Late in September 2001 the world seemed to be collapsing around me while I stood, waiting my turn in line to pass through the door at the end of the hallway. The guy I shared an office with was there too, along with others from my department. In single file, we were waiting for our turn to meet with the person from human resources. A week earlier our boss had let us know the reason for this interview: another round of layoffs. This was a new experience for me; the future beyond that door was uncertain.
The person before me came out with some papers in his hand and quietly walked down the hall. It was my turn. I entered through the door and closed it. A long table was set across one end of the room, like a partition. On my side of the table was a single, vacant chair. I walked over and sat in it. There was a person I had not met before sitting immediately across the table from me. My boss was sitting nearby, visibly uncomfortable. Without delay and in a contumelious tone I was told that my employment with the company was ended. After an incomprehensible recitation of legalese, papers were slid across the table at me like a weapon, a pen placed on top of them, and I was ordered to sign. I did not know what the papers said, and though I had made it a habit to read the things I signed, I was too disconcerted to think. I signed. Then I was instructed to get my things from my desk and leave directly. I collected a small box of pictures and books from my desk and walked to my car. As I drove home in the middle of the work day, I looked at people in other vehicles, especially those in work trucks and delivery vans, and thought how unreal it all seemed; I was unemployed.
My wife and I had lived on well less than our income in order to pay down our debts and save. With a little financial security, I wanted to go back to college and finish my degree. We thought it might take a year and a half to complete and had enough savings to live that long. However, my plans were dashed when the school adviser informed me that I had been out of school too long and would have to start over. We didn’t have enough money for that. So the plan changed to getting a part-time job to extend our savings so that I could complete a four year degree. I interviewed at several places, but was told that, only if I were willing to take a full-time position would they consider me for hire. After a couple of months it was apparent that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to find a well paying, part time job while I went to school. I hatched a new plan—I would start my own business, work on it part time, and go to school. With a field of dreams playing in my head I struck out on a new adventure.
In December 2001 I started my first business. I had an idea for a new product that I thought was revolutionary. Putting together a simple business plan, I was shocked at how easy it seemed I could make a fortune over night. After starting work on the project, however, I realized it would take longer and more effort to produce than I had originally imagined. If I wanted to start a business in earnest, it would take all of my time. Swimming in a day dream of dollar signs, my plan changed again: after making my fortune, then I would go back to school.
Starting around 7:00AM each morning I worked until about 8:00PM each evening, taking short breaks to eat with my family. Winter rolled by outside my office room window. I shoveled the snow from the walks a couple times, my wife did it the rest of the time and the driveway too. Spring came and I noticed that it stayed light longer outside the window. By mid-spring my product was progressing but I still didn’t have any customers, I had spent all of my time and more than half of our savings on the business and we hadn’t made any money. Things were beginning to look less hopeful.
On a sunny afternoon at the end of May, still headlong in my development project, I went to my brother’s house to meet some people from his work that wanted a new product in a related field. Hoping for something that might work, I was eager to meet with them. I walked to his door under an intense sun pouring heat from the sky. My brother answered my knock at the door and invited me into the dark cool of his house.
After a brief conversation about nothing in particular, the people there explained that they wanted a product built for a potential customer of theirs. Chief among their concerns was how long it would take to build the product. I realized that a significant portion of the work I had done over the proceeding months could be re-purposed to shorten the time required to develop the product they wanted. I told them of this option, thinking it would further establish my value to the project. They were very eager to include my previous work. I showed some documentation of it. They looked and were complimentary, but obviously more interested in what I said: I said that I could build what they wanted in the time frame they wanted. They seemed satisfied with that.
Directing the conversation to a potential business arrangement, they suggested we organize a new company together, my brother and I receiving half for our development of the product and they would retain half for bringing the idea and customer. My brother and I said that we would get back with them in the next day or two with our decision and they left.
My brother and I discussed the opportunity and potential arrangements. My first concern was that I felt that my brother’s business associates were not honest. Considering that I would be working with my brother and that together we would own half of the company I figured if we stuck together, we could make it work. Besides, on second thought, I had worked with dishonest people before and didn’t believe it would be significant. My more pressing concern was the arrangement between my brother and I. He could not afford to give up his current job because of his financial situation. He said that he could work part-time on the project outside of his regular employment. It was clear that I was expected to do the bulk of the work. Given the amount of time I had been working recently, I thought I might be able cut back on my own project and squeeze it all in.
