Economic Uncertainty: The Good and the Bad Are a Matter of Perception
Alice Barry was, without question, the hottest girl in my college freshman class.
She had beautiful dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and a sweet smile. From the moment she arrived on campus, the boys, particularly the upper classmen, flocked to her side. How hot was she? Well, just a few years after graduating I heard she went on to marry Lorne Michaels. Yes, theLorne Michaels--of Saturday Night Live. That's how hot. (Go ahead, look it up.)
I was nothing to Alice.
But don't ask Alice about me, she doesn't who know I am. Even so, I doubt she'll mind that I'm writing about her. From what I knew of her she seemed like a pretty nice girl. And I can still pay homage to her beauty and reflect on the moment when I learned something very important about running a business. It was the day that I almost dated Alice Barry.
Yes, that's right. Skinny, smelly, greasy, poorly dressed, pimply little 18-year-old me, standing 5'6" tall, had a shot at Alice Barry. The Alice Barry. The hottest girl in the class. Me.
It was a chilly morning in early October and I sat in the back of my freshman calculus class with my best friend Jeff, another skinny, smelly, greasy, poorly dressed kid (Jeff and I remain good friends and I think he would agree with this assessment, particularly because decades later he looks great and I look more like George Costanza).
Shockingly, Alice started looking at me.
The class was taught by an Afghani professor who had the unique talent of being able to write formulas on the board at the same time with both hands--a feat so compelling that it actually drew a crowd of mesmerized freshmen even at an un-Godly early hour. One person in the crowd that morning, sitting all the way in the front row of the theatre style room, was Alice Barry, looking lovely as usual. Did she ever have a bad morning?
It was just a typical calculus class. Nothing unusual. Except that about halfway through the class, Jeff elbowed me. "Dude," he hissed in my ear. "Is Alice Barry...looking at you?" Ha ha, I whispered back out of the corner of my mouth, eyes fixed on the professor, who was writing another formula on the board with both hands. Clearly Jeff was bored and was trying to stir up trouble.
"No, seriously. She's staring at you! Take a look yourself."
Never one to pass up the opportunity to have another peak at the dazzling Alice, I did steal a glance and saw nothing in particular. She was just sitting and doodling in her notebook. But then...something happened. She turned her head around, slowly, wonderfully, elegantly, and her eyes, those piercing blue eyes, settled on me. I thought I saw a little smile, too. It was only for a moment. But it seemed like a blissful eternity. I almost fell out of my chair.
Something truly special was happening between us.
"Nah, it's probably nothing," I said quietly to Jeff, visibly shaken by the experience. Except it wasn't nothing. During the next 30 minutes, Alice Barry, the Alice Barry, turned and looked at me at least 10 times. At first my friend and I thought it was just a coincidence. But with each lingering gaze we were convinced something special was going on.
"Dude, you have to do something," Jeff said. "She's clearly into you. You can't let this opportunity go away. You have to speak to her." Jeff was right. Alice Barry was looking at me. A lot. Her eyes were questioning, almost pleading for a response. For the remainder of the class, I agonized over what to say. I rehearsed opening lines. My palms were sweating. I was a wreck.
And then the lecture ended. The moment had arrived. The moment when I would finally get to meet the beautiful Alice Barry. I steeled myself, took a deep breath, put my books away, and looked up to where she was sitting. Gone. Alice Barry had left the room within a second of the professor's dismissal. What had happened? Where did she go? Didn't she want to speak to me? After all those longing looks? Was she waiting outside? Jeff looked at me, also in disbelief. We were speechless. Dejected, I reached around to get my coat. And then I saw it. On the wall. Directly behind me. The clock. Alice Barry wasn't looking at me. Alice Barry was watching the clock.
No it wasn't.
"Ha! Now, that explains it," my friend laughed. "Man, nothing is as good it seems, isn't it dude? Let's get something to eat."
Our debt, deficit, and downtown make me feel doom-and-gloom-y.
Fast-forward 31 years. I'm happily married with three kids. I run a 10-person business. And like most business owners, I struggling to grow and profit. A national debt and deficit crisis hangs over us, threatening to throw markets into disarray, dampening the economic mood and my customers' appetite to buy. Unemployment remains stubbornly high. Some economists are forecasting more crises, another recession, a worldwide economic downturn--doom, gloom, and catastrophe. The costs of college tuition are crushing and the challenge of saving money, even for retirement, seems insurmountable. New technologies and younger, smarter competitors pop up every day, disrupting long-established practices and creating turmoil. Taxes are going up.
On the other hand, small businesses have more possibilities.
Sounds bad. But wait. Has there ever been a better time to run a small business? Aren't the costs of starting a new business lower than ever? Doesn't this same technology enable us to provide services and manufacture products quicker and more cheaper than before? Can't an entrepreneur tap new sources of capital by advertising for potential investors and raise money from strangers on crowdfunding sites? Aren't the growing markets of China, India, and other emerging economies providing new customers and greater opportunities for many of us? Aren't we now more energy efficient, and rich with newfound oil reserves? Aren't we smarter than our ancestors? And living longer?
What we perceive or want to perceive is not reality.
Are things really that bad? Are things really that good? The big new deal, the loss of a customer. The great new employee, the resignation of a key manager. The profitable project, the one that blew the budget. Was Alice Barry looking at me? For a few amazing minutes I thought so. Sadly, she was just looking at the clock. What is reality, anyway? It's all just my perception of the world. We all perceive what we think is reality.
Reality was best explained by my friend Jeff: Things are never as good as they seem and things are never as bad as they seem. I learned this many years ago in my freshman calculus class. And that lesson has helped guide me through all the good and bad times that every business owner experiences. Successful business owners know this. It's what makes them successful. It helps keep their perspective so they can navigate through the good times and the bad, whatever you perceive those times to be.
GENE MARKS is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.
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