It had happened. I was officially Steve Urkel from Family Matters. As an electrical engineering major, I was comfortable with some level of nerdiness and even the occasional ill-fitting pair of pants. But when my glasses would not stay together, much less on my face, I began to lose heart. Fortunately, my two closest friends offered their words of encouragement. “So maybe you can’t afford new glasses right now, Ty. But you’ve always found a way to make something out of nothing. That’s why we call you MacTyver”. Even in the world of cheesy network TV programs, the bump from irritating neighbor to mulleted secret agent was small but, nonetheless, upward; so I took it.
From the late 80s to early 90s, most people who owned a TV tuned in occasionally to watch Angus MacGyver perform sundry heroic feats ranging from fighting international spies to rescuing baby eagles. And even those who didn’t watch knew of his ability to improvise virtually anything—from explosives to escape vehicles—with hairspray, some chocolate and a gum wrapper. What made it so legendary? To watch someone, amid a dearth of resources, use what was available to him and come out victorious. It wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling to watch MacGyver, trapped in a basement, put a call on his cell in to HQ for an escape chopper. But use some sticks, rocks, rags, a pipe and that boiler over there to jury-rig a torpedo that blasts an escape path? Yes!
So, knowing I had a reputation to uphold, I made my broken glasses work, using wire cutters and a paper clip.
What MacGyver did was my definition of magic. Week after week, he made what seemed impossible possible, using only his knowledge, ingenuity and the materials within reach. He was the model of resourcefulness and, to me, that was the most powerful force to be reckoned with.
Now, most of us aren’t in the position to fix a blown fuse with a gum wrapper (actual Macgyver solution), so why is resourcefulness so important? Because the values-driven entrepreneur will often be drawn to what Unreasonable Group affectionately calls BFPs (big f-ing problems).
In their book Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, the Heath brothers share the example of Jerry Sternin. In 1990, Sternin was sent by Save the Children to help fight malnutrition in rural Vietnamese communities and the country’s foreign minister gave him six months to bring resolution (and you thought your job was hard). To tackle the issue, Sternin leveraged what the Heath brothers call “bright spots methodology”. That is, rather than focus on the “TBUs”—the “true but useless” drivers of malnutrition- poor sanitation, poverty, lack of information —he would focus on what was going well. He began looking for examples of children from the same communities who were actually healthy and well-nourished. What’s significant about “bright spots” is that they are the outliers of a trend, but they emerge from the same environments and resources as their peers. Sternin needed look no further than the village mothers who had already solved the problem of malnutrition for their own children. Their answer was a few simple yet effective practices; they fed their children smaller, more frequent meals and they included brine shrimp and crabs from the rice paddies and sweet potato greens from their gardens. When Sternin implemented the change via the “outlier mother’s” sharing their approach with others in the community, the results were stunning. Six months after Sternin’s visit to the village, 65% of the kids were better nourished. What’s even better is that the results persisted far beyond the initial intervention and spread to help over 2.2 million Vietnamese people of all ages.
Stories like this make my heart smile. And they almost make me forget about all the years I’ve been called “Pollyanna” or too idealistic. It’s proof that choosing to walk on the sunny side of the street, and focus on what is—rather than what’s not—working is not only better for one’s disposition, it’s more likely to lead to success. Maybe I got my practice from making my doll’s clothes out of old frilly church socks or sleeping restfully in my “bed”, which was made from stuffed garbage bags covered with sheets. Regardless, what started at a young age as something we had to do morphed into a skill that now comes to me naturally. And I earned the name MacTyver by actually enjoying the magic of resourcefulness.
Over time, I learned that resourcefulness is not just about making something out of nothing. It is also about knowing when you have too much to make anything at all. Sometimes, excess can be a hindrance, especially for one driven by scarcity. One of the most recent personal examples of this is shortly after I launched Reliance Methods. I had just transitioned from my last role and was meeting with each of the folks who had supported me on my journey up to this point. During several of those conversations, I was offered significant investment in Reliance Methods. Now I wasn’t at the time, nor am I now, independently wealthy by any stretch. My husband and I, still paying off both undergraduate and graduate loans, had recently taken a 2/3 pay cut with my business and his career change. Not to mention the lovely and precocious financial black hole we affectionately call our son. Despite this context (and my husband’s utter incredulity) I politely declined.
I created my business to address the challenges of an existing system. And I believed that, in order to know the environment and system within which I was working, I had to deal with a lack of resources. I was not being a martyr; I was choosing to work within the constraints of the system in order to surface viable long-term solutions. If, for example, you were asked to design a hiking boot would you test your prototype by wearing them and driving over the rugged terrain in an ATV? In this instance, while the ATV ultimately makes it easier to traverse the terrain, it actually serves as a barrier to understanding the problem.
So if one of the goals of our business is to help more values-driven entrepreneurs pursue their passions and purpose, we have to do so within the context of the average resources available so our solutions are steeped in reality.
In his book, The Laws of Subtraction http://matthewemay.com/books/), Matthew May explains the concept of “negative space,” asserting that “What isn’t there often trumps what is.” I saw him speak once and, to help crystallize the idea, May read a poem from Lao Tzu that has since stuck with me.
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable.
We work with being, but non-being is what we use.” ― Lao Tzu
If that is a little too zen, Teresa Amabile, author of The Progress Principle, says it a different way “Here’s the key to the conundrum for managers who want to stoke the innovation fire: That close cousin of scarcity, constraint, can indeed foster creativity.”
This concept is not new for business or even humanity. Some people say it’s “staying hungry,” others say it’s going “back to basics.” Whatever you call it, the values-driven entrepreneur needs to BE RESOURCEFUL because the change we seek often requires achieving what others say is impossible.
In honor of this value, instead of writing a step-by-step guide on how to integrate the concepts of “using what you have” or “subtracting what you don’t need”, I’ll point you to two other resources that already do a great job. The first was written by David Dorsey http://www.fastcompany.com/42075/positive-deviant in his summary of Jerry Sternin’s approach to Vietnamese malnutrition. It outlines the positive deviant methodology, which is a fancier more scientific sounding name for the “bright spots methodology” mentioned above. While this approach is most applicable to driving change, something tells me when you apply it, you’ll begin finding other ways it can be useful to your enterprise.
The second resource is a free summary of the Laws of Subtraction promoted on Matthew E. Mays’ website created by ChangeThis http://changethis.com/manifesto/99.02.Subtraction/pdf/99.02.Subtraction.pdf. It provides a more in- depth overview of each of the six laws and will more than likely lead you to the path of subtraction that makes the most sense to you.
Lastly, I will leave you with the most important point that the BE RESOURCEFUL value has taught me. During times when I needed encouragement and support, validation and affirmation, correction and accountability, there was only one resource to which I could turn and I have been fortunate to almost always have it on hand. I learned early on that if I surrounded myself with the right people, I would never find myself at want for much. From friends and mentors to team members and bosses, people have always been the resource I value most. Of course, it can sometimes be the hardest resource to find. After all, not even MacGyver could fashion a companion from a gum wrapper.