Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The best laid plans

In the excitement of launching a new undertaking, optimism usually runs high. Natural, of course, as one would hardly embark on a new adventure if pessimistic about its success.

Sadly, the task often, perhaps inevitably, turns out to be much more difficult than initially anticipated, and optimism turns to despair as things get bogged down and ruin threatens.

Paradoxically, the anxiety that follows from such rash acts may very well produce results much greater than the original objectives.

This is the gist of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker review of a new book, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, which focuses on the life, achievements, observations, and thinking of the recently deceased economist.

Gladwell cites the Karnaphuli Paper Mills in East Pakistan as an example. The multimillion-dollar mill was built near vast bamboo forests that unexpectedly flowered and died, making them useless for papermaking. There was great anxiety that fuelled a search for a solution, and the ultimate result was a much larger, more sustainable, more diverse supply chain that involved bringing bamboo from around the country, research into faster growing species, and the use of other kinds of lumber, all of which collectively brought great success.

Hirschman pointed out that, despite being viewed as risk takers, entrepreneurs are mostly attracted to propositions that they do not perceive as risky. When the harsh reality sets in, they must get creative to avoid a loss.

Of course, this is at odds with the traditional belief that careful planning, by avoiding such problems, will produce the best result.

I can attest to this on the basis of my own modest business adventures. Business school professors had drilled the importance of planning into my head, implying that failure was mostly a result of insufficient forethought. But in the real world, unforeseen complications always cropped up, and the final outcome was often quite different from what had been envisioned when starting out.

Hirschman suggested that anxiety is, in fact, the emotion that drives people to find solutions. In its absence, complacency takes over.


  1. There's no guarantees in life about anything, that's for goddamn sure. Not that I meant this to sound bitter but it does kinda, doesn't it? LOL

    1. Well, maybe just a little, but you're right. Thanks, Debra.

  2. I have no experience running a business but I'm not surprised that the message from the educators was that failure is the result of insufficient foresight. Sorta been the mantra of the whole educational system for a long long time. There are some very anal people in the profession, Doug. Here's to anxiety!