Still perplexed and deep in thought I went home. My mind was divided. The time, effort, sacrifice and risk that would be required of me seemed much greater than anyone else’s. They all had good jobs. I was risking all of my time, effort, an income and my previous work. Still the wealth that had been discussed was so enticing. In addition, the opportunity of learning sales and marketing and more about business from them was intriguing. Of all of the various pros and cons, the one I was most keen on was a real customer.
By the time I arrived home, I had decided that I wanted to do it. I told my wife about the arrangements in the best possible light. As I explained, she focused on the unequal share of work and risk which we would have to bear. However, with persuasion, including the justifications I had formulated to quiet my own doubts, her concerns were ameliorated and she agreed that we could do it. I called my brother and told him that I was in. He was obviously pleased and said that he would let the others know.
I had a few weeks of dedicated work on the new product. Then unexpected things began to intrude on development. Being the only person with detailed knowledge of the developing product, the partners told me I needed to provide documentation to the potential customer on short notice. It took a couple days and nights strung together to produce, but I got it. Then they asked if I could meet with representatives of the customer at the customer’s offices to discuss the product. I went to the meeting. It started more than an hour late. By the time it finally started, all of the partners had left for other commitments, and I was left as the sole representative of our new little company to answer questions and details about the developing product and business.
Before long I was communicating with the potential customer on the phone directly and regularly, providing sales support in addition to developing the product. All of the unplanned meetings, phone calls, correspondence and reports ate up big amounts of time in addition to the necessary preparation, travel, coordination and follow-up. It became harder and harder to develop the product during the day, so I started working later into the night.
After a few weeks I was summoned to the partners’ office where they informed me that they had met with another potential customer who was much bigger than the potential customer I had been working with. They were giddy with excitement. It was going to make us rich. They wanted me to drop everything and develop a solution specifically for the new group. Because I had already shown the product I had been developing to the first group, they said I couldn’t show it to the new potential customer. They said we had to have a new product that looked different, with different features. Bewildered, I jumped to creating a new product. Insistent that the presentation be something special, I scrambled to build a couple different designs in six weeks. Almost having it complete, we were informed that the new potential customer had gone out of business. I was shocked and deeply disappointed.
Numbly I went back to the original project for the first group. However, before I had gotten far, I was summoned again and told about another, better opportunity with a different group with new requirements. However, several weeks into the third product, the customer canceled.
Deeply wounded but not vanquished, I became more determined to get a customer and I thought that our best opportunity was with the first group that had been there all along, waiting for their product, with whom I had continued to work off and on. However, a new feature requirement had been added. They found another provider with a similar product, which didn’t have a particular feature that we had planned to add to ours, but not until later. Hoping to beat the competition, the partners asked that I create the extra feature first, before completing the rest of the product. I started on it right away.
One challenge was that I had no prior knowledge of the feature they wanted, which included a number of very specific rules of behavior. The partners gave me some general guidelines and a few simple examples of how it should work. As I began to work on it, I found that some of the guidelines conflicted under special circumstances. I told them about the problems with the guidelines, but they told me not to worry about the special circumstances, just the common ones for the time being, which I did. When the initial work was complete I showed it to them. In general the feature worked as expected, however, it became very apparent that those pesky exceptional cases popped up pretty regularly, which simply would not work. The feature would have to be rebuilt.
By this time Christmas forced me into considering the hard fact that my family savings were nearly gone. We had just enough for food, utilities, and house payments for the next two months. We had $100 dollars besides, that we intended to spend on Christmas for our family of five. When we received our utility bill, it was $100 more than we had budgeted, leaving us no money for Christmas. We were happy to have a roof over our heads and enough to pay the gas bill, so we didn’t say anything to anyone about it. Two weeks before Christmas we had a big surprise: someone generously and anonymously left a pile of Christmas presents on our porch while we were not at home. I thought only the partners knew that my financial situation was tightening. As a result I guessed that one of them might have done it, which filled me with a sense of obligation toward them. Now, years later, I still have not discovered who did it, but their kindness has not been forgotten.
With the impetus of our financial situation, I knew I had to create a complete solution and get the customer as quickly as possible. There was no time to loose. This time it had to be right. I was determined to become the expert with no middlemen in the information chain. I set out to learn all that I could about the subject for myself, including all of the special circumstances and exceptions. My search and learning were rewarded, as I formulated rules that produced the correct behavior in every instance. Along the way I discovered that in my previous attempt I had made a number of poor assumptions early on, at the time seemingly benign, which became serious problems. Correct, basic concepts were required in order to establish rules that would be correct in all circumstances. This experience proved to be an important lesson on many fronts, but probably most importantly about getting at the root for myself. The rules I formulate for my own life may be equally misguided if I do not understand the root principles that govern it.
