Busting The ‘If We Ain’t Growing, We’re Dying’ Myth

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Jacob Peter Gowy, Public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsDaedalus carefully showed his son how to apply the wax to affix the feathers to his shoulders and arms. “These wings will work,” he said. “We will finally be free of this prison.”

Ironically, it was Daedalus himself who had created the Labyrinth, a vexing array of “intricate passageways and blind alleys” (at least according to Merriam-Webster). Anyone – or anything – imprisoned in this complicated maze found it nearly impossible to escape. Indeed, mythology claimed only Theseus was able to find his way out of Daedalus’ Labyrinth (primarily because Daedalus gave him a big hint).

Why did Daedalus build the Labyrinth? To imprison the Minotaur, a half-man/half-bull monster (whose origin story is not fit to print in a family newspaper). BTW, Theseus went into the Labyrinth to kill the Minotaur (something to do with the ancient Greek version of The Hunger Games).

Anyways, Theseus ends up marrying King Minos’ daughter Ariadne. It was Ariadne who delivered Daedalus’ clew (not a misspelling, just a clever pun if you know the real story) to Theseus. When Minos found out, he threw Daedalus and his son Icarus into the Labyrinth and guarded the land and the sea so the two could never escape.

Ah, but Minos, unlike Daedalus, couldn’t think outside the box, for he left the air unguarded. This is why Daedalus built the wings for himself and his son. While the myth explains that Icarus collected the loose feather from hither and yon, where Daedalus got the wax from is anyone’s guess.

Once built, the two were set to fly off to their freedom, but not before Daedalus warned Icarus, “Don’t fly too high for the sun will melt the wax, and don’t fly too low for the sea foam will make the feathers too heavy to remain aloft.”

Icarus must have not cleared the wax from his ears because he only heard the second half of the warning. Refraining from flying too low, Icarus was amazed by the heights he attained and kept going higher and higher.

You know how the story ends. Icarus flew too high, the sun melted the wax, the feathers came off, and Icarus fell to his death.

Pretty good as far as a morality tale goes. It’s one that wasn’t lost on Aristotle, who said, “Virtue… is a mean between two kinds of vice, one of excess and the other of deficiency.” (The Nicomachean Ethics, Trans. J.A.K. Thomson, London: Penguin, 2004, page 42, 1107a, lines 1-5)

Would be that today’s business leaders take note of these ancient lessons.

Most businesses, like Icarus, understand the dangers of “flying too low.” If you don’t earn enough revenue to sustain the cash flow requirements of your business, your business won’t stay aloft.

To counter this peril, businesses continually seek to grow revenues. In fact, so pervasive is this maxim that it has led to the saying “If you ain’t growing, you’re dying.”

Unfortunately, this adage has resulted in the deaths of many businesses who have taken it to an extreme. These businesses taste the fruits of acquisition, but don’t know when enough is enough.

Let’s take a step back.

There are two ways to grow your business. In the first case, the growth comes organically. This is the tactic most businesses start off doing. It means knocking on doors, making calls on the phone, doing whatever you have to do to sell. The mathematics of this is simple: the more customers, the more sales. This is how you grow. It’s slow, but it’s steady.

The second tactic, though, produces additional revenues in larger bunches. To achieve this, all you need to do is buy another firm. This is where the slippery slope begins.

You’re careful with your first acquisition. You make sure all the numbers work so the risk is minimized. When the deal is done, you sit back, relax, and watch the dough roll in. You feel good.

So you do it again. And again. And again.

And each time you do it, you grow more comfortable taking additional risk.

That’s where the trouble begins.

By “additional risk,” we mean debt. This debt costs money. As a result, you need more revenues to cover it.

Now, like any other addict, you need a fix. You need another acquisition to pay for this debt. The rarefied air at the heights you’re soaring is too sweet. You want more. You want to fly higher.

That’s when the end comes, suddenly.

Once a buyer, your desperation turns you into a target. You are left with only two choices. On the one hand, you can sell off assets (i.e., shrink instead of grow, which you can’t do because you’ve bought into the “if you ain’t growing, you’re dying” philosophy).

The other option is to convince a bigger firm to acquire you. This allows you to convince yourself you’re “growing,” even if this results in losing your independence, the freedom you once enjoyed.

Such is the consequence of believing your business must continually grow. Rather than flying in the safe, boring zone above the trees but below the radar, you made the mistake of believing you must fly higher and higher. Inevitably, you reach unsustainable heights.

And that’s when you fall back to earth.

Psychoanalysts have a name for the condition where the patient exhibits a level of ambition that exceeds his abilities. It’s called “the Icarus Complex.”

It applies to businesses just as much as it applies to individuals.

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