| Upstream vs. Downstream
|Can’t I just tread water?
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.
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
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 neighbors 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
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,
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
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.