim to thrive on chaos complain that their is nothing going on around them -that  they need activity  and people around them to get inspired and feel like they can work.  No chaos – no progress.  They need synergy, a team, something to be a part of.

Those who need quiet say that with the chaos of a crazy schedule they just can’t get “it” done.  They just have too much chaos in their lives to bring their dreams and plans to reality.

The truth is  each has its place and time.  While our circumstances can often affect our success, I don’t believe it is the central factor that determines our forward momentum.  Too often we make excuses and these are two of the biggest I hear – chaos or calm.   But in honesty,  I believe  neither is really the determining factor of success.  It really is a choice but it’s not the “reason” you succeed or fail, and it really can’t be your excuse either.

After several decades of dealing with entrepreneurs I believe that the magic formula, the one overriding X factor that leads to accomplishment – the determining factor in whether you are celebrating accomplishment or licking your wounds in defeat,  sits right in front of me each day on a small card.   I look at it every time I sit down.  The X factor is:  FOCUS!


FOCUS – that’s the key !  I know there are other words I have added on my card but they flow out of focus.  Ever had your eyes dilated?  When the drops go in and everything becomes out of focus.  Even the simple tasks of life are clumsy, inefficient and just a plain pain in the neck to do.  It doesn’t matter how hard we try – everything we try to do is just a little out of whack.  I hate it when my doctor does it.

I have noticed among people who are achievers and those who are not, focus is a common factor.  Ask them what is important…ask them what the next goal is….ask them why they got out of bed this morning.  The answers usually come quickly and without hesitation.  Focus is the ability to see the finish line clearly;  and order and prioritize the days events and activities.

By the same token, talk to someone who is struggling to pull it all together and what do you get.  Lots  of random thoughts that are in six different directions and each screaming for time and attention.

Just like the words on my shelf, the highest priorities of my life sit on a visual shelf in my mind. Sometimes there are two or more finish lines that I have to deal with at the same time.   I know what they are, I know how they rank and daily, sometimes hourly, I bring them to mind.  There are other things on my radar and other things that distract me, but what determines how I spend the next hour is determined by my focus.  In fact that brings up another important truth that I believe in – having clear focus will help keep momentum going and without momentum nothing gets done.

I am amazed by the people who get all excited about starting something only to see their dreams derailed.  As I look for common denominators, I usually see that  there is no consistent motion in the direction of the goal.  They stop and start, get distracted (often by someone else’s goals) …stop and start and stop and start again.  Regaining momentum after you have sat down or been distracted seems to take twice as long to restart.  And note to self:  trying to regain momentum after you have sat down is like pushing a boulder uphill. Trying to get things going again always seems to take twice as long and be twice as hard as it was the first time.

For the entrepreneur there is often no boss standing over your shoulder demanding you finish a task.  Instead your boss is your own  focus.  Let that sink in for a moment.

So what happens – two,  three days of unfocused inactivity turn into two or three weeks of inactivity which leads to unfulfilled dreams and goals.  Which in turn leads to starting over and over again.

Now  one word of caution – focus can be  the X factor but it can also be our undoing. Your focus  becomes your reality.  When you mistakenly focus on the possibility or probability of failure, you continually question if something will happen,  that’s where you will  end up.

So today, and this week,  keep the focus tight.  There are going to be periods of calm and periods of chaos – accept that fact but don’t let the situation be your excuse or reason.   Keep your vision right in front of you.  The finish line is not as far away as you think.  Let your focus encourage you to keep your priorities straight and your activity consistent.  Your FOCUS will pull you  forward towards your dream.

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An Entrepreneurial Paycheck I Couldn’t Deposit

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The label “Entrepreneur” often brings the Bill Gates lifestyle to mind. We tend to believe that the payoffs of entrepreneurial efforts come in the form of expensive cars, mansions, luxury vacations, and opulent lifestyles. But sometimes the payoffs are nowhere near as visible. They don’t have monetary value. They only have the rewards that you experience in your heart and mind. Sometimes the memory, the sense of accomplishment, and the motivation from an entrepreneurial effort ARE the payoff.

In 1999 Susie and I moved back to North Carolina and began Masterworks School of the Arts. Initially the school had no physical location. I would drive from home to home giving piano lessons. My wife often called me the “piano man”. I was usually in the same 40 homes each week and I saw about 55 students. I have a whole treasure trove of laugh-out-loud stories from those three years that I will someday put into writing!

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in each home, getting to know the families, understanding the kids, and finding a way to unlock the learning potential of each student. As weeks passed I began to see something that I wasn’t expecting. An incredible number of families were struggling with family relationships. Parents who had to travel struggled with balancing work and family. Marriages needed help and answers. Some of the kids were out of control (one day a 4 inch rock actually landed in the middle of a grand piano from the balcony overhead as a toddler laughed uncontrollably – the parents just sighed…). I was being asked questions that I couldn’t and didn’t want to try to answer. In lighter moments I would laugh, but in reflective moments I would feel a real sadness for what I was seeing.

