Chapter 1 The Power of “So What?”
Life is very interesting if you make mistakes.
TWENTIETH-CENTURY FRENCH BOXER
THERE IS TREMENDOUS VALUE in thinking of alternatives to any situation and creating backup plans. Some of the best advice that I’ve ever been given—and that works exceptionally well in dealing with both business and personal issues—came from my mother. My mom, who passed away when I was still in my early twenties, was a beautiful and loving woman, but she was also a tough Irish lady, the type who had a cigarette half hanging out of her mouth while she talked on the phone and who treated us like adults even when we were five, as when she’d tell us, “Go make your sandwich for school.” She and a generation of women like her managed to walk a fine line between teaching their children love and independence and treating them with a touch of benign neglect. But no matter what, we knew we were loved, and whenever things got tough and people or situations seemed insurmountable or hopeless, my mother would say, “So what?” Asking “So what?” allows you to open windows when you feel as though all the doors are shut. “So what?” pushes you to think against the grain, imagine the worst-case scenario, and then devise new options.
“So what?” can be one of the most unusual and effective personal management tools in your arsenal. It will help you pursue opportunities that may seem out of the norm but that have extraordinary potential, and it will be an important approach for crafting alternative solutions to challenges that arise seemingly out of nowhere. In this chapter, we will discuss how to harness the power of “So what?” to create new ways of thinking, to see hidden opportunities, and to realize possibilities.
The value of “So what?” in business can be critical because too often when we struggle with difficult work and personal situations it is because we are too close to see the issues clearly. If you’re honest, you’ll admit that when you’re personally vested in any situation it becomes much tougher to see new perspectives. When that happens, our perceived options become limited. Think of it this way: when you are too close to have clear perspective, it’s the equivalent of looking at Claude Monet’s Water Lilies
in a museum from two inches away. Only when you pull back several feet can you get the full picture. I ask you, are you seeing your circumstances clearly? If you’re not, the power of “So what?” will provide some easy techniques that will give you the ability to pull back from any situation where you’re too close and gain a new perspective. For example, becoming too close can happen at work when we can become too personally vested in our own ideas or what we think is the “right” outcome that we lose sight of the overall picture. When that occurs, we limit our ability to see other alternatives or connections. Asking “So what?” is freeing; it motivates you to extend beyond what you think of as conventional or comfortable. Practicing “So what?” thinking allows you to take a few steps back from the issue and see it in all its complexity. By saying “So what?” we become unburdened and free from the tyranny of others’ expectations and our own adherence to them. So how does it work? FREE YOUR MIND, AND THE REST MAY FOLLOW
When you say “So what?” to any situation, something instantly happens: you develop a new attitude that breaks you from your expectations and gives you the strength to consider what some might call the “unthinkable”—alternative solutions or paths that take you outside your comfort zone or that force you to redefine the status quo. And that’s a good thing. Your mind needs to be free to see previously un-thought-of benefits. “So what?” thinking helps you come up with a Plan B when you need it most. It kicks in when you are hamstrung and feel as though your options for creating new alternatives are limited. This freedom comes from allowing yourself to imagine the worst, then finding the positives in the worst-case scenario and devising new options from there.
There are three important mental advantages that asking yourself “So what?” delivers:
1. It frees your mind from being stuck so that you can see new alternatives.
2. It stimulates fresh thinking and renewed focus.
3. It creates new strategies and contingency plans.FRANKLY, SCARLETT, YOU’D BETTER GIVE A DAMN
For example, in the publishing world the biggest-revenue issue of the year for fashion magazines is the September issue. September is when fashion and beauty companies launch their new fall ad campaigns. Consumers love that the issues are thick and packed with fresh editorial material and advertising. It is also the issue that has the most financial impact on the bottom line and as a result the most pressure to perform. One year I had a salesperson on my team excitedly tell me several months before the September issue closing that she was going to exceed her revenue number because one advertiser, a fashion company, was planning on running multiple-page ad units in that issue. I said to her, “Sounds good, but what if they don’t?” She responded defensively, saying “No, they’re going to advertise.” It was clear that she was unwilling to consider alternate possibilities. She further explained, “They have to. I need to hit my number, so they’re going to.” From her response I learned everything I needed to know. The fear of not hitting her revenue number was her real issue and had been combined with the pressure and expectation associated with it. Her fear of failure was strong, and it limited her ability to see alternative viewpoints—and even though she had been told only that the customer was “thinking” of running multiple pages. She was seasoned and should have known that ad campaigns change all the time and it was months before the issue would actually close; in that business anything can happen; it was hardly a done deal. She overlooked all these obvious doubts because blind faith provided the solution to the fear that she might not meet expectations. As a result, she was closed to any alternative views. She had convinced herself that the fashion company advertising was happening. And with that belief, she did not have to further worry about reaching her goals. But was it? Haven’t we all felt like Scarlett O’Hara at one time or another when we can’t seem to find the answer to a problem or issue and don’t want to deal with it? “Oh, I’ll think about it tomorrow.” The problem is, while you’re sleeping tonight, the world and business aren’t.
In today’s marketplace, asking “So what?” can be useful in creating competitive advantages. “So what?” is a mental tactic that allows you to force yourself to consider alternative viewpoints and plan for the worst. Once you say “So what?” you are free to devise new positive plans and create new outcomes. In that case, I pushed back on her, asking “So what if they don’t advertise? What’s your plan?” She had none. She had not considered any alternatives. “Look,” I said, “I will be thrilled if you are right and everything goes according to your plan, but don’t fool yourself: it’s gonna be your neck on the line if it doesn’t.” That dose of reality drew her attention. “Wouldn’t you rather try every option?” I pressed. “And in the end, if they advertise and you exceed your budget even further, good for you. But, if you don’t use ‘So what?’ and build for worst case and they change their plans, it’ll be too late to do anything and you’ll be screwed.” I advised her that it was vital to create a backup plan with the time she still had to go out and get some other business. Even though I could see that she understood, she agreed only reluctantly. Why reluctantly? ASKING “SO WHAT?” MEANS DOING MORE WORK
The reason my colleague was reluctant is simple: we can be reluctant to follow the principles of “So what?” because they almost always require more work. As in the above example, it was easier in the salesperson’s mind to assume that the fashion brand’s business would be fine and not have to think about it than it was to think and to plan for all the additional hours of work that might be necessary to hit her number if they didn’t come through. It’s the business equivalent of wanting to lose weight, getting onto a scale, and not wanting to look at the number. Once you see the number on the scale, reality hits you right in the face and you know you’re going to have to do some work, and it may be tough. The same is true in business. Asking “So what?” requires that you take action, and taking action means doing more work.
But action also has its rewards, and, as you might have suspected, I chose this example because three weeks after her announcement, the salesperson received the news that the fashion company’s inserts were being canceled due to creative reasons. They would be buying a single page rather than the eight pages she had been expecting. It was a big decline in her expected revenue assumptions. The good news was that she had already started to do some additional prospecting. She was working her “So what?” options and plans. She had accepted the possibility that the multipage advertising might not happen. That allowed her to go more aggressively after some accounts that seemed like distant prospects. It worked, and in the end she exceeded her revenue number without their adverti...