Making Business Personal

Business can be a form of activism, art, spirituality, and creative expression.

Ian Schneider via Unsplash

“The revolution starts in our heads.” — Unknown

Business causes the majority of today’s social and environmental ills, either directly or indirectly. But this is neither necessary nor inevitable. Business, at its essence, is nothing more than a group of people working together to get things done in a financially sustainable way. But business has been co-opted for serving the financial interests of the already wealthy. We are quick to blame capitalism, but it may not be the problem. The markets, supply and demand, and the buying and selling of goods and services are fairly neutral concepts. They are nothing more than social constructs that facilitate exchange and enable human collaboration.

Concepts that help companies evade accountability — like corporate personhood — can be repurposed to turn companies into a flexible vehicle for positive change. And this offers a multitude of possibilities. Businesses must do two things: 1) not break the law, and 2) cover its own costs. That’s it. Barring tax evasion and criminality, businesses have the freedom to do whatever they want. And this can be leveraged in weird and meaningful ways. We can repurpose business tools to eliminate human greed, and separate them from neoliberal ideology. This can give us a handle for creating fundamental systemic change.

Business as activism

Activism conveys images of NGOs, protest marches, and grassroots initiatives. These images are romantic — but not always sustainable. Volunteers come and go, and grassroots actions fade over time. NGOs are often dependent upon subsidy or donations — and given the whims of increasingly populist politicians, this is drying up.

We hope that dialogue will convince companies to become more socially and environmentally conscious. With nonviolent protests and newspaper editorials, we try to get our message across. But companies don’t care. Money talks. Academics leverage data-driven research to show companies the harm they are causing, but they are not incentivized to listen. By impacting their bottom line, we can give companies business reasons to change.

Activists are frequently “against” capitalism. Audre Lord said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” — but this cynically limits our possibilities. It’s more effective to hack the master’s tools to do unintended things. Capitalism and the markets can be used to fight neoliberalism. This is as subversive as it gets, and requires activists to shift their mindset. Most activists consider business “evil” and want nothing to do with it — but companies can unite people across economic classes and political aisles to work towards a common goal.

We can use business to infiltrate power structures. Once, when speaking at the Bilderberg Conference, I felt totally out of place with my Electronic Frontier Foundation t-shirt and black dress jacket. During cocktails, one of the attendees assumed that I was a waitress. I told him to keep his plate — and that he was welcome to attend my presentation the next day. I heard gasps in the room when I described giving 90% of our profits to charity, and received dozens of offers of support. If you’re looking to influence how powerful business leaders think, it’s easier to have a receptive audience when you are perceived as an insider.

Putting non-commercial businesses onto the commercial market is a powerful move, allowing customers to vote with their wallets for the world that they want to live in. Individual consumers don’t always have a lot of money — but corporations and governments have vastly more to spend. Business to Business (B2B) “fair-trade” can force commercial incumbents to compete with non-commercial businesses for both customers and staff — which can send shock waves into the market. This drives change — and it compels entire industries to a higher ethical standard.

Business as art

Business doesn’t have to be boring. It can meld with politics, ideas, and aesthetics. It can challenge common sense, assumptions, and semantics. Mixed media artists make art out of anything: film, found objects, food, smells, technology. So why not business? “Business as a mixed media for art” sounds contradictory, and some may find it shocking or offensive — but that’s precisely what makes it impactful.

Can you create an “avante-garde business”? Something that functions like a business — registered with the Chamber of Commerce and financially self-sustaining — but that is also weird, bizarre, absurd, inefficient, or playful? The business doesn’t need to make sense, or even be logical — it can be artistic, creative, and inspired. It can be inefficient as a Rube Goldberg machine. And yet it still functions, with its own revenue, bearing its own costs. It can operate in the spirit of playfulness and fun — which gives a lot of freedom to create and invent.

Business leaders tend to obsess about efficiency — but it’s far more valuable to think laterally. Why not be silly, and format your company statutes like e. e. cummings? Some lawyers might find it annoying. But who cares? Some companies already use art in their corporate documents — the Valve New Employee Handbook is a good example. I once met a guy who makes art out of bananas. Why not put some important company document on a banana? I’m being absurd right now — but that is also the point. The world can use some absurdist businesses. Business is best when it’s fun and lighthearted — and this playfulness also makes it easier to focus on business as a vehicle for social good.