During this time our Pastor did a four week series called “Raising Healthy Families”. I remember sitting in the services thinking ”if only I could load up many of my customers and drive them 30 minutes to the church.” I tried handing out some invitation cards but soon realized I could not convince most of my customers to make the trek with me. I was searching for a solution for them just to hear the insight, encouragement, and principles of our Pastor. If they did it would change the dynamic of their families.

The entrepreneurial part of me wanted to create a solution and “fix” a problem. As I drove from house to house I kept wondering how I could get the families to a church thirty minutes away. Then one morning I saw a school bus from a school forty minutes away picking up a group of students. The school was expanding into an area outside the comfortable driving range of it’s normal student populace making it easy for parents to have their children in a good school. That sparked an idea – I would bring the church to them!! The solution was pretty simple. Bring the information to them in the form of a Neighborhood Guest Speaker Event. I hadn’t ever seen or heard of one, I didn’t know if it would work or exactly how to do it, but I knew the idea and motivation behind it were sound so we got to work.

Susie and I rented a venue, found a caterer, and started to promote the gathering for moms and dads. The only problem was the cost – the event would cost hundreds of dollars that I really didn’t have at that point. Still believing we had an answer to a problem that was really weighing on our hearts, we continued making plans believing that the risk was worthwhile and we would find the money somewhere. Then we had the idea to charge a seat fee. Outwardly while I was trying to tell people it was a good idea, I was thinking in my head that if I were a parent and was being asked to buy a ticket and spend my Friday evening at a speaker’s night on “How to Raise Successful Kids” I probably would have politely declined.

Then the first payoff happened. Several families said they had been waiting for something like this and asked if they could buy a table and hand tickets out to their friends. A huge sense of accomplishment came over me when I realized I had come up with a plan that was gaining traction. It was fun and rewarding to have “running partners.” Within 7 days all ten tables were purchased by supportive families and all 95 tickets were committed. I learned very quickly that there are always others who see the same needs you do – they just don’t have the mindset to get a solution rolling. Sometimes it’s just hard to come up with a creative solution and step out with a plan. But when you do the momentum becomes unstoppable! More than that – I felt like I had just had a huge “entrepreneurial payoff” knowing that we had begun something that was important and had taken on a life of its own.

The real payoff came the night of the event. However, at the outset I didn’t think there would be any reward because the evening didn’t begin well. Susie and I welcomed the couples in and I sensed a great deal of shall we say…..annoyance? Lots of wives were happy to be there because the people who bought the tables for their friends managed to creatively help us turn the evening into a social “must attend” event. As I stood up to introduce the speaker I saw a lot of crossed arms, frowning faces, and glances at wristwatches when I said “in just ninety minutes you will hear……” This had the potential to get ugly!

But slowly, things changed. As the speaker delivered his well prepared ideas, the body language in the room completely shifted. By the closing words our guests were sitting on the edge of their seats wanting more information. As I closed I asked them to say thank you to the speaker. The entire room stood to their feet and gave him a thunderous round of applause.

That evening, as I stood at the door saying goodbye and watching my customers and friends leave, time seemed to slow for a moment as I contemplated what had just happened and what it meant for the future. I knew the results of what my customers had heard would take days, weeks, and months to take effect – but I knew in some cases there could be profound differences. At that moment I felt a huge sense of reward- reward for taking a chance, reward for following my sense of need, reward for making a difference, reward for helping my customers. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and I realized that what I was experiencing at that moment was the payout for taking the initiative to help meet a need. There was no check to deposit in the bank – no new students – no increase in the bottom lone. Nothing that I could point to and say look at that!

To this day, I feel that few of my entrepreneurial efforts were as important or as rewarding as that evening. I’ve seen a lot and done a lot, but most of it doesn’t bring me the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as those moments did.

Looking in the review mirror I realize several important entrepreneurial life lessons:
1.  When God tells you to do something – just do it! He’s got the details!
2.  Gather people around you who see your vision – their energy and creativity will help the project take on new life and possibly a new look.
3.  You can’t always deposit your biggest payouts in your bank account. Sometimes your paycheck is only something that you can see, feel and experience from affecting someone’s life.
4.  When you see a need – don’t worry about the fact that what you see as a solution has never been done before. Chart a course of action that seems reasonable or maybe even a stretch and go for it.
5.  Sometimes you just have to risk investing when you can’t see exactly how the finances are going to work. ( I know I just lost the Dave Ramsey fans.)

Some of us don’t have the riches of an entrepreneur. You may have something more important – the heart. Some of you are true entrepreneurs and don’t even know it.

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