Time to Read the Tea Leaves


I was 27 when human-development specialist John VanVleet, vice president of Susan VanVleet Consultants, shared this wisdom with the students in his Managing Corporate Change workshop.

I remember feeling puzzled; I didn’t understand what he was talking about. His advice sounded airy-fairy to me, rater than practical or real-world or like I could act upon it.

You see, I didn’t come from an entrepreneurial family. And back then, most people with my background aspired to graduate college, get a good job, get promoted, perhaps get their master’s degree, change companies a few times to get ahead, and retire with a good pension. None of us realized the level of personal responsibility that would be required for us to excel in the world 20 years hence. Yet somehow, John’s statement stayed with me.


(Caption: Tea leaves)

Years later, I would witness evidence of the truth he spoke: that no matter the time, somebody always prospers -- and not merely in a financial sense. These disasters offer perhaps the most dramatic evidence of this reality in action:

  • Subprime mortgage meltdown. As people signed on to buy homes they could not afford -- often unknowingly -- people in the banking and mortgage industries, including sub-prime loan officers and investment bankers, prospered.
  • Iraq War. Big Oil, defense contractors, weapons manufacturers, security companies and mercenaries have made tremendous amounts of money from the war. 
  • Hurricane Katrina. Debris haulers, construction contractors, security companies, gun manufacturers made Big Easy Money after this catastrophe. "Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity," economist Milton Friedman observed in the Wall Street Journal, writes journalist Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
  • Asian Tsunami. Developers, real-estate investors and the reconstruction industry were laying the groundwork for new beachfront resorts while residents were still digging out from the rubble.

Yet this idea still applies to more commonplace events and transactions:  the lifesaving drugs many pharmaceutical companies manufacture generate revenue when people are ill; though they work in helping professions, some doctors and lawyers’ income depends on others’ personal calamities; church attendance rises when the economy is down. The list goes on and on...

Signs of the Times

The era of conspicuous consumption and overspending is obviously over. Now is the time for... what, exactly??? That’s a question that each of us has to answer for ourselves. The answer for one person or family will differ from that of another. For example, the answer for an executive at a Big Three Detroit automaker will differs from the answer for the owner of a television station.

Opportunities abound at this time as during all times.

But the opportunities that exist for any particular person depend upon that individual -- their gifts and talents, life experience, education, family life, geographical location, risk tolerance, willingness to adapt to the circumstances, etc.

So rather than spending all of your time worrying about, say, stock market performance, who your company is going to lay off or why this is happening to you -- things that you have no control of -- why not spend some time pondering questions whose answers you can do something about. For example:

  1. What is this a good time for? That is to say, what goods, services, ideas and/or information do people need right now? 
  2. What do I have to offer that would benefit others at this time? Consider your gifts and talents,areas of uniqueness,  personal strengths, life experiences, skills, abilities, education, training, professional skills, areas of interest, etc. Having trouble or want to generate more ideas? Consider doing this within the context of Surveying Your Strengths.

Once you have created an exhaustive list of the products, services, ideas, information, etc., that you have to offer people, begin to match them against your list of what the world is lacking during this time. Then start planning (I’ll write about strategic planning shortly) how you’ll get there from here.