With a complete and documented design, I set out again to create the required feature. I was about half way through the development, when I heard that things weren’t going very well for the group we had begun with as our first potential customer, which by this time was our only remaining customer lead. I had one house payment left in the bank and nothing to pay utilities with. The future looked dismal, but I wanted it to work desperately. I was frustrated that the partners had consistently pulled me off the project, while their attention was elsewhere and our potential customers had all seemingly slipped through our fingers. Here it was eight months later and I did not have a working product, it was still weeks away and now it looked like we had no ready customer.
* * *
It was already dark and cold on an evening during the first week of February when I received a phone call asking me to drive to town and meet with the partners. I drove the half hour to my brother’s office, wondering at the unexplained and odd request. After parking my car, I descended the stairs to his basement office in a little business park and was invited into the fore room and offered a chair.
After a little small talk, they got to the point. They informed me that at about the same time we had formed our venture together, they had started another. It had customers and was making a little money. They were working to get more customers, but development of the product was progressing too slowly. They wanted me to join this other little company with the hope that I would be able to finish the product. They asked me to meet their very strict deadlines in exchange for a stake in their business as a full partner.
Desperate for money, I didn’t think about it much. I simply asked how soon they could pay me. They wrote me my first month’s check right then and there. It was barely enough to cover our mortgage, utilities and food, but it was enough to survive. I accepted and dove in, working long hours to save the little company. I found that I was the only person working full-time in it, which was a surprise, but at least the company was making a little money…and we had customers.
The company had many problems and emergencies that ran from one day to the next. Many nights I did not sleep. Despite the constant string of challenges, the business grew and with it, my pay checks increased. Though I was primarily responsible for all business activities, I was grateful to have customers, income, and finally a little attention from my partners relating to my business questions.
As we delivered features, the customers asked questions. None of the partners had the answers, so they sent the customers to me. Soon the customers found that I knew what they wanted to know about what was being done. They also learned that I was the one making the changes they requested. Getting wise to the calling tree, they began to call me directly. I didn’t mind, because it saved me from having to explain things to the partners and then get on a conference call with a customer and explain it again.
The partners were fine with this, as long as I knew the “company line,” so they began to coach me in the craft of giving information their way: in a way that only told a select part of the truth in the best possible light, but the customer was left to believe what they wanted to believe. This sparked a controversy over truth and honesty: I asked them if this wasn’t the same thing as lying to the customer. They explained that the world is not black and white, but many shades of gray; that my questions were quaint, and out of touch with the business realities of the present.
Their arguments were many and persuasive. They questioned not only the wisdom of individuals that made absolute assertions, but their rationality and mature acquaintance with reality. They openly disparaged the ignorance of individuals that believed that there was some actual hard and fast truth – some complete, absolute black or white anywhere in the purview of life, but more particularly in “business”. They challenged all systems of rules as simply the rules of one man against another, open to individual interpretation and adaptation. In their view, anyone with a more strict interpretation than anyone else was needlessly restricting and disadvantaging themselves. Furthermore, those with the fewest rules on themselves and the most wielded on others, win.
Their assertions and arguments reminded me of my not-long-past lesson about carefully getting to the root for myself. My lesson about the importance of rule systems and principles inspired me to begin what became a long search for the root of this gray world philosophy.
* * *
Time went on and I quickly assumed more and more responsibility for the operations of the company. I was surprised that the partners were not only willing for me to assume the responsibility, they actually worked to make it happen. Everyone was eager for me to do all that I was willing to do—except for the accounting. They wanted to write the checks and manage the accounts. I later learned that this was their idea of perfect control: I would do the work and they would manage what they thought counted most, the money. This type of control through division of labor and money is a fairly common practice in many forms of human relationships, from marriage to politics. It stems, as I found out, from the gray world philosophy.
Soon it was obvious that for all intents and purposes, I was running the company. During the day I would manage the business: meetings, contractors, and customers. During the night I would create the products for our business, desperately trying to keep up with all of the agreements that were made during the day. Time seemed to become one long blur. Indeed, it seemed I was living in a gray world.
Numbing to the gray world about me, I become more aware of another color, the green of dollars. Over the months our checks steadily grew from meager beginnings to a modest income. Before summer ended I received a check comparable to my employment before I was laid off. I was amazed at the growth. It was astounding. I continued to struggle headlong into the daily challenges with countless hours of work. I spent time with my family on Sundays. The rest of the time, I saw them at passing as they came into my home office delivering meals. The checks continued to rise. Then came the day, just before Christmas that we payed ourselves more money than I had ever before received in a paycheck. It wasn’t a lot more, but it was more.
