Monthly Archives: September 2006

Chance and the Prepared Mind

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Serpentine Music Productions is now entering its fifteenth year. This modest-sized home business has now outlived many of the stores and music distributors who used to be my customers, and even my one competitor (who was also ultimately a customer, too). When I started this business, being a Virgo-minded person I took a small business start-up course where we did some market research and wrote up a business plan. For my market research I phoned up a lot of distributors I hoped to sell music to and asked them what they thought of the chances for a Pagan music business. The most honest of them said right off the bat, “You can’t make any money from Pagan music.”

Turns out he was right, in a certain way. You can’t make big money from Pagan music. But you can make small money from it, and sometimes that is the best outcome. For me that has been true, even though like all entrepreneurs I had dreams of “making it big.” After many years of hoping for big money and ending up with small money, it dawned on me that I probably wouldn’t be having much fun with the business if it made big money. I’d have to have employees. I’d spend all my time distributing music, and never have time to make any of my own.

So a couple years ago I sat down and figured out what was still fun about running Serpentine Music. I like having a music label. I like keeping up with the music industry, releasing titles when I feel like it, selling music I believe in, and filling orders on a part-time basis. I don’t like keeping track of too many titles, spending all my money on advertising, or working every day at it. So I whittled down my catalog from 250+ items to around 60, decided to let word of mouth be my primary marketing tool, and stopped worrying about making it big.

The results of that crash course in reality-based business planning have been very good, I am happy to say. I love having a niche business that allows me to have other niche businesses as well. My customers are great, the albums I sell are great, and the other parts of my career — writing, teaching and dreamwork — now have the breathing room they need to thrive.

“Fortune favors the brave,” said the Roman poet Virgil in the first century BCE. This pretty much describes the philosophy of most courses and books on business. You must be fearless, you must put yourself out there and give it all you’ve got if you want to succeed. Of course this is true, and half the battle in building a business is doing things you are afraid of but must do anyway. It is a great way of overcoming fear.

Then in the 19th century the scientist Louis Pasteur added his own spin to the prevailing wisdom: “In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” I love how this quote craftily conjoins Fate and free will. He is saying that the lucky break, the chance observation that changes everything, comes most often to those who have done everything they can to prepare for it, and far less often to those who have not worked toward it at all.

It may be that both men are essentially saying the same thing, and I am misconstruing their words in translation. Yet preparing one’s mind is quite different than being brave. Bravery implies bold, decisive movement whereas preparation encompasses both action and receptivity. If I were still proceeding valiantly according to my original big money plan for Serpentine Music, I wouldn’t have made the observation that a small money business was the more desirable outcome. Being open and receptive after having followed my plan is what enabled me to shift my perspective enough to realize what I really wanted.

Do I still have a desire for “big money”? Sure, you bet. But other parts of my career are much better suited to that task. Meanwhile, I am very happy to have this little gem of a business to rely on. It continues to serve me well, and I am so grateful for the chance moment where I realized that I was actually winning by not getting what I thought I wanted. In this confusing time of eclipses, reversals, and general angst, may we all be so well prepared, and so lucky.

O wild angels of the open hills

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Let us all bow down to Black Oak Books in Berkeley, where on a chance foray this afternoon I came up for air clutching gold in my stubborn hand. And the gold reads like this:

O wild angels of the open hills
Before all legends and before all tears:
O voyagers of where the evening falls
In the vast August of the years:
O halfseen passers of the lonely knolls,
Before all sorrow and before all truth
You were: and you were with me in my youth.

Angels of the shadowed ancient land
That lies yet unenvisioned, without myth,
Return, and silent-winged descend
On the winds that you have voyaged with,
And in the barren evening stand
On the hills of my childhood, in whose silences,
Savage, before all sorrow, your presence is.

— Ursula Le Guin, Wild Angels, 1975