“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” So begins A Tale of Two Cities , Charles Dickens’ epic novel. Dickens’ words are just as apropos to today’s uncertain times as they were during the French Revolution, when the novel is set.
Although we’re not in the midst of a bloody civil war, these are the worst of times. We are waging a new and unknown kind of war against an unseen enemy. Gasoline prices are skyrocketing. The Big Three are once again faltering (Will they ever learn?) The airlines are in trouble, too. (See the note about the Big Three.) We’ve just been through a historic (and exhausting) presidential primary race. We’re hemorrhaging jobs to foreign markets. The dollar is at its lowest level in decades. The dotcom bubble of the 1990s looks minor in comparison to the housing bubble of today.
Yet, despite all of this, these are the best of times. Unemployment is still relatively low. Inflation remains in check. There is some evidence to suggest that the high cost of transportation is actually bringing some manufacturing jobs back to the United States. (For those of you who demand data, see the June 13, 2008, Wall Street Journal article, “Stung by Soaring Transport Costs, Factories Bring Jobs Home Again.”) The election will bring change, regardless of which candidate wins. Lower housing costs may eventually lead to more home ownership down the road.
In addition, we live in a time that has seen fantastic medical advances. We can travel to almost any spot on the globe within a day or two. We have opportunities to learn and develop that were never present before. In Dickens’ day, you were pretty much born into your life’s work. Now, you can change your career with readily available education and training.
These are the best of times, yet there is despair, uncertainty, and fear. I’ve been through a few economic ups and downs. I’ve seen my mother weep with fear over concerns about paying the mortgage and keeping her son in school. The key to successfully weathering the storm is to look for opportunities to exploit the downturn. Find the silver lining. You may not have any control over what the Federal Reserve does to interest rates, but you can control your own career. If you think that this doesn’t apply to quality professionals, you need look no further than the example set by the late Joseph M. Juran.
In his memoir, Architect of Quality (McGraw-Hill, 2003), Juran details how he not only survived the Great Depression, but also how he thrived. He kept his job while thousands were laid off. In fact, he even advanced within the company and had time to earn a law degree. His secret? He worked hard, was determined to succeed, and he had a burning desire to continually improve himself. Remember, this was a young, skinny, immigrant Jew--not exactly a recipe for success in the 1930s. If he did it, you can, too.
I’ve been fortunate in my career to have met bestselling authors, CEOs, and leaders of great movements (Caesar Chavez, for example). I’ve also met some phenomenal people who may not be famous but who overcame their upbringing or their lack of education, or others’ prejudices to skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or weight to make a huge difference in the world around them. All of these people share some common traits: They refused to give up, and they never stopped learning and growing. For them, failure simply wasn’t an option. It can’t be for you, either.
To survive in these times, you need to innovate and go beyond good enough. Whether you are an entrepreneur, quality manager, auditor, or inspector, you need to find a way to make your job more valuable to your employer. If you’re a quality manager, find a way to demonstrate how quality products, services, and processes save your organization money. Do your part to help develop needed new products and services.
For example, in my organization, Paton Professional, we have changed our focus from delivering in-person training to web and computer-based training because organizations cannot afford to send employees off-site to attend training. We’re also looking at new and innovative ways to bring quality professionals together in a medium that allows them to learn and network with their peers. What can you and your organization do differently to thrive in the midst of economic chaos?
This reminds me of Robert Schuller’s book, Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do! (Bantam Books, 1984). Schuller’s book describes the recession of the early 1980s and the political squabbling, job losses, foreclosures, and uncertainty that surrounded it. Sound familiar? But during the two decades following that recession came a period of fantastic economic growth.
A Tale of Two Cities ends with this line: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.” I may not change the world, but I’m going to keep fighting until the end. You should, too.
Share your thoughts on surviving these times and changing the world at www.qualitycurmudgeon.com.
Scott M. Paton is Quality Digest’s editor at large.