When You Want To Control Risk, Sometimes An ‘Ace Up Your Sleeve’ Is Better Than A ‘Plan B’

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Here’s something they don’t tell you. Sometimes a “Plan B” does more harm than good.

I don’t have many regrets in my life, but I do have a few. For example, I should have listened to my brother and never sold that 1965 Topps Joe Namath rookie (in mint condition). We paid less than a dime for it and sold it for $125 a short time later. Sure, it was a pretty good return. Today, however, that card is worth $200,000 or more.

Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

But that’s not the regret that gnaws at me. This is the one that occurred in 7th grade. And, ultimately, a different type of card.

I began playing the violin in 3rd grade. It wasn’t my first choice. I kinda liked the idea of the drums.

It’s probably because Dennis, the older boy next door, played the drums. He would practice in the garage. Though set back not quite 50 yards, it pointed straight to the patio at the back of our house. When he hit the skins and rattled the cymbals, the garage acted as an acoustic amplifier that directed the thundering blasts through our sliding glass doors and into our kitchen.

While Dennis’ diligence at practicing may have pleased the band teacher, it did not please my mother, (and what displeased my mother inevitably displeased my father).

Mind you, I did not seek the violin. I sought the trumpet. (Really, the drums, but the Dennis experience had my parents nip that in the bud!) Actually, they weren’t too thrilled with the trumpet either. Anyways, we had to take a test trying to play the instrument of our choice and, apparently, I didn’t have the natural blowing technique to play the trumpet, so the violin it was.

And I have no regrets about it.

Sure, my classmates made fun of me. They called me “Jack Benny,” though little did they know I took it as a compliment. I liked Jack Benny. I leaned into their attempted insult, much to their chagrin.

Then there was the constant gangster allusion (this one lasted into college), as in, “Is that a machine gun in your violin case?” Again, I delighted in this one, too. After all, for all I knew, the thrower of that insult might have been trying to hide the fact he was intimidated. I mean, an Italian, carrying a violin case… you don’t have to watch The Godfather to connect the dots.

Truth be told, I wish my friends enjoyed listening to me play the violin as much as I enjoyed playing it. Maybe I kinda regret that. But that’s not the gnawing regret.

This is:

In 7th grade the school music teachers decided to have a “talent show” where individual students would hold an informal concert playing solos on their instruments. It wasn’t a big concert. Pretty much the audience consisted only of parents.

As usual, this event was driven by the ever-popular band teacher. He not only promoted the talent show, he also accompanied all the soloists on the piano (so I guess it wasn’t quite as “solo” as it was made out to be). This made sense. It helped students pick up the song if they got lost in the middle of playing it (remember, these were middle schoolers, not aficionados).

When it came my turn to pick a song, I chose Somewhere Over The Rainbow. The teachers felt it was a very difficult song (I didn’t). Yes, there were parts of it that challenged my abilities, but they were nothing a little practice couldn’t smooth over.

Still, the teachers insisted I have a “Plan B” – a second, easier, song I could fall back on if Somewhere Over the Rainbow proved too difficult. “OK,” I said, “how about Yesterday?” That was a song I had already been playing. I didn’t even need sheet music for it.

They agreed.

Mind you, the teachers really liked the idea of me playing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. I sensed a certain pride in them as, with each practice, they could see me master the tune. For some reason, though, they kept on saying, “Don’t worry. You always have Yesterday. And you can make that decision right up to the point you go on stage.”

Yet, every time I played Somewhere Over The Rainbow I thought, “I can play this. What are they worried about?”

I guess this constant “Plan B” reminder made me think maybe they knew something about my ability to play the song that I didn’t. This is what I was thinking of throughout the concert. I was last, so I had a lot of time to think. I didn’t want to disappoint my teachers. Which song should I play?

As I approached the stage, I could see the band teacher smiling enthusiastically at me from the piano. My violin teacher smiled expectantly and proudly at me as she placed the music sheet for Somewhere Over the Rainbow on the music stand ahead of me.

I didn’t stop at the stand. I took a couple of steps closer to them and whispered, “We’re going with Yesterday.”

Instantly their smiling faces drooped in disappointment. This surprised me. I had totally misread their intentions. Fortunately, the upright piano hid all this drama.

The band teacher hurriedly switched the music in front of him. He started to play the introduction.

So stunned was I that I missed my cue. With a quizzical look on his face, the band teacher repeated the intro. Fortunately, it was the kind of introduction that could be seamlessly repeated. The audience never noticed.

I picked it up the second time and played with heart from memory (the only music sheet on my stand being Somewhere Over The Rainbow).

To this day, I wish I would have played Somewhere Over The Rainbow. That is the regret that continues to eat away at me. For the longest time, even into adulthood, whenever I grabbed my violin to fiddle around, I always found myself eventually playing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Call it a lifetime penance.

I blame it all on having a “Plan B.” It gave me a too easy out. I would have been better served having an ace up my sleeve instead.

What’s the difference? Not that I condone cheating, but to stick to the metaphor, if a gambler holds a losing hand, the “Plan B” of changing from playing poker to playing Blackjack won’t work. An ace up his sleeve, on the other hand, is a sure winner.

In business, it makes sense to have a Plan B (and a Plan C and a Plan D and, well, you get the picture). But only if certain conditions already exist. For example, if your original (larger) target market isn’t buying, go with Plan B and sell to the more receptive (but smaller) market.

If you’re starting a business, however, Plan B means quitting the game you’re playing and starting a new game (or, in this case, a different business). That’s failure. Not that failure is always bad, but there’s a better way.

Have an ace up your sleeve. That means, have a sure winner – that easy sale – you can go with using the same business model (so you don’t have to lose everything you just sunk into your new business).

Many people mistakenly believe entrepreneurs are risk takers. In truth, consistently successful entrepreneurs are always risk managers. They control the risks they can and always have an ace up their sleeve.

That’s not to say never have a Plan B. Sometimes, Plan B’s can surprise you.

I didn’t realize it, but those music teachers back in 7th grade recorded the talent show. They surprised us one lunch period (the cafeteria shared the stage) and showed clips from that show.

Visions of past ridicule ran through my head. I hoped they’d skip my performance. This (new) school didn’t know Jack Benny and wouldn’t make gangster jokes. They had shown themselves to be much worse.

Despite my wishes, my picture soon appeared on the screen. Then it began to move. From the speakers emerged the poignant melody of Yesterday. The room went silent. As if in disbelief. All the other songs were classic instrumental solos. This, though, was The Beatles. Never before had they understood pop music could come from the instruments.

At the end of my quick performance, the kids cheered. They saw something I didn’t.

They saw the ace up my sleeve.

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  1. […] not as risky as it seems. Would you like to know why? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “When You Want To Control Risk, Sometimes An ‘Ace Up Your Sleeve’ Is Better Than A ‘Plan B’” and discover the secret of successful entrepreneurs isn’t taking risks, it’s controlling […]

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