Upstream vs. downstream

Deb asked me, “Would you like to come over to my house tonight and learn about a business opportunity?” I’d met Deb on a church trip, and had been crushing on her for weeks. She could have ended her question with, “and scrub dirty toilets?” and I would’ve been there, because all I heard was “come over to my house tonight.”

When I arrived, I was greeted by her father who ushered me into the living room where a bunch of people were seated on rows of folding chairs. Deb was surrounded by several other young men, so I sat as close to her as I could. Then a man at the front of the room with a chalk board began a presentation.

Can’t I just tread water?

He explained how I could own my own business for less than $100, and only put in a part time effort. It sounded fabulous. I was a 19 year old student paying my way through college by working several part time jobs. He said if I followed their time-proven directions that I would become wealthy. He made it look simple and seem like something I could easily do. My father had preached the benefits of self-employment and being your own boss for years, so I was ready to take the bait. I wrote a check to get started and handed it to Deb. It was the last time I ever saw her; shortly after that she went off to college in another state.

The business turned out to be a multi-level marketing plan. Initially, I didn’t know what that meant, but I was determined to follow their directions to the letter. Over the next 22 months or so, I bought lots of sample products, books, tapes; and went to meetings – lots of meetings. I got all my mother’s friends and neighbours to buy products, and I invited all of my friends to meetings – over and over again; in short order I alienated everyone I knew. Pretty soon, everything about this business felt wrong to me. It made me feel very uncomfortable. The people above me in the pyramid, however, were very persuasive, and said all I needed was to read one more book or listen to one more tape, and I’d be on my way. After spending a great deal of time and money on this business, I realized I was paddling against the current and getting nowhere. I quit.

A year or so later, I made a necklace for my girlfriend. It was unique and all her friends loved it and wanted one. So I made more necklaces and sold them to her friends. Then more people saw the necklaces and wanted one. I made more. I started carrying samples with me everywhere I went, and showed them to everyone. I sold more and more. Then I started making earrings as well. Before long, I got a few stores to carry my jewelry. I built a word-of-mouth business effortlessly. It felt great. I was paddling with the current and everything was going swimmingly.

A few years later, after I’d started collecting graffiti (see my previous article: Compelled by an Idea), I came across this written on a bathroom wall: Only dead fish swim with the current. Beside that, written in a different hand, was: Go with the flow.

I understood the latter. Go with the flow was a mantra from the Hippie Era I grew up in along with Be Cool, and Chill Out. It means don’t get upset by adversity because there will always be bumps in the road, unexpected occurrences, and surprises.

On the other hand, the first graffito implied that the second one was wrong. That going with the flow means you’re not doing anything with your life and you’re as good as dead. Going with the flow means you accept your lot in life; you are content with what you have; that you follow the herd, move with the prevailing forces, and do or agree with what everyone else is doing or saying because the majority knows best.

Only dead fish swim with the current implies that those who swim against the current are those who wish to invoke change; who want to control, manipulate, and improve their environment. People who swim upstream make things happen. They are the movers and shakers; the innovators and inventors; the disrupters of the world. There is nothing new downstream; only that which is old and boring, ancient history, the past, the been there and done that… the tried and true. One must swim upstream to find and explore new territory; learn new stuff, have new experiences. To create; fly; soar.

But it’s stressful to fight against the current. Doesn’t going with the flow also mean adapting to changes, and seeing them as opportunities and not as crises. It means giving up control; letting go of perfection; and living in the now. It means following your passion and your joy.

Is one way better than the other? You decide.

— Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humourist-speaker and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is the author of …and Never Coming Back, a psychological thriller-novel about a motion picture director; the inspirational book:Wisdom in the Weirdest Places; and The Annoying Ghost Kid a humorous children’s book about dealing with a bully. For more information on Robert, please visit