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If the following words don’t hit home, then this article isn’t for you: “We’ve never seen a tougher business climate than what we’re up against now. Never. I keep thinking that I see a little flicker of light in the darkness. Then it’s almost like, in just my rushing toward it, I stir up the air and snuff it out. But we’re going to get through this.”

The person who told me this is a friend and a former client. He’s a stalwart marketer and one sharp guy. And he is not the type to use a bad economy as an excuse. He gets up and works hard every day. Despite his successful, quantifiable efforts, though, his executive team still thinks of marketing as a cost rather than as an investment with compelling returns. So the executives are addressing the cost of marketing in the predictable, knee-jerk ways. (Even things as relatively inexpensive as investing in the most sophisticated campaign metrics and ensuring that the company’s marketing database is updated and maintained are getting hacked at. That’s the way it works. Senior executives hack at what they don’t understand.)

Sound familiar? For many, these are stark days.

So I’m tempted to pen a “back to basics,” gospel-quoting, demon-exorcising, old-fashioned, tent revival meeting-style article. But, I think that’s been written only about a hundred times over the past year.

At the heart of the matter.

Instead, I’m going to try something gentler: encouragement.

I like the word “encouragement.” Right in the center of it is the Old French word for heart: “cuer.” The etymology whispers to you: “Stir the heart, friend… and from that comes the courage to continue.”

As we go through our lives, we remember those who offered encouragement, even if it was just for a moment, even if the encouragement came from total strangers.

If you are fortunate and attentive–you see, the thing about getting older is you get a chance to see the patterns and recurring themes if you attend to them–you can find the self-renewing springs of encouragement. In short, you can find just enough of what you–and your company–need…now.

Revisiting strengths.

When I’m facing a tough situation–for example, a deadline that seems nearly impossible or a business problem that seems to have no right answer–there is a habit of mind that I fall back on. I call this habit “revisiting strengths.”

Sometimes, you stare at a stack of work, knowing, in your mind at least, that you have to get on with it. But you find, upon attempting it, that your work is full of fits and starts. And there is halfheartedness in your efforts. It’s at these times that I identify the elements of tet task at hand that seem the easiest, most fun, or inspirational. I start with those.

In other words, I revisit my strengths. I find the things that I know I’m good at and I build from there. This little “mental trick” works almost without fail. It may seem like the equivalent of starting a meal with the dessert. But if the meal doesn’t appear particularly palatable, at least at first, maybe dessert isn’t a bad place to start.

Similarly, I believe that companies must–and not only in times of crisis–revisit their strengths.

One way of doing this is to spend time visiting your customers. Everything you want to know about the relevance of your company’s brand and the value of its products and services is out there, among your customers. The good that you have done will be plainest among them.

Over the years, the most encouraging conversations that I’ve ever had in my professional life have been with customers.

Now, I grant you, various management theorists would criticize this concept of “revisiting strengths.” They would suggest that, perhaps, your company’s existing strengths aren’t enough to address a changing business environment. And that’s why you’re in the pickle that you’re in.

But I’ll tell you this. When you visit your customers (revisiting your company’s strengths through conversations with them)–and listen closely–you will hear more than just what you and your company have been. You will hear intimations of what your company might yet become. It is in their work, their challenges, their fears and their opportunities that you will find all the inspiration and encouragement you need.

Reversing the polarity.

Back in the early 1960s, sometimes we Maher kids would attempt to turn on the rabbit-eared TV in the family room and, well, get nothing. It was like there was no electricity. So my Dad, who was the very opposite of being good with repairs, would offer what sounded like magic words: “Reverse the polarity.” This meant that one of us kids (usually me because I was the youngest) would have to slip behind the TV to the electrical outlet, pull the plug, turn it 180 degrees so the prong that had been on top was now on the bottom, and plug it back in again.

Worked like a charm.

So when you’re facing some tough odds, and there just doesn’t seem to be any juice in the wires, how do you reverse the polarity?

I’ll give you an example. I recently met with a homebuilder client who needed to create a better relationship with a key channel: realtors.

Now the typical homebuilder rolls out cookie-cutter, me-too realtor programs that target every warm body with a realty license. These programs reflect about as much forethought and intelligence as the conversation between a drunken conventioneer and a compensated escort.

Clearly, such programs are what you get when you have conversations that go something like this: (A): “So what are realtors interested in?” (B) “Money.” (A) “Okay, so let’s give ’em more money.” (B): “Great idea.”

The logic, such as it is, is inarguable. Here’s the homebuilder’s thought process: “In order to sell more homes, we must win over the realtors. In order to win over the realtors, we need to raise our commissions and offer more bonuses. That’s how we’ll sell more homes. Plus, let’s face it, folks don’t really need a realtor, anyway.”

But there is a wholly different way of looking at this situation. Flip things around. Begin a discussion with this question: “What can we as a builder do to improve a realtor’s business?”

