Business: The Supple Reed Bends With The Wind, But Old Man Chestnut, He Just Keeps Rollin' Along
From an article a friend sent me:
The Fortune Cookie 500
Why business execs love to quote Chinese proverbs.
By Daniel Gross
Posted Wednesday, July 5, 2006, at 3:59 PM ET
“I just returned from hardship duty at the Aspen Institute/Fortune Brainstorm, an annual conference that brings together CEOs, venture capitalists, policy wonks, elected officials…
…Recurring themes included (China’s impact on the world's economy.) China's influence was especially apparent in the language used throughout the conference. At a panel on alternative energy, Lawrence Bender, a producer of An Inconvenient Truth, opened his spiel with a Chinese proverb: "When the wind rises, some people build walls. Others build windmills." Panelist David Hawkins, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, countered with another Chinese proverb: "When is the best time to plant a tree? A hundred years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Yesterday."
...It's hard to get through any mass gathering these day (an annual meeting, a corporate offsite, a nursery-school graduation) without being exposed to some timeless wisdom from the Middle Kingdom, such as: "As the Chinese blessing/curse goes, 'May you live in interesting times.' " Many a conference call or CNBC interview begins (especially when the company has screwed up royally) with a variant on the chestnut that "in Chinese, the character for crisis is the same as the character for opportunity…"
Oh, boy. I’ve heard a lot of nasty stories about the really rotten times to be had at business conference weekends (“team building” exercises that pit the marketing people and the accountants against each other to see who can build a better canoe out of old newpapers, “Ham Surprise” served for dinner THREE DAYS IN A ROW).
But now they seem to have outdone themselves. A weekend of American Fortune 500 execs bowing to each other in the halls and meeting rooms, and exchanging Charlie Chan-like pearls of ancient Chinese wisdom, while the junior execs nod sagely… Christ, where’s the bar?
I love Chinese proverbs. They’re so wise and pithy; all we’ve got here in America these days are funny greeting cards. And if you're a Fortune 500 exec, you can't go up to someone at a meeting and quote a funny greeting card: "Hey! It's your birthday, so I thought I'd give you fifty bucks! (imitates a chicken sound, "buck buck buck buck buck, etc., fifty times.) That doesn't work; in fact, you'd "lose face."
Any moron can sound wise if he’s got a Chinese proverb handy; even if you completely blew the sales projection for last year you can “regain face” at a meeting by pointing out how the green-headed duck knows not where he flies, but finds the south each winter.
And they’re not hard to make up, either. All you have to do is come up with a paradox and be “elliptical” about it: make sure the second half of the proverb somehow refers back to the first half. If you’re not elliptical, you come up with something like “the green-headed duck knows not where he flies, but the wild wind blows where it will,” and then everyone realizes you’re an insane idiot and you find yourself number one with a bullet on the layoff list. Remember: it’s elliptical, not epileptical.
Still: if this is what the Fortune 500 is paying for these days, I can turn out as much of this pap as they want—more, if the money’s right.
Let’s see: it has to be pithy, elliptical, and yet at the same time incontrovertibly true. Let’s start with something about “the ocean,” that might be a good image for the unplumbed depths of the global economy:
The ocean is deep, and full of fish, but it is also salty. So don’t drink it, or you’ll wind up in the hospital, you--
Nah. It’s true, but who gives a shit? And how does it apply to our business model? Let’s try to save it:
The ocean is deep, and full of fish, but it is best not to swim in it after a heavy meal—no, that sounds like my mother—The ocean is deep and full of fish, but it is not be trusted, like a woman with big—no, too many images there. Just stick with the ocean metaphor:
The ocean is deep and filled with fish--but some of the fish are sharks.
There! That should get the junior execs nodding; it expresses caution about entering the new global markets. That’s good advice, right?
Okay, I’m on a roll now:
The clever squirrel hides his nuts; the fool exposes his to the north wind.
Even the insane idiot can at times speaks words of wisdom, yet it is best to remember that he is an insane idiot.
The wise man plants the best bulb in the greenhouse, but the conservative plants a dimbulb in the White House.