Business as spirituality

Many religions consider work as a spiritual practice. This section will consider the role of business in a variety of religious traditions.

Buddhism

The fifth step of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path is ‘Right Livelihood’. Work is viewed as an opportunity to refine consciousness, smooth the rough edges of the ego, and to loosen the root of suffering: attachment. According to Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others. (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching [Parallax Press, 1998], p. 104) Several books discuss this in detail, including Work by Thich Nhat Hanh and Work as a Spiritual Practice by Lewis Richmond.

Buddhism has many principles that apply to entrepreneurship, including compassion, awareness, and intention. The books of Pema Chodron, a Canadian Buddhist nun, are helpful for dealing with ungroundedness, stress, and fear. Mindfulness and meditation have gained recent popularity with Western businesses, such as Google. Several mindfulness educators such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Goleman (Mindfulness@Work), and Sharon Salzburg (Real Happiness at Work) have also created popular work in this area. But this is not controversy-free, as described in the book McMindfulness. Tools like mindfulness and meditation should help people find awareness and peace in their work. It should not be used by companies to encourage their staff to emotionally disconnect and more easily accept unethical assignments.

Taoism

The Tao te Ching (The Book of the Way) is a collection of 81 poetic verses written in 550 BCE by Lao Tzu. The Tao contains many useful concepts for business leaders. Wei Wu Wei is the concept of action without action, “non-doing”. Several books translate the verses of the Tao te Ching into concrete business principles, including The Tao of Leadership by John Haider and Real Power: Business Lessons From the Tao Te Ching by James Autry and Steven Mitchell.

As entrepreneurs, we often think that we need to relentlessly push and force things forward. However, sometimes you get more done by taking a step back, letting go, and letting things run their course. “The Tao does nothing, but leaves nothing undone. If powerful men could center themselves in it, the whole world would be transformed by itself”

The Tao also has plenty to say about leadership, for example, “If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy”. The best leader, according to the Tao, is not one who rules by fear or even by love, but one who acts thoughtfully, naturally, and quietly. “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” The Tao explains: “Clay is molded into a vessel. It is the empty space that gives the function of a vessel.” As leaders, we also need to make ourselves into vessels. When we are full of ourselves, then there’s no room for other people’s contributions or ideas. He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.”

Semitic religions

Common business ethics issues in the three major Semitic world religions (Christianity, Judiasm, Islam) include: fairness of weights and measures, tithing, land usage, and compensation. But usury (the “making of money on money”) receives the most attention.

According to the Christian Bible, “the love of money is the root of all evil”. Jesus appeals to his followers to “lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35). But usury had become so widely accepted that it was permitted within the temple precinct. Jesus became so angry at the legal condoning of the “root of all evil” that he threw the money changers out of the Temple. Interestingly, in his book ‘Inferno’, Dante Alighieri also places Usurers in the 7th circle (Canto 17) of hell.

The Vatican has expressed opinions on economics and business. In 2015, Pope Francis wrote an encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ on Economic Growth and climate change. He said:

“195. The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy.”

and:

A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes — by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources — in the midst of economic growth.

In his second encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’ (issued in October 2020), Pope Francis commented on the free market and the COVID-19 pandemic:

168. The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes. Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of “spillover” or “trickle” — without using the name — as the only solution to societal problems. There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged “spillover” does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society.”

Pope Francis’ followers call his economic vision the Economy of Francesco.

Judaism also condemns usury. In Exodus 22:24: “If thou lend money to any of My people, even to the poor with thee, thou shalt not be to him as a creditor; neither shall ye lay upon him interest.” And in Leviticus 25:36–37: ‘Thou shalt not give him money upon usury nor exact of him any increase of fruits’.

Usury is also forbidden by the Koran. There are many Islamic countries in which modern banks (performing ‘Islamic banking’) are not allowed to charge interest.

The major religions didn’t develop in a vacuum — the early cultures of ancient Greece and Rome empires also denounced usury. Aristotle called this the most unnatural and unjust of all trades. “Money, he said, was to be used for exchange, not the breeding of money from money”. Plato also condemned it on the grounds that it set one class against another and was therefore destructive to the state. In Rome, Cicero, Cato and Seneca made similar censures.

This leads to interesting philosophical questions. When thinking about “the breeding of money from money”:

  • Is usury just charging interest on loans, or does it also include leveraging one’s possessions to make money from the less fortunate?
  • In this light: what is the difference between Jesus’ proverbial money changer and a landlord? Or a banker? Or a fund manager?