My wife and I used our growing income to pay our debts, fix some of the things that had fallen into disrepair during the period that we had been without an income, and rebuild our savings. Our gray world seemed to be emerging into a different kind of light.
The partners brought a new customer, whom I met with entirely by myself. After some days of negotiating had passed, I discovered that the new customers were speaking about some of my partners as their partners. I asked those partners about it. They told me they would come clean: they were taking a role as advisers in the new customer’s company and would be receiving a portion of the customer’s business as compensation, in addition to their portion in our company. In essence they were taking part on both sides of the deal, in an expanded role with the new customer. They offered to share with me a portion of their share. Part of their justification was that some of the partners in our company weren’t pulling their weight. Their solution was to find a source of income which the others would not participate in, and yet not cause any bad feelings because the others had no knowledge of it. By this I discovered there were hidden areas of gray in the world that were affecting me and my business in significant ways that I may not be aware of. I began to watch for tell-tell signs that might help me discover more of this unseen world of ever darker gray.
The following year our business continued to grow and the workload did too. As I began to hire, I was surprised to find how difficult it was to find qualified people. Still, with time my team grew. As the help increased, I pared my work hours down to fourteen hours a day, with only occasional all-nighters. It seemed comparatively pleasant. Along with the good hires came others who were incapable or unwilling to do the work, but happy to collect a paycheck. They cost large amounts of time and money to train and good will with customers when products were not delivered on time. It was painful and disappointing. We made many efforts to change assignments and find ways that they could fit. For the most part it didn’t work. In fact, in a number of instances we were grossly taken advantage of, even robbed. In this I learned that my partners were not the only disciples of the gray world.
With more interaction with the partners, I became aware that their primary focus was on putting their moneys into other ventures. I began to work with them in their other ventures, putting all of my available financial resources into them. Living from my savings again, I went without a paycheck for most of the next year.
We bought a business and searched for a person who could drive it to success. In essence we tried to reproduce our success with what had become known as my business. In addition to our purchase, we started another business into which the partners brought some people they knew. After meeting with these new directors, it was clear to me that some of them were clearly dishonest, and I shared my concerns with the partners. They said they were not concerned because they could control it—they would keep the accounting. I was struck by their pervasive belief that any problem could be resolved by control and that control to them seemed to always mean, in one way or another, money. As was my habit by this time, I quietly disagreed. These seemed to me, to be more trappings of the gray world, so I added them to my studies.
We purchased or started more businesses. As the number of businesses we owned grew, I had the opportunity to meet and observe many people. My observations soon led me to realize that most of the people I met were something other than happy—most of the time. When they were happy it was often some kind of momentary good fortune, an accidental pretense that could be shattered by a mere anxious thought. Their happiness was something they experienced, but never became part of them. Soon after an encounter with happiness, their memory became clouded and their present sense of normal existence would return to a perceived scene of misuse, abuse, dissatisfaction, and betrayal. They were jealous, bored, tired, hungry and hurting. Their constant slogan seemed to be, “it isn’t fair.” They did not love what they did at work or at home. They just did it because they thought that they had to, for one reason or another. They lived for the exceptions in their lives: the hope of something that, when or if it came, was short lived, and then they were back to drudgery, loathing it and complaining about it incessantly. They were people who hated Mondays along with most of the rest of the week, and loved weekends, especially the long ones. I was surprised by the discovery and wondered if it too might be related to the gray world philosophy I had been leaning so much about in my personal study. I added it to my expanding research.
From my studies I slowly began to realize that something was not right with our businesses. We were doing many things recommended by the vogue business strategies of the day, from management practices to diversification of income streams, but the investments did not materialize into added wealth. Each one seemed more sure and lucrative, but most were constantly needing more funds and requiring emergency attention at the worst times.
As we invested, each investment came under the supervision of one or another of the partners. One of the partners proposed that we get involved in a very expensive and risky venture. The potential of the investment was very high and we convinced ourselves that the risk was relatively low in spite of significant warning signs to the contrary. We decided to do it. I put everything I had into it. I borrowed all I could and put that in also.
The business was a major flop. We threw good money after bad – everything we earned for months. Then when it was obvious that it was not going to work and we were loosing our shirts, I worked with the partners to close the business and sell the assets. It took the relatively little that I got back from the sale of the assets, with all of my income for some time, to repay the capital I had borrowed, loosing my entire investment and much more. This was a bombshell in the gray theme.
