Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lessons from the Erie Canal

My column in this week's Financial Post looks at the lessons learned in my trip last week on a barge along the Erie Canal, the nearly 200-year-old waterway that opened upstate new York – and indeed the continent – to western migration and settlement.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Erie Canal to the development of the United States, the North’s victory over the South in the Civil War, and the growth and success of New York City in becoming the world’s greatest centre of commerce and trade.

Yet today it’s a neglected backwater, a weedy, 600-km waterway for blue herons, fishermen, and the odd pleasure craft. (In our four days on the canal, my friends and I passed probably no more than a dozen boats a day. Although we hear July was much busier.)

In its day, however, the Erie Canal was an information superhighway, transporting people, goods and ideas throughout the state at speeds approaching 4 miles an hour (much greater than you could average in a carriage on that era’s roads). That’s why movements as diverse as abolition, women’s rights, utopianism and Mormonism flourished in upstate New York, and spread from there around the world. Even to Canada, eventually.

Not being much of a sailor, I learned a lot about boats and boating, knots, navigation and so on. And many of these concepts related to business, of course I wrote about it in my Post column.

Boating is all about gaining advantage where you can, and so is business. But you have to know when to stick to your course. When you cruise the Erie, you get used to navigating in a narrow band -- there's no room for creativity. Sometimes, when the canal widens, you get the urge to break for the far shore or cut a corner. But we heard stories about the boaters who ran aground because they didn't realize the boating channel remains the same width, no matter how wide the canal may get.
It's a sobering reminder that not all corners should be cut. Not all shoals are marked. If you have a plan worth executing, improvising when things look easy may not be the best course.

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