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Business “Sacred Cows” that May Not be so Sacred Anymore!

I found myself surprised, startled, and then incensed by an offhand comment during a recent conversation. This was not the first time I’d heard comments that supported this rather prevalent business belief. In the past,  I, too, might have agreed in a fashion. But given what I know now, I find the comment dead wrong.

Yet the business belief central to this conversation prevails. Like so many other common beliefs, it becomes common knowledge and is neither challenged nor changed.

History is rich with examples.

  • In the not too distant past, women and our black brothers and sisters were chattel and property.
  • Millions of lives continued to be lost before we accepted Pasteur debunking the idea that life spontaneously generated from dust or rotting matter.
  • Nicholas Copernicus was ridiculed to suggest that the sun, not the earth, was the center of our universe.
  • The journey to prove the earth was not flat was seen as a fool’s errand.

Each society and era has its own sacred cows. Sacred cows are shared beliefs that seem so true that even challenging them seems like heresy. They then translate into reinforcing systems build on the belief. They appear as common wisdom and get passed along and amplified in our language, books, conversations, and actions.

Today I’ll share five business sacred cows that I believe should be reconsidered, reframed, and retired. I’m curious to see what sacred cows you’d like to challenge or eliminate.

Let me begin with the one that got me riled up in the first place.

1. Lifestyle Businesses are not “Real” Businesses

This IS the comment that got my hackles up. It was a poo-pooing of those, like me, who create our living and careers in small businesses that also tend to accommodate the rest of our lives nicely. I’ve done this work for 17 years now. I work side by side with others who are doing the same. From every indication, these business people are smart and hard-working. And just like real businesses, they are sometimes successful and sometimes not.

My business is real. It provides real value to the clients I serve. It provides real income to myself and my family. It gives me real satisfaction. Granted, I strive to work less than 40 hours per week (and accomplish that most weeks). 99% of my work is the work I enjoy and do well. I do have the flexibility to tend to personal and/or family needs when needed. Even though I don’t work 60 to 80 hours a week or have grand visions of scaling the business, selling it for a small fortune, or employing an army of people does NOT make me any less of a business.

It is just a different type of business. (and thanks to Paul Javis and his book Company of One: Why Staying Small is the Next Big Thing for Businesses for helping me from feeling “less than”.)

2. Money is the Primary Motivator and only Material Things Matter.

This is a large, shiny sacred cow in our Wester consumer-driven culture. It is such a sacred cow it should have its own Taj Mahal. We believe that the unrelenting pursuit of wealth drives each of us and, in turn, the economy. We think that our bank account is a reflection of our well-being. That the more we have, the happier we’ll be. All this despite so much evidence to the contrary.

I will remind you that money and material things are necessary. And when you don’t have the amount you need to have food, housing, access to education, and medical care – money is the golden key to a better, more stable, and sustainable life. It is terribly important. That first car to provide transportation is huge; the second less so. The fifth is a sacrifice to the ego.

Age-old wisdom and scientific studies have shown, time and time again, that the salience of money to improve our happiness and satisfaction diminishes past a certain point. A 2018 Purdue study found that income between $60 and $70K per year is the peak for emotional well-being and $95K for life satisfaction.

3. Your Work or Your Life

We seem to bifurcate this issue. There is a prevailing belief that you can either have a good job/career or a life, but not both. They are too often painted as mutually exclusive. And far too many times, they are.

There is much hand-wringing and talk of “work-life balance” as if they are two sides of a see-saw. You can have a career…or you can have a life. The idea that you might have both and that they might seamlessly (most of the time) integrate, runs counter to prevailing thought.

Here is why this sacred cow is so dangerous. As long as we believe it and refuse to question it, we force people into false choices between work and family. We fail to look for creative options that enable people to contribute meaningfully at work, at home, and in their communities without burning themselves out.

4. Work is Drudgery

Listen to many people talk about their work. Far too often, what they describe are situations in which the boss is a nincompoop, the co-workers toxic, the work sheer drudgery, and the only bright spot in the entire week is the weekend. Work, for too many, exhausts rather than exhilarates. It is to be endured rather than enjoyed.

I’ll be the first to admit that work can be drudgery. It can be difficult. It can be demanding.

But let’s not categorize all work as such – for work (even what we deem “menial” work) can provide purpose, joy, energy, excitement – in addition to a paycheck or income.

5. STEM work is valued. Service work is not.

Let’s be clear. I’m not knocking our scientists, technicians, engineers, or mathematicians. We need them. These are extraordinary skills that have enabled technical gains that benefit us all. And these necessary skills are rewarded, revered, and respected with higher wages, more prestige, and educational support.

Service jobs are the opposite. Pay is low. Perks are few and far between. Even though they are difficult to master, interpersonal skills are seen as things “anyone” can do. Common wisdom says those that work with their hands and hearts are less valuable than those that work with their heads.

Statistics tell the story. The average median salary for an engineer is $91,010. Contrast that with the average salary for a grade school teacher at $35,310.

I believe that effectively teaching 30 sixth graders is just as hard (or harder) as conducting a science experiment. Caring for people with dementia is just as challenging as solving a complex math problem. Nurturing a child from infancy to adulthood requires a broad range of skills, persistence, patience, and adaptability, and has brought many an engineer or mathemetician to their knees.

So What?

I’ve shaken off the comment about the inferiority of lifestyle businesses. Thanks for listening to me vent!

What I truly hope is that I may have sparked you to examine some of your deeply held and unquestioned beliefs about business (your own sacred cows) and take a hard look at them.

  • Are they as absolute and true as we make them out to be?
  • How do they limit thinking creatively?
  • What would happen if we stood some of this “common wisdom” on its head?
  • What other “sacred cows” would you like to challenge?

Please share!

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