Generic Spirituality

For the non-religious (atheists and agnostics) among us, business can also be compatible with a more generic sense of spirituality and humanism. Regardless of whether one believes that a deity exists, we can hold on to a sense of higher purpose and hope.

Work and spirituality needn’t be separate.. I once met a woman at a retreat who was unable to reconcile her religion with working at a large Silicon Valley tech giant. She drew a dividing line in her head, with her religion on one side, and her job on the other. This is tragic — one’s spirituality can be fully compatible with one’s livelihood. Indeed, if we hope to make a truly positive change in the world, it must be.

Business as self-expression

Business can be a powerful form of self-expression. As entrepreneurs, we are storytellers — each with a unique story to tell — and we write our stories every day with our actions.

The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell is a 12-step template frequently used in theater and literature. It starts with a hero, introduces a call to action and a mentor, involves tests and ordeals, and concludes with an eventual triumphant return. This narrative arc can be found everywhere, from Homer’s Odyssey to Star Wars. Entrepreneurship is also a Hero’s Journey. Founders live their own story, facing the same adventures and choices. If we were to envision our business as a theatre piece, how would we want to write the script? How would we conduct ourselves? What is our mission? What adventures did we have? And, most importantly: how did we behave? We can create dramatic unity between our North Star of purpose and our everyday mundane operational decisions. If entrepreneurs think in this way, we can seek alignment between our purpose and our actions. We can aim to make our story a noble quest rather than a tragic tale of greed.

When it comes to our business activities, trends and outsiders’ opinions shouldn’t dictate our decisions. We should take the parts that work for us, and discard the rest, rather than blindly following examples of “success.” One frequently occurring failure pattern is when aspiring founders win a pitch contest or hackathon using ideas suggested by the organizers. After winning, the founders receive prize money to create a startup. They are excited because they received validation for this idea — but what wins a hackathon won’t necessarily fit us on a personal level, and may not even lead to a good business. (The ability to win a pitch contest is also not evidence of good product-market fit). This results in businesses borne of someone else’s motivations, and hardly ever reflects the desires and dreams of the founders. It is also not conducive to long-term success. Following our own purpose makes it easier to stick with things when the going gets tough — which at some point, it inevitably will. Disconnection between ourselves and our work is where things usually go wrong.

Other aspiring founders want to start a company, but are stalled without a business idea. They wait for inspiration to strike. But you shouldn’t sit around waiting for a burning bush to say: ‘thy shalt start THIS company’ — it doesn’t work like that. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the book Big Magic, describes creativity as a scavenger hunt: it all starts with being quiet. Create some empty space, and then stop and pay attention to the things that you’re curious about. You’re not looking for an idea — you’re simply noticing things. Pay attention: what is it that makes you go ‘hmmmm.. that’s interesting’? Notice it, and then investigate it. As you explore this curiosity, you will receive the next clue. Another ‘hmmmm.. that’s interesting’ moment. Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her TED podcast that she tried gardening in a small plot near her house, which led to an interest in the history of the plants, which led her to investigate 19th-century botanical exploration, which led to gender issues of botanists at the time, which compelled to her to travel to Tahiti and Amsterdam to study in the botanical gardens, which led to her book, The Signature of All Things about a 19th-century female botanist. The entire process took three years. Entrepreneurship emerges in a similar way. We too can be still for long enough to hear our whispers of curiosity, and then follow them. Business is our personal scavenger hunt — but we need to be open to it.

In the end, our businesses need to work for us — we shouldn’t be slaves to our business. In The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss introduces business as ‘lifestyle design’. We can always get more money, but time is the scarce resource in our lives. Ferriss points out that we don’t need much money to do the things that we want. Being money rich and time poor is the real waste — why save our dreams and adventures for after retirement? We can use business as a tool to create the life that we want to live. A similar point is made in The Big Enough Company by Adelaide Lancaster and Amy Abrams.

It all comes down to how we define wealth. When business becomes a form of self-expression, rather than a never-ending chase for money, we can be liberated.

Inspired? Check out Post Growth Entrepreneurship.

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Business can be an effective form of activism, a mixed media for art, a vehicle for spirituality, and a means of creative expression. Find out how to build a non-extractive startup ecosystem, and let’s make bootstrapping sexy again.

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