01 Clean Curtains

Hey folks, let me ask you a question – are your curtains clean?  Now, before you scamper off to the living room to inspect, the answer might be a little different than you think. Welcome to Swimming in the Flood; a podcast where we navigate the difficult currents in business and life. Let’s take that question again. Are your curtains clean? Carl Sandburg wrote a poem titled Clean Curtains. It starts:

NEW neighbors came to the corner house at Congress and Green streets.

The look of their clean white curtains was the same as the rim of a nun’s bonnet.


I connect the metaphor of clean curtains to New Year’s resolutions. Each year many of us post our fanciful new year’s resolutions for the world to see. How well do you do with yours? Do you make them every year or by the time May comes around did you forget what you started? We make resolutions in business as well: our budgets. If you’re a publicly traded company, you are giving guidance. If you’re a smaller business, you are making projections for the coming year. How fastidious are you are monitoring those resolutions?  Sandburg continues:

One way was an oyster pail factory, one way they made candy, one way paper boxes, strawboard cartons.

The warehouse trucks shook the dust of the ways loose and the wheels whirled dust—there was dust of hoof and wagon wheel and rubber tire—dust of police and fire wagons—dust of the winds that circled at midnights and noon listening to no prayers.

We all face the dust of hoof and wagon wheels in some way. The noises of life are distracting and often inhibit us from keeping our curtains clean. Sandburg concludes:

Dust and the thundering trucks won—the barrages of the street wheels and the lawless wind took their way—was it five weeks or six the little mother, the new neighbors, battled and then took away the white prayers in the windows?

Doesn’t that sound a lot like our resolutions? Was it five weeks or six that they lasted for? You are not alone with this problem. We have it in our lives and we have it in our business. We cannot expect measure against the budget in the middle of March and see that we are on track. If we are, it’s for reasons that we didn’t expect. We need to monitor our progress against budgets from the first week of January, from January 2nd. Did we hit revenue today? What was our price mix and volume today?

Talking about budgets makes me want to go off on a tangent. I was interviewing for my first big job as a Corporate Controller. The owner invited me and his CPA to his dinner club. It was an Old Italian dinner club in the center of Federal Hill in Providence. The interview was going fine. I was answering most of the questions with statements I studied in the week before the interview. But, while I was responding to each question I had one lingering thought in my head. Was my white shirt still clean? Stupid question, right? But I should tell you that I’m a slurper when I eat pasta. My mother would get after me when I was younger and threaten me that I would embarrass myself on a date if I didn’t control my slurping. As I’m looking at these two gentlemen interviewing me I realized that she was right. But, I couldn’t change my eating habit. Plus, the penne in vodka sauce was scrumptious!

Right at the height of this anxiety a gentleman from the next table leaned over and asked, “When you’re building a budget do you build it from the top down or from the bottom up?”  Who was this guy?  And worse, my fork was loaded with penne and it was sitting on the precipice of my lips. I didn’t have the will power to put down the fork. The CPA introduced us.  “Trent, this is Richard Oster. He is the president and CEO of Cookson America.” Chewing, – not slurping – my pasta I quickly realized that this is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. There aren’t that many of these guys around. Like 500 or so.

I finished my pasta, wiped my mouth, prayed that my white shirt was still clean and said, “It depends. I’m sure you would prefer it to be top-down. I bet your employees would prefer it to be bottom up.” Mr. Oster laughed. “Good answer, kid.” And returned to his table. It wasn’t until a decade later that I thought the entire question may have been a setup by the Owner.

Sorry for the tangent. You’ll learn that about this podcast. We head off on a tangent here and there and then the tide will pull us back. We were talking about the problem of maintaining our resolutions and budget. It’s a problem we all confront. I am now going to give you my best idea on the subject. Ready? Eat your broccoli. You heard me right. The way to adhere to our resolutions it to eat your broccoli.

The Eat Your Broccoli Theory has not yet been peer reviewed by the Behavioral Sciences community, but I am expecting it shortly. Let me explain. When I was a child, I hated broccoli. And like most good mothers, my mother still put it on my plate. When she did I would eat all the chicken and pasta first then stare at the broccoli as if it would sprout wings and fly off my plate. One night my mother had enough of my complaining about how the broccoli was going to kill me or make me fail my social studies test. She told me that I was not going to leave the table until I ate all my broccoli. I didn’t budge. But, I didn’t eat my broccoli either. My mother instructed my father to make sure that I didn’t move until the broccoli was gone. Now, he really didn’t want any part of this, but he knew better than to complain about parenting. There are disputes in my family about how long I sat at the table. I would say it was four grueling hours.  My mother would say it was two minutes. My father, who had much better things to do, will say it was only ten minutes. Ten minutes before he got tired and ate the broccoli himself.

Here’s the point. I am still served broccoli today. However, I now eat the broccoli first while it’s hot and get it out of the way. The best way to manage our resolutions and keep our curtains clean is to perform the acts early and often. Fight the urge to stray early and you will find that you have plenty of time later to manage the tasks where are more pleasurable. Eat your broccoli, first! And, you will find it far easier to keep your curtains clean.

Folks, thank you for listening to Swimming in the Flood. It’s tough navigating life’s currents but with one tact or another we can get there together. You can find more podcasts and videos on my website at www.trenttheroux.com. You can also find information about my speaking at your corporate event.

One last item. I must confess. I kinda like broccoli now. Don’t tell my mom. See you next week, folks.