The Hardest Way Possible (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

Some people in this world — and you, dear reader, know some of these people — have to learn every one of life’s lessons the hardest way possible. They have to touch the stove just to see if it really is hot. Sometimes they have to make the same mistake repeatedly before the lesson sinks in. Especially when the lesson is this: Just because you want it to be so doesn’t make it so.

I do appreciate that some people are undeterred by other people’s failures, or their own. Edison, I’ve read, tried thousands of different light bulb designs before settling on a practical solution. But venturing into uncharted waters is not the same as observing, or being warned, that some course of action has already been proven to have a poor (or disastrous) outcome, and yet feeling compelled to prove it all over again.

This is why we read the customer reviews on Amazon, why Angie’s List is one of the Internet’s biggest success stories and why Barnes & Noble has that big section of self-help books. Most of us, especially when we stop getting taller, are eager to avoid the same mistakes that other people have already made and to benefit from their successful experiments.

A favorite question to ask businesspeople who kindly submit to our “Executive Q&A” treatment is “What is the biggest business mistake you ever made?” A few weeks back, I put that question to Miles James, the chef and creative director behind Inn at the Mill and James at the Mill restaurant in Johnson.

His answer: “I remodeled Inn at the Mill and James at the Mill in 2006. I took every dime I had and poured it into our hotel and restaurant. I rebranded the hotel with a luxury hotel group that was very successful in Europe. Their marketing program did not translate in the United States. It almost ruined our business. Now we are branded with Ascend Hotels; occupancy has never been higher. Nice recovery, and I’ll never make that mistake again.”

I loved that answer because the lesson is not just that a strategic decision didn’t work. It’s that a strategy that has worked in some situations (Europe) won’t necessarily work in all situations (northwest Arkansas). The reverse would also be true, of course: A strategy that didn’t work in some situations could work in others. I’ll bet if we plumbed James’ experience a little more, he’d have a very good idea of why the European branding didn’t work, something that he didn’t recognize on the front end but which later seemed painfully obvious.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of learning from other people’s experiences lately. For instance, my son texted me from college last week to say, “I finally get that folding clothes makes them not wrinkled later.” Duh.

But mainly I’ve been watching Congress, especially the Republicans in the House of Representatives, and wondering why oh why they insisted on learning the government shutdown lesson the hardest way possible. Everyone who was in Washington in 1995 warned them not to do it. (Except, most notably, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, who egged them on. I can only assume it’s because he’s tired of being the only guy who torched his political career by insisting on government shutdowns that never had the slightest chance of achieving his goals.)

This column is going to press on Thursday, so a lot can — and I fervently hope does — happen by Monday. What I hope happens is that Speaker John Boehner allows a “clean” continuing budget resolution to come to the floor for a vote, and that all the Democrats and enough Republicans vote for it to put us all out of our misery. It is just irrational to think that this president is going to negotiate anything having to do with his signature health care reform under these circumstances.

And then I hope the House Republicans consider what they just went through for no political gain — other than fundraising, which is certainly something — and think back long enough to remember the S&P downgrade of U.S. Treasury bills in 2011 and last year’s “fiscal cliff.” And I hope they decide not to repeat the same mistake when it comes time to raise the debt ceiling in a few days.

Anyone old enough to be in Congress ought to have learned that just because you fervently want something doesn’t make it so.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.