An Ibibio proverb declares, “When you keep looking left and right while eating, you touch the floor rather than the soup with your ball of fofo.” Another tells whoever cares to listen, that whoever has too many gods (and thus must pour libation to each of them) always has very little of the drink offering left for him.  Yet another: “no one climbs a ladder holding things in two hands.”

These simple words of wisdom illumine the world view of the Ibibio people of Southern Nigeria with respect to self-application in broad terms. Success is good and desirable, but the path to it is often fraught with challenges including availability of resources but in the quotes above, it is the application of available resources that matter so much.  Richard Quest of Cable News Network (CNN) aptly notes it when a young woman tells him to ignore money because it is ‘just a penny’: “it is not how much you have but what you do with it that matters … every penny has power.”

It appears, and from personal experience, it is true that there are persons out there who like doing several things simultaneously. They may not be Da Vinci re-incarnates (an Italian polymath who lived between 1452 and 1519 was famous for, among other things, writing two different things creatively with both hands at the same time). Yet these polymaths or simply, people with several attractive ideas can engage themselves in diverse ventures at the same time, hopefully, with successful outcomes. They are the jacks of several (not all) trades, and possibly masters of all. This is against the concept of johanes factotum (jack of all trades and master of none). Can a rolling stone gather moss? That is not what I was taught at high school but I do know that a rolling stone does gather moss, just that the quantity is usually limited.

The focus in this piece is overtrading.  When a business person invests, including purchase of stocks beyond the financial capacity of the business or even the capacity of the market to absorb the stock, the result is overtrading. It is too common an occurrence to require too much explanation.

Overtrading can be extended to multinationals as to a sole trader with a kiosk. It can be applied in all types of organizations, profit and not-for-profit, and the lives of individuals and groups. If a church is simultaneously putting up a building, buying musical instruments, running a skills programme, taking care of major repairs on existing facilities, yet is planning a mega-programme even when none of the existing projects had been concluded and funds are severely limited, overtrading is a partner. An individual who uses salary to meet domestic expenses, continue work on a new family house, meet the funding needs of others voluntarily selected including students, redeem pledges to clubs and voluntary organizations and even run a business is verily involved in overtrading.

Persons and entities that are involved in overtrading must experience one thing among others – tension. Budgeting and drawing up scales of preference do reduce the tension but they never solve the problem because it is a fundamental flaw that appears to be a character trait of individuals as individuals or individuals as managers of groups and organizations and nations. Some persons appear to thrive in challenges, and their blood appears to pump more when they are handling new things or taking managing the growth phase of projects and ideas. But at the end of the day, it may not be very ideal because the result is often a litter of uncompleted projects.

Investing in many things implies spreading oneself thin. That was the advice my father, Elder A. B. Ubong gave to me. Whether I heeded is another story. The thrill associated starting a new project or actualizing a new idea can be compelling and who knows whether there is a place for such orientation in the world of psychology?

 Is the world better off with the human beings that are deliberate, methodical, and who take things one at a time? Or is the world better with those that spin ideas per second per second and develop them to a point and move on?

Probably a middle road is better, which should remind us of the Aristotelian theory of the mean. Let people operate at a midpoint between excess and deficiency, which to Aristotle, could be regarded as excellence and therefore desirable. Although there have been arguments against the golden mean which some writers such as Bernard William see as unhelpful, one cannot doubt that moderation is a virtue and that neither excess nor deficiency is a desirable state.

Take “excess” for instance. The word is derived from Latin “excessus”, a fourth declension noun, which is masculine. Michael Kimmel in the book Theorizing Masculinities published in 1994 sees masculine as being associated with “strength, courage, independence, and violence.” Masculinity is also associated with deviation and aberration, both negative, relating to actions or behaviours that are not considered as the norm and therefore not acceptable in normal settings (certainly there are behaviours regarded as socially unacceptable in most systems but regarded as normal in others; in the context of this piece we are referring to the general rule).

Anything to excess is not normally regarded as normal and therefore undesirable even when persons (irrespective of gender) prefer the masculine approach and adopt what can be regarded as excessive. Excess, as a position at the far left of a continuum in the Aristotelian conceptualization, in fact, had its basis in health, given the fact that the sage’s father was a medical practitioner. Too much food is inimical to good health as too little or insufficient food also inimical to good health. In this context, one can see insufficiency or deficiency as the antonym of excess or excess upturned.

In the daily life and operations of an individual, group, association, and nation, the excess should be avoided because it hardly if ever, leads to the good. It is not likely that an instance of the presence or use of anything beyond the optimum quantity leads to satisfactory outcomes without long term disadvantages or possible collateral damage. Excessive use of force can save a situation in the short term but it comes with disabilities; excessive weakness can destroy a system too. Can too much love have deleterious consequences? The answer is yes, for instance where a child is so loved and pampered at the expense of discipline which will be a critical ingredient in successful functioning in the society of adults. Can kindness be excessive? The answer is yes, for it can make people lazy and unimaginative. This is probably why some developing countries that have been spoon-fed with aid appear not to make any effort at achieving economic independence.

So much for groundwork. This piece is about overtrading, and we submit that it is an undesirable form of functioning for individuals and groups of whatever size or persuasion. Everybody should strive to determine the optimum operational level and work within it for long term reasons. Anything to excess is undesirable, reason Alfred Lord Tennyson in Idylls of the King said “lest one good custom corrupts the world.”

The profit motive is a key characteristic of the entrepreneurial spirit; yet too much emphasis and pursuit of profit are inimical to the social well-being of the collective, the reason people talk of corporate social responsibility. Assistance to the needy is, in fact, a desideratum yet there has to be moderation in pursuing it. Bashorun M. K. O. Abiola, Nigeria’s legendary philanthropist once told the press that his donations and gifts were like dew on the walls of a bottle that had been in a refrigerator; his kindness did not touch the liquid contents inside the bottle. Mother Theresa would have winced at that, for she encouraged people to give until it hurts. The orientation of Rotary International in the 20th century was that an ideal Rotarian was a person who could afford three square meals a day and was ready to let go one. The implication was that giving need not hurt the giver, else the giver becomes a beggar. Two square meals a day is mouthful, and some of us have functioned with one for long periods without feeling deficient.

Hard work pays, but excessive work can be counterproductive. So also is investing beyond the capacity of the individual which is not at variance with venture capitalism. Probably if we conclude by reminding us that Leonardo da Vinci robbed the world of so much knowledge because in spite of all his incredible creative outputs, he left so much of work uncompleted. Unfortunately, he wrote down a number of those ideas in such abstruse language that till date, no one has been able to interpret and use them.

‘Understanding’ is bad; so is overtrading. The most probable optimal point of functioning is the mid-point. This is an objective reality and every human being and human organization should pursue it.

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