That was how you got to be a power in the land, he thought. You never cared a toss about whatever anyone else thought and you were never, ever, uncertain about anything – Captain Vimes in Terry Pratchett’s “Guards! Guards!”
I have rediscovered Terry Pratchett recently, and realised something – or at least had it pointed out by Neil Gaiman in another book.
Pratchett is a hard to pin down writer, combining the wit of Douglas Adams with the output of P.G Wodehouse.
His writing is funny and clever, which means that clever people probably look at the funny bit and assume that it’s not going to be something they will get into while funny people don’t perhaps get just how clever some of the stuff is.
And there is lots of it, buried within the funny bits.
Let’s leave out the physics – just focus on the social observations he makes.
For example, in one of his books he says that when people ask for advice they don’t really want you to tell them anything.
The sort of want you to be around while they talk about it.
It’s taken me a while to realise that – but having done so it’s created a rather interesting line of business so far.
And then you have his observation about power, which is in the quote above that for me, anyway, is a complete eye-opener.
Let me explain.
For a while, I have been observing people that I term born business folk – people who have a certain something about them.
It’s their ability to look at a situation and make a decision.
Now, that decision may be based on facts and opinion, some of which I agree with and some of which seem wrong, and some of which I know to be wrong.
But it’s not just a decision – it’s a sense of certainty they give out when they make that decision.
As if they’ve just said, “Here I stand!”, they’ve planted a standard and there is no moving them.
You wonder sometimes whether they realise just how badly things could go… and come to the conclusion that they do not.
And so you scuttle back, step into the shadows, and wait and see what happens.
Perhaps with a touch of schadenfreude, waiting for the inevitable downfall.
Now clearly, to any right thinking person, that way of operating – certainty until the fates prove you right or wrong – has a range of outcomes.
We remember the wins and forget the losses – heroes are created by selecting winners after all.
And eventually there seems to be a link between confidence and certainty and success.
We follow the leader that sounds confident because in the past such leaders led others to victory.
Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Joan of Arc.
It’s the other observation of Terry’s that starts to balance things out.
Do you care what other people think?
If you do, then you’re in a different game – one where politics is important and keeping up appearances is crucial.
In such a world it’s far more important not to fail than it is to win.
It’s the “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” sort of world.
Certainty in a world where success depends on what other people think can lead to odd results.
Take painters, for example.
Many have been certain in their art but less successful in a market.
What matters as much is knowing your business – knowing what needs to happen regardless of what other people think.
So, how do these two things relate?
Imagine you’re building a product because you think someone else is going to need it – then your chances of success are probably the same as most products that are brought to the market – perhaps 5 percent or so.
If you build something because you need it – because you’re scratching your own itch – then you’re starting to tilt the odds in your favour.
Let’s say you’ve done your research and you understand the approach you need to take and how viable your product is – how are you going to market it?
If you are diffident and balanced about the pros and cons of what you are going to do – then you’ll find that people will be equally circumspect.
They will note your lack of confidence and instinctively move away.
It’s just what happens.
But, if you can marry research and a thorough knowledge of your business – if you’re operating in what Warren Buffett calls your circle of competence then you need to – you must take decisive action when the time calls for it.
You must be confident that you are right and you will prevail.
What got the ancestors of old their portraits on the wall was because they brought this combination of skills to their battles.
If they were green, untrained, able only to fight on paper – but confident in their approach and holding power, they probably sent their soldiers to their slaughter.
But if they knew their field, their tactics, their people – and then they led the battle, their army followed and they probably won.
And ended up with the loot and the castle and the portrait.
What this means for us is this.
If you want power temporarily, you can get it through politics.
If you want real power, the kind of thing that lasts for generations – you get that through your work.
And power does not have to be money and jewels and castles.
These days power has more to do with what you have in your mind.
Which is why your work matters.