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Ignoring long-held, proven beliefs can be financially fatal

March 13, 2015
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In 1559, King Henry II of France was mortally wounded in a jousting match outside of Paris.

In “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons,” author Sam Kean tells how two surgeons attained permission over the protests of the Catholic Church to do an autopsy when the king died 10 days later.

The two doctors were Ambroise Paré and Andreas Vesalius. They were the two best physicians of their time. Approaching Queen Catherine with a request to defy the Catholic Church took some courage when punishment for angering the Pope was often the gallows.

What the doctors wanted to know from the autopsy was what had killed the king. He had suffered horrible injuries to his left eye when a jousting lance cracked on impact and a large splinter entered his eye — horrific, but not fatal. He suffered severe headaches and finally died. The autopsy discovered he had died of a blood clot on the back of his brain — he had died of a concussion.

So your obvious question is: What does that have to do with small business? The answer is that sometimes the information that is needed has been there a long time. Sometimes old information is critical to new solutions.

Think of today’s doctors who are dealing with all levels of football players. One of the biggest issues threatening the future of the sport is concussions. How long have concussions been known to be a major problem? Apparently since 1559, when two doctors discovered that a blow to the front of the head could cause damage to the back of the brain due to the brain being slammed against the rigid surfaces of the skull. Jousting was a contact sport much like football.

There are two terms I love. One is a BFO — a blinding flash of the obvious. Sometimes there is a moment when all the pieces come together and your experience and training blend to give you an answer. There is also Occam's Razor — the concept that the most likely solution to a problem is often the simplest.

The question is: Why don't people use the information available to them when it comes to decision making?

In the case of football and concussions, the reason for ignoring the obvious is money — billions of dollars. The NFL was being pressed by retired players for compensation for head injuries the league claims were not a problem. The continuation of football in its current form was at risk.

Given the way people think, maybe football will be replaced by jousting or gladiator contests. It would probably take another hundred years before somebody questions the injuries suffered by those athletes.

So what is your blind spot? Ignoring long-held beliefs that turn out to be accurate can be financially fatal. Remember the dotcom bubble? A business did not have to make a profit to prosper — a big whoops if you believed that. In retrospect, that was a really foolish scenario. It was amateur time on Wall Street, but the pros got rich.

How about the recent Great Recession? Big banks granted mortgages to people who had no capacity to repay them. Amazingly, the people who foisted this insanity upon us are not in jail. They are in the Hampton's yucking it up with the politicians who set up the systems to allow this fraud.

How can they have been so stupid? They were not stupid; they were greedy — and for them it worked. Not so much for the rest of us.

The best example of a proponent of using old-fashioned, long-held and proven knowledge is author and financial advisor Dave Ramsey. He knows what your business-owning great-grandfather knew in order to survive generations ago.

There are financial advisors who use Biblical teachings in today’s world, apparently successfully. Is there really a big difference between the management of a used car lot and a used camel lot? I doubt it.

The NFL, Wall Street and big banks ignored not only common sense but thousands of years of research in the lab of life.

If for 500 years it has been known that a blow to the head causes neurological damage, why were we still questioning it 10 years ago? “Neither a borrower or lender be” seems to lend some advice for the mortgage mess. “A sucker is born every minute” seems to cover Wall Street.

There are so many antidotes and sayings that are timeless in their usefulness. “Penny wise and pound foolish” is an old English admonition. There are probably thousands of these short and pointed directives from many cultures that our children and grandchildren may never have heard.

I used the example of King Henry because to me it was so surprising that an event 500 years ago that proved beyond a doubt that closed-head trauma was critical is still being questioned today.

As you set about your business, remember the people you are dealing with have their own beliefs and rules. Make sure you are in touch with your own agenda.

If there is something you know to be true and yet you are not following it, you’re going against your own knowledge and beliefs. That is counterintuitive behavior, but it happens all the time.

How many times have you heard a person say that so-and-so should have known better? Try your best to see they are not referring to you.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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