That experience reflected many similarities in our other investments, though none had been as spectacular a failure. The partners chalked it up to one more role of the dice in the perpetual gamble of the business world. To them, this was the form and essence of business. I had finally come to completely disagree. This experience had major clues I had been looking for. From the things I had been studying, I was beginning to see that there were recognizable elements in a pattern. I could not yet see the complete tapestry, but I was certain that the way we were conducting our businesses had something to do with the failures we were experiencing. My partners didn’t see what I saw, in spite of my best efforts to explain. In fact they vehemently disagreed and thought I was going crazy.
As I learned more and more about the patterns of the gray world and their predictable and readily observable outcomes in our investments, I came to wonder what it was that my partners were planning on. They were willing to take greater and greater risk, without understanding why we were not succeeding with the ones we had. What appeared by external measures to be a death by a myriad of random, external factors, had the pattern of death by choice and ignorance from within.
My partners were waiting for some specific thing that would make our investments successful. When I asked what it was, they explained that all we needed to do was to find another person like me to run those other businesses. Combine the right person with the right market circumstances and they would be successful too. However, their encantation of this recipe for success had more a feel of magic than science. At first, I took it simply as flattery. Nevertheless, we had searched high and low. We had been through one management team after another. I didn’t believe I was all that different from other people. In fact, I still don’t. However, from our experience it seemed almost impossible that we would find another Midas who would make our investments turn to gold. Yet my partners anticipated with bated breath, that our lucky break would come at any moment. After all of our experience, how could they still believe that?
Not long afterward, I had a dawning realization. As I stood one morning, looking into a mirror making my daily preparations, I asked myself what it was that my partners were planning on. What convinced them daily that things would change? That we would find Midas to run our other businesses and that he or she would succeed in a similar manner? In an instant I realized I was looking at the answer. Everyday I showed up at work and made them money without any significant effort on their part and without requiring them to gain any appreciable understanding. I made them millions. I was not particularly special. They were perfectly reasonable to expect that it could and would happen again. In fact, I, an ordinary person, was the creator and maintainer of their fantasy world. How could I expect them to believe anything else?
Now this may draw particular attention to me, which is not my intent. My realization then was not necessarily nor specifically about myself. It was a realization that the gray world is a fantasy world created by people, for people. Furthermore, it was a realization that the people who live in the gray world, believe in it for very good reasons, that are reinforced, even proven to them, every day. I realized that I was the facilitator of some of that gray world; in particular, the part of the gray world I thought I was specifically battling against and had, by that time, come to recognize as my mortal enemy.
In my studies I read and spoke with many people who believed in some form of the gray world philosophy. This gray world philosophy has taken many forms, all reflected in beliefs about truth. Some believe that truth is relative, from individual to individual; some say that it is whatever you want it to be; others claim that there is no truth; and others still, that it doesn’t make any difference whether there is or isn’t. Some say that truth is important for children, but adults should know better; that truth is a good place to start for the immature–a shortcut to an easy answer. Some say that truth is nice in a laboratory or fantasy novel, but the real world is a big mess where grownup people learn to deal with complexity; that the concept of absolute truth is from a bygone age of the simple minded. They say that truths are strictly relegated to extreme examples of science and religion and have little to do with everyday life.
Could any, or all, of this be true? What is the root of this gray world view?
My studies brought me to a wholesale review of epistemology, the study of knowledge and truth. In my study I came to realize that I did not have a precise definition of truth, a definition that worked in all cases, in all extremities. I could only muster a general idea of truth, with lots of exceptions. I remembered the hard lesson I had earlier learned about defining a system of rules that accounted for all exceptions. Is there a precise definition of truth?
The ground I had covered in my research provided clear direction that having a precise definition of truth and its epistemology was necessary to gain deeper insight into the rule systems I had read about, all of which seemed to have exceptions and caveats. This brought me to search for the meaning of truth. As my questions deepened, I turned to the Bible and a contemplation on the declaration of Jesus, son of Mary, to those who believed on him saying, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32, Holy Bible, KJV). What was the truth he spoke of?
By this time all of our businesses, along with the rest of the national and world economy, were in steep decline. My small business, which a year earlier had seemed in good health, was in trouble. I was deep in debt because of obligations from our other companies and had no income. Nothing seemed to be going right in any of our businesses. Complicating matters, the differences which seemed to divide me and my partners were mounting quickly. My partners believed that our problems started and ended in the economy at large. I believed we were our own destroyers and needed to make major changes.
Given the timing with my business struggles, I wondered if I could afford to continue my search for the answer to truth. What was the price of knowing what truth was? Would it be worth it? I wondered if there might not be a better time in the future.
However, the question would not let me rest. I had to have the answer. I decided: I would pay its price. I would know it!