“Man who waits for roast duck to fly into mouth must wait very, very long time.” — Chinese proverb

Twenty years ago I came across a story (I don’t know who wrote it) that illustrates the deadly power of the Victimitis Virus (the poor-little-helpless-me syndrome). Whenever I catch myself pointing “out there” to explain my poor performance, I pull out this story and read it again. I have since used it with many groups to make the same point.

The Man Who Sold Hot Dogs

There was a man who lived by the side of the road and sold hot dogs. He was hard of hearing so he had no radio. He had trouble with his eyes so he read no newspapers. But he sold good hot dogs. He put up signs on the highway telling people how good the hot dogs were. He stood by the side of the road and cried, “Buy a hot dog mister?” And people bought.

He increased his meat and bun orders. He bought a bigger stove to take care of his trade. He finally got his son home from college to help him out.

But then something happened.

His son said, “Father, haven’t you been listening to the radio? Haven’t you been reading the newspapers? There’s a big recession. The European situation is terrible. The domestic situation is worse.”

Whereupon the father thought, “Well, my son’s been to college, he reads the newspapers and he listens to the radio. He ought to know.”

So the father cut down on his bun orders, took down his advertising signs and no longer bothered to stand out on the highway selling hot dogs. And his hot dog sales fell almost overnight.

“You’re right, son,” the old man said to his boy. “We’re certainly in the middle of a great recession.”

I’ve often reflected on the truth and paradoxes found in Reinhold Niebuhr’s popular “Serenity Prayer”: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” There are many circumstances we can’t control (but we can control how we deal with the uncontrollable). However, we tend to easily become confused by what we can and can’t control. Before the “courage to change the things I can” is of any use, we need to learn how to recognize just what we can change. Rarely do most people examine their own assumptions, beliefs, skills, behaviors, and learning levels to see how they created their own circumstances. Instead they develop a full blown case of Victimitis.

During the eighties, as we built my previous company, The Achieve Group, into an international leader and the largest in the Canadian field, our rallying cry was “changing the rules of the game in the consulting and training business.” During our most difficult times it was a real struggle to keep remembering that the hand we used to point our finger at the economy, time of year, or each other had three times as many fingers pointing back at the source of our circumstances. To prove this point, I once charted our ten-year sales growth. The dips and surges correlated to things we had or hadn’t done with new products, marketing, internal training, repositioning the business, and so on. There was little correlation to the economy, competition, and other external factors. Of course, if we believed and behaved as if those factors determined our fate, they would have.

As CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch’s turnaround of that company has been remarkable. Fortune magazine considers Jack the most successful corporate leader of our time. The title of one of his books is one of my all time favorite book titles. It sums up the self-determination concepts I’ve outlined here and Jack’s leadership philosophy. The book is called, Control Your Own Destiny or Someone Else Will. Exactly.