Staying Centered in Tough Times: Advice From Ken Burns


By Chuck Violand

A short while ago, I was listening to the podcast of an interview Tim Ferriss did with Ken Burns, a highly acclaimed American documentary filmmaker. In the interview, Burns talked about the three things he uses to keep himself centered and to help him through difficult times. Naturally, I immediately thought about business owners—how we struggle through tough times and how we just as frequently enjoy successful times.

While Burns’ three things are easy to say, they can be extremely hard to follow, especially when life gets tough. But they’re worth working on.

1 | All things are transitory

In other words, “This too shall pass.” When things aren’t going well in our business, it’s easy to think they never will. On the flip side, it’s also easy to get lulled into thinking that when things are going well, the good times will continue.

If you’ve ever lost a key employee or a long-term customer, you know it can seem like your world is collapsing in on you. Or, if your company experiences a significant financial setback because of a lawsuit or financial downturn, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. While these situations can be traumatic, they can also often open doors to new opportunities we might not otherwise have experienced.

While we’re on the topic of all things being transitory, it’s worth mentioning that this refers to our working careers as well as our businesses. Whether things are going well or poorly, we all have a shelf life, so it’s a good idea to make the best of our time while we have it. Now stop gloating or fretting and get to work!

2 | Get help from others

It’s important to realize that getting help doesn’t need to come in the form of professional consultants or at great expense. Sometimes, what we really need is input from the people around us, but we’re hesitant to ask for fear of looking stupid or vulnerable.

No business owner can have all the answers, nor are we expected to. What we are expected to do is make good decisions, which frequently involves input from others—but that means we must ask.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received on this topic came from a book by author Richard Bach. He writes, “There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands.” The people around us have gifts they’d like to share. Sometimes we just need to be open to receiving them.

3 | Be kind to yourself

I’m convinced that most successful business leaders are their own worst critics. We’re backwoods judges who confuse failing with being a failure. We use bravado to hide our insecurities and fears.

Sometimes, what we need most is to give ourselves a break, to acknowledge that, behind our titles, positions, or rank, we’re just human beings trying to do our best.

Burns’ three ideas are simple yet profound. There have been times in my life when I wish I would have had this wisdom… or at least listened to it. (Number three rings especially true for me.) And while none of these phrases may succeed in fixing anything in our businesses, any of them may be just enough to get us through the tough times.

Chuck Violand is the founder and principal of Violand Management Associates (VMA), a highly respected consulting company in the restoration and cleaning industries. For more information, visit


Cleanfax Staff

Cleanfax provides cleaning and restoration professionals with information designed to help them manage and grow their businesses.

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