The answers to this question will result in a far better and more substantive realtor (or any channel) program. Here’s one sample answer: Promote the fact that you reward prospective homebuyers for bringing a realtor with them to a model home.

In almost every marketing situation that I’ve ever been invited to ponder, this concept of flipping things around is a powerful, generative one. Some are better at “catching it” than others. Remember, every great pitcher needs an equally skillful catcher.

Making room for inspiration.

We’ve seen how encouragement can come from revisiting your strengths and adopting a different perspective on a challenge by flipping things around. (And if you’ve noticed that finding sources of encouragement is similar to creative problem-solving, you’ve uncovered the great secret of this article.)

Now it’s time to take a walk. I’m serious. Get out of the office. Go see a movie. Take your mind off what’s vexing you. Turn off your PC and give yourself an “off-browser day.” Listen to some Stan Getz or Mozart or Benjamin Britten or Bill Evans or Spike Jones or Beck or Elvis Costello or Gypsy Kings or Coltrane or Springsteen or Suzanne Vega or Miles Davis or Cassandra Wilson. Read Vonnegut or Walker Percy or Kingsley Amis or the Sunday comics. Or just stand in a city park or on the edge of town, waiting for the next cold front, while a sea of finches and sparrows and starlings streams above you. Work the neglected garden and remember the lovely, multivalent quote: “To garden is to grow.” Do anything that might open your heart or, at the very least, might melt the wax that encases and numbs it. Tell me that you have not forgotten how to do that. And, if, God forbid, you think you have forgotten, all it takes is just a moment to remember. Even the plainest or most humble bit of the world is an invitation to something other than the spinning of your own thoughts. After all, you cannot think your life. You live it.

I’m reminded of these lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

“I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”

When we are under terrific pressure, we fear losing focus or being distracted. But the path to anything worthwhile or wonderful is not straight in any case, although you may wish it so. As Luca Turin, the enthralling subject of Chandler Burr’s new nonfiction work, The Emperor of Scent, puts it: “Metaphor is the currency of knowledge. I have spent my life learning incredible amounts of disparate, disconnected, obscure, useless pieces of knowledge, and they have turned out to be, almost all of them, extremely useful.” For Turin, straying is the path.

Still, if you’re like my friend, the stalwart marketer and hard worker, you probably think that there’s only one way through the maze: by sweat and will. You may be the sort of person who works themselves beyond the point of exhaustion, especially when prospects are dim.

Let it all go for a day or even an hour. Will someone think that you’ve given up? When a crisis is upon you, is recreation any less important, or might it be even more important?

Oddly enough, I think exhaustion and/or distraction may actually be part of the creative process. (And, again, that’s really what I’ve been talking about all along. It is in our moments of creativity–and I define the word “creativity” very broadly–that encouragement in the form of inspiration comes bounding in. For me, the creative process seems to move in fairly distinct phases from immersion in a topic or challenge; to revulsion, yes, revulsion, during which you can hardly stand to think about the problem any longer, to exhaustion, when you’ve worn yourself out and just need to sleep, or distraction, when your mind is drawn by accident or necessity to other things; until, finally, there is the grace of a tap on the shoulder, a whisper in the ear, or the story of a dream, and a pattern is, seemingly all at once, discerned. The one problem with this description is how neat and orderly it all sounds. And there isn’t always a happy ending. But–and perhaps this is just the reassuring story that I tell myself–if I, at least, get through the immersion phase, something interesting will eventually emerge.)

Exhaustion forces your grip to loosen. For some, it’s the only way to let go.

As for distraction, there are numerous examples of scientific breakthroughs that have occurred when a researcher was compelled by events (just the basic distractions of daily life may be enough) to put the problem down for awhile or when a sleeping researcher was presented, like the Greek healer Aesculapius, with the proper remedy in the shape of a dream. (Very little attention is paid to the 25 years of our lives that we spend asleep. It may be the last frontier for investigation and optimization. On the other hand, I think we’d do well just to leave it alone. As sure I’m writing this, though, some clever entrepreneur is trying to find a way to bend sleep to the workings of the will.)

You know the story of Homer’s Odysseus. He was the fabled wanderer “skilled in all ways of contending.” The one thought that encouraged him–that, literally, strengthened his heart–was the idea of returning home to Ithaca and his wife Penelope. He worked for years toward that goal with a unique combination of guile and muscular will. Hardly ever would he let his guard down. And in a time of temptresses, one-eyed monsters, and beckoning Sirens, keeping your guard up was a matter of self-preservation.

So how exactly does Odysseus find his way back home? A final act of heroic will, perhaps?

No. Queen Arete and King Alcinous of Phaeacia, known for their grace and hospitality, grant him transportation home on a mysterious ship…while he sleeps.

Yes. The hero sleeps his way home. Get your rest.

This Personal Development article was written by Chris Maher on 3/18/2005