The Business Zen of Pooh


This will probably be very bad for business, but I have a confession to make. I am a four-year-old at heart. This is a fact with which my long-suffering wife will concur. I am often completely self-absorbed, I oscillate between total immersion and a short attention span, and I will find myself playing with the oddest things. Despite all that, I am reasonably well adjusted. I claim a modicum of self-awareness, I have no trouble wearing a kilt in public, and I am not ashamed to talk about the wisdom of life that I have gained from reading Winnie-the-Pooh.

Winnie-the-Pooh, of course, is the anthropomorphic teddy bear penned in the early Twentieth Century by A.A. Milne. He made his first appearance in a single poem from the collection When We Were Very Young (1924). He was the central character in both Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), and also found his way into Now We Are Six (1927). And with apologies to any of my friends still working for The Mouse, I rebuke the Disney “adaptations” right out.

I grew up with the lovable bear and his companions, hearing the poems and tales read aloud when I was small, and then again for my younger siblings. Years later I read them to my own children over a span of fifteen years. And while I must have been absorbing some of that wisdom all along, I only really connected it with a larger picture about twelve years ago.

I was editing the quarterly newsletter for my employer at that time. It was our custom to head each issue with a pithy quotation that was relevant to the contents of the particular issue. The source of the quotation was not necessarily related directly to business or technology. The banner on our inaugural issues read, “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for people to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” This seemed relevant to sending our newsletter out to present and future clients rather than waiting for them to come to us. At the very least, it linked my inner four-year-old to the cynical consultant.

One of our readers saw it a similar way, quipping, “You know you are secure in your position when you can quote Winnie-the-Pooh in a business publication with impunity.” She remains a good friend, a reader of this blog, and an insightful sounding board for my musings. I can visualize her now, rolling her eyes at the memory and grinning at my fresh assault on the seriousness of the adult business world.

There is elegance in these wisps of wisdom. There is neither jargon nor pretension. There are no twenty-dollar words to cloud the meaning. They are delivered straight, as from one friend to another. And since they require no interpretation, I will merely point out the connections that I see.

One of the reasons I really like the quote above is the suggestion to go out in the world and connect with people. I suppose one way to look at it is in the form of business development, but I think just stepping out into the community and picking up a hammer to help at the barn raising is equally valid. As I have observed repeatedly, it is all about the people. “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

I think I could teach an entire class about this next little wisdom mote. While it might seem to fly in the face of J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal line, “Not all those who wander are lost,” it doesn’t at all. Some objectives are more diaphanous than others, and the paths to them are rarely a straight line no matter how distinct the goals might seem. Nevertheless, I agree with Pooh Bear. “Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.”

Years ago, one of my mentors used to tell me, “Steve, never let best get in the way of better.” He was right, of course, but Winnie-The-Pooh takes this sentiment further by adding an extra cup of joy to the recipe. For me, this takes the prize for the deepest Zen of all the canon of Bearish observations. “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

I hope to incorporate this next fragment of insight into my class next year. In truth, one rarely knows precisely why someone doesn’t seem to be listening. Perhaps it is because he is speaking and it is I who should be listening. But then, perhaps the Bear is correct after all. “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.”

In my line of work, perspective is everything. After all, the beaver tail one man sees and the duckbill that another man sees may be neither beaver nor duck, but opposite ends of the same platypus. The ability to look at a problem from an acute perspective may be the first step on the road to wisdom. Says Winnie-The-Pooh, “I’m not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost.”

This next one is rather an advanced class Poohism from the standpoint that it requires self-awareness. It is why I rarely write anything important and then send it out into the world before I have had at least one set of eyes review it. Sometimes it is style, sometimes tone, but being able to see what a thought looks like to someone else before someone else sees it has saved me from harm many a day. I’m with the bear on this. “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

I offer a word of caution about this final observation by Master Pooh. He is not exhorting his humble pupils to overthink a problem. Rather, he is suggesting that we look at it from one side and then sort of get ourselves under it and look at it from the other. You have to admit that only auto mechanics are in the habit of seeing things from that perspective. “Think it over, think it under.”

I hope that these quiet musings on the Zen of Poohisms has made you stop and think for a moment, and perhaps also brought a smile to your face. Perchance these thoughts will be useful to you in the future as well. For me, they have taken me back to my past when I shared these timeless stories first with my parents and then my children.   Isn’t it wonderful how something so modest can tie the past, present, and future together so simply and effectively?

Do you have a favorite quote from Winnie-The-Pooh that you would like to add? How seriously do you take the business world?