I had a brilliantly effective but prickly production manager for a number of years. We would seriously butt heads once every few months, and it was unpleasant when it happened. But we always came out of those meetings with better policies, better procedures, better ground rules — in short, with a better company.
Dissonance is essential to a small business just as it is to music: With no conflict, there can be no resolution. If you hit a dissonance and linger there too long, it’s pretty ugly. But if you make a point to resolve the dissonance and continue forward, the sense of resolution and momentum is palpable — and life and business both are more interesting and rewarding as a result.
“Sometimes soft sounds really loud.”
In some early 19th-century music you’ll encounter a series of sequences in which each is indicated to be played louder than the last. Beethoven, for one, on occasion found that the only way he could make the last sequence sound loud enough was, paradoxically, by marking it to be played pianissimo (very soft). An extreme example of this is a moment in his Third Symphony that music analyst Leonard Meyer calls “the loudest rest in the history of music.” The technique is amazingly effective, in the right hands.
This isn’t just about resisting the urge to fill pauses in a sales meeting (a compulsion that’s a common mistake); silence can be the most articulate, eloquent way to respond during a heated confrontation with a subcontractor or crew member. A very wise colleague of mine, Laura Ferrell of Woodenwings, once advised me to ask myself three questions before offering criticism: “Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it the right time?” If I can’t answer “yes” to each question, I should remain silent.
“It’s not the first beat that sets the tempo of a piece, it’s the second.”
You have a great, engaging first meeting with a client, and you really connect with each other — there’s clearly a good fit. You leave the meeting with a real sense of excitement and purpose. Then it takes two or three weeks for you to get anything back to the client. You’ve started off with an exciting loud note, but the second note makes it clear this is a slow piece — maybe slow enough to put the clients to sleep, or send them off to another recital altogether.
“The way to overcome natural tendencies is to exaggerate the opposite tendency.”
Novice piano players tend to make certain mistakes: They fail to hold fermatas (sustained notes or pauses) long enough or make staccato notes short enough. To counter these propensities, my teacher tells me to practice the passages in a way that sounds almost absurdly over-the-top to my ear. One outcome of this strategy is that sometimes playing in such an exaggerated fashion actually makes the passages sound just right to the listener, however unnatural it sounds to me. But the main reason he tells me to do this is so that I can increase my range of interpretation — and gain more interpretive tools than I come by naturally.
Years ago I had a production manager whom I had a hard time communicating with (and vice versa). We eventually did some Myers-Briggs training and found that he was an extreme extrovert, while I was pretty introverted. That helped explain why, at the end of a one-hour meeting, I’d be exhausted and ready to go slink into my corner while he was just getting warmed up.
The approach we took to try to improve communication was to have a set weekly meeting time and a clear agenda for each meeting — a list of topics we had to cover on a regular basis. This was more than I wanted to do but less than he did. It felt like a huge stretch for me, and still does. But — to get back to the cross-training analogy — pushing myself out of my comfort zone is the only way to grow and develop as a business owner.
“Some music is more beautiful than it can be played.”
Musical notation, like words, can sometimes only hint at what you really want to say. Notes on the page, even beautifully played, may fall well short of what the composer heard at the time he or she wrote them down.
I think we’ve all experienced something like this — had a great idea for a design, or a business opportunity, or even a column for The Journal of Light Construction. Then we tried to put the design on paper, or develop the opportunity, or write the column, and found that the thought was much more compelling than anything we could ever implement in reality. In other words, a lot of ideas end up seeming much more ingenious in our imaginations than they do when we actually try to put them into a form we could share with someone else.
Part of this has to do with the limits of communication; the imagination has fewer constraints than language does. But it also has to do with the way that reality just gets in the way: Other people have needs that conflict with ours; buildings can seem to have minds of their own; the laws of physics have a habit of setting some annoying limits on what — or how well, or how fast — we can build.
A small-business owner nonetheless needs to continue to make big plans, to think great thoughts, to aim for the ideal. Not just in business, but in life. If your whole existence is about your business, you’ll have a shallower life and a weaker company. So consider coming up with your own form of cross-training. Choose something that will take you out of your comfort zone: tuba lessons, or a painting class, or tennis or soccer or curling lessons. You may never be great at your chosen skill, but you’ll learn a lot, especially if you find a teacher as patient and perceptive as mine. Remember: All of us fall short sometimes — maybe even always. And that’s okay, as long as it doesn’t stop us from trying.
Paul Eldrenkamp owns Byggmeister, a custom remodeling firm in Newton, Mass.