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Best business advice found in an 85-year old poem

I recently got reacquainted with my all-time favorite piece of prose, "Desiderata," written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann. I've always felt it was the most perfect, concise set of life lessons ever put in writing, and reading it again I realized that much of it translates into excellent business advice as well. If you aren't already familiar with it, I encourage you to read it. Maybe even frame it in your office.

The poem is both inspirational and -- unlike the throwaway catch-phrases of motivational posters and most mission statements -- eminently practical. In an era when so many companies have strayed from the basics, "Desiderata" offers a refresher on old-school wisdom and values from which all of us, and our businesses, can benefit. I've excerpted a handful of verses and put my take on the business lessons between the lines:

"Go placidly amid the noise and haste..."

The iconic opening phrase is a reminder that it is easy to get caught up in the clamor of modern business (technology and media overload, endless amounts of data, a 24/7 world, and all the "latest things"), and lose sight of what's important. Keep a clear head and don't let the noise distract you from your real goals (happy customers, happy employees, profitability).

"As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others..."

Be appropriately aggressive in business, but never burn bridges. You never know which company will get acquired by which, where departing employees might wind up, or what your customers will do for or against you. Treat everyone well, be straightforward and honest, and listen more than you talk (that last one a lesson I would do well to heed more often).

"Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time..."

You'll weather the ups and downs of business best by staying enthusiastic about not only your "wins," but the work you're doing. To tweak a phrase an old boss of mine used to love, "Unless you're getting out of it, get into it."

"Exercise caution in your business affairs..."

Requires no explanation. Keep your head on straight.

"Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection..."

Whether with customers, coworkers or employees, suppliers or anyone else who touches your business, be genuine. Phoniness is increasingly transparent and alienating in a world buried in corporate baloney. "Be real" and people will be drawn to you.

"Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings..."

There are few things more stressful than starting, growing or running a business. But it's important to know the difference between the key stressors: fear and anxiety. Fear is a reaction to something that is likely or imminent, while anxiety ("imaginings" as it is called in the verse) is worry about something that isn't necessarily happening or going to happen, and that you probably can't control anyway.

Address fear with action -- do whatever you can to avoid or minimize real risks and problems, and face them head-on when they happen. As for anxiety, try your damnedest to keep it out of your life. I know that's a huge "easier said than done" (in fact I'm a horrible hypocrite on this one -- it is my biggest personal struggle), but it is entirely unproductive. Aside from being disastrous to your health, every moment you spend worrying about something you can't predict, expect or act on is a moment you're not spending moving your business forward.

Perhaps you think this is all a bit quaint and trite, but basic precepts like these have largely been lost in modern business. And those companies that do maintain a strong values-based foundation -- in what really amounts to simple humanity -- tend to be exceptional.

Max Ehrmann may have born 140 years ago, but his simple, eloquent advice couldn't be more timely. Take it to heart and you'll get more value out of his two-dozen lines of verse than in two-dozen self-help books -- and it's a much faster read.

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