Everything I need to know about business I learned from scuba diving

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

It’s a seductive and, therefore, popular concept: Everything you need to know can be gleaned from a single source.

Robert Fulghum provides the best — and, I’d contend, most compelling — example in his book claiming right in the title “Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It’s difficult to dispute the case Fulghum makes for the value of playing fair; cleaning up your own mess; and, especially, warm cookies and cold milk.

But there’ve been many variations on the same theme over the years in citing as a Pierian fount of knowledge everything from Mister Rogers to Batman to the lyrics of songs from the 1990s.

As editor of a business journal, I’ve often wondered about the single best source of information about running a business — other than the Business Times, that is.

Since my oldest son, Zach, begins work on his MBA degree there this fall, I hope one such source is the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

From a more practical perspective, I suspect the best advice about running a business comes from those who’ve been there and done that. By virtue of observation over the past 20 years, I’ve developed some of my own theories about what makes entrepreneurs successful. Put in the work required to realize your aspirations. Cherish your customers and obsess over service. Care for employees like members of your families. Give back to the community.

There’s a big difference, though, between observation and execution. I’ve watched in slack-jawed amazement the internet videos featuring my guitar heroes, among them Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Tommy Emmanuel. But I can’t replicate their prowess no matter how hard I try, not a lick.

Have I actually learned everything I need to know about running a business from editing a business journal? Not everything. Something, maybe. Could I operate a business? I doubt it.

What about writing? I suppose some generalities relate both to good writing and good business management.
A proclivity for creativity probably helps. Attention to detail certainly does. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect but remains essential nonetheless.

What else? Fitness? Eight weeks to rock-hard abs and leaner manufacturing? Fishing? How to land monster trout and hook sales prospects? I don’t think so.

In addition to newspaper journalism, there’s another passion in my life from which I’ve learned some important lessons: scuba diving. It might be a stretch, but some of those lessons apply to business.

There’s irony involved in learning to scuba dive smack in the middle of a land-locked desert. But those with that interest are actually fortunate to live close to the scuba training and gear offered by Joe Adams and Donna Sloan-Adams in Grand Junction. Joe and Donna helped a guy afraid to get his head wet earn certification as a master diver. I don’t consider myself masterful. But I’m proficient thanks to the thorough and patient instruction I’ve received over the years. As a result, I’ve enjoyed the remarkable privilege of experiencing life under the sea, from pristine coral reefs off Cozumel to giant kelp forests off Catalina.

So what does scuba diving have to do with running a business? Here are three “don’ts” to consider:

Don’t hold your breath. While it might seem counterintuitive, you never, ever hold your breath while scuba diving. If you ascend while holding your breath, you risk injuring your lungs — kind of like inflating a balloon until it pops. The same advice applies in a metaphorical sense to running a business: Don’t wait for something to happen that might not. Don’t wait for sales to pick up, a competitor to fail or that problem employee to finally get his act together. Consider instead a more proactive approach.

Don’t go it alone. Scuba divers adhere to a practice in which at least two “buddies” stay together in the event one requires assistance from the other. It could become a matter of life or death if an emergency arises and a diver needs his buddy to share air. Entrepreneurs sometimes go into business with buddies and sometimes not. One way or another, entrepreneurs shouldn’t go it alone. Help is close at hand from mentors, business organizations and even government agencies. In the Grand Valley, the Business Incubator Center, Colorado Mesa University and Factory offer a range of resources. Take advantage of them.

Don’t try to do too much too soon. Nobody descends to 130 feet or enters a cavern on his or her first dive. That requires the accumulative knowledge and competence gained from instruction and experience. The alternative is potential disaster. Entrepreneurs who enjoy immediate success face the temptation to quickly expand when a more measured approach might work better. Base your decisions on realistic assessments of not only the conditions, but also your capabilities.

There’s a substantial difference, of course, between diving into water and diving into business. But there are some similarities as well, particularly in the steps people take in making those pursuits safe, enjoyable and ultimately successful.