Finding Meaning in the Work of Entrepreneurship
Plus some ways to survive a crisis of meaning
Could I be wasting my life?
With the rate I’m going, I’ll end up spending most of my life starting and running businesses. Should I be doing some other kind of work?
Could the value of my work be dependent on social impact? Should I be a social entrepreneur instead?
Should the aim of business be to have the resources to solve problems like malaria, poverty, climate change and terrorism? Is Microsoft valuable ultimately because it is allowing Bill Gates to take on huge problems like these?
Is Elon Musk the measure of entrepreneurship? What does that mean for my business, whose unsexy mission is to help sales teams in developing countries sell more faster?
I spent the past year or so thinking about these things. My entrepreneur friends warned me that all this ruminating is dangerous. They appear to be right. My intensity and productivity waned for three or four months, especially after taking a short course on philosophy with some misbegotten ideas about business. I tackle those ideas below (like a raging linebacker).
Thankfully, I have emerged from that dark night of the soul, and I’m back to that beautiful state of momentum, with fast-moving days, hitting goals and powering through problems like Godzilla in some unfortunate coastal city. From that journey, I brought back clarity of purpose, and now I feel like I’m running on much more solid ground. Here’s what I’ve got:
Your measure of excellence as an entrepreneur is the amount of value you create for your customers and the personal and financial growth you create for your team.
I explain below why this is superior to the two prevailing perspectives on the purpose of business.
I went down further into this rabbit hole. Why is creating value and growth for people meaningful? Like a blind man about to fall over, I grasped at whatever was within my reach, and turned to the worldviews that I grew up with. I discuss four of these below.
At the end of this post, I also share how I continued to be productive despite a crisis of meaning, with numerous actionable bullet points, following the genre of “life-hacking,” the internet era equivalent to self-help.
We start however following the tradition of classical philosophy. We begin with the wisdom of the ancients.
Life-hacking seems to be one of the most popular topics in Medium. They are useless however without a system to convert them into habits.
2,300 years ago, Aristotle already had this system. He called good habits “virtues” and bad habits “vices.” Gaining virtues or removing vices is simply a matter of repetition. (Behavioral psychology has taught us more sophisticated techniques for habit formation, but simple repetition still works for most situations).
For the great philosopher, virtue is not only a way to increase productivity; it is the way towards the ultimate goal of life, eudaimonia, which is usually translated (badly) as “happiness” or (awkwardly) as “human flourishing.”
For me, entrepreneurship has been like an Olympic training camp for virtues. Sales, for example, has been the hardest thing I had to learn in business. It has also been my greatest teacher. Nothing has taught me humility, empathy and emotional self-mastery quite like sales.
There is probably an optimal path for each one to reach eudaimonia. As far as I could tell, entrepreneurship is my best shot.
It is a bit of a taboo to discuss religion in the context of business. I have to break this, because with my upbringing, exploring the meaning of work is simply incomplete without mentioning Christianity.
There are different versions of Christianity. I could only talk about the one I grew up with, Catholicism. Within the Catholic church, there are different spiritualities, each with its own emphasis on what it means to follow Christ. As luck would have it, many in my family (including both my parents) are members of Opus Dei (of Da Vinci Code fame), which specializes in the spirituality of work.
Despite differences in core beliefs and emphases, Christians (as far as I know) find meaning in two things: becoming more like Christ, and bringing others and the world to Christ. Becoming Christ-like could be seen as gaining Aristotelian virtues plus the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Christianizing the world means building societies with more justice, more freedom and more happiness.
Work is our main instrument to achieve these. Work is the cross we bear to flex and grow those virtues. Work has also been how we have built our societies. United to Christ, work is also redemptive (it’s a long story). To a Catholic, such work might evoke images of priests celebrating the holy mass or missionary nuns serving quietly in the fringes of the world. Opus Dei’s message is that the work of regular people (like entrepreneurs) can also have transcendent meaning. If Christianity is true, our work could have meaning beyond survival, stature and self-actualization; we could dare to believe that the little stories of our lives in this pale blue speck in the universe echo throughout eternity.
In my teenage years, my plan B to Christianity was secular humanism. Both share the conviction that each human being has an inherent and irremovable dignity. This would mean that anything that contributes to the progress of humanity is meaningful.
I’m just some guy in some emerging third world city. Yet I have more access to knowledge than King Solomon, I have travelled farther than Genghis Khan, and I can live a life healthier than the most pampered aristocrat of renaissance Europe.
I am privileged but not extraordinary. The world has countless of problems, but we live in a time of unprecedented access to information and opportunity for the most number of people. This is a heritage from the work of countless men and women in the past, including many who worked within the context of business.
My gratitude to our predecessors, most of whom have been forgotten by history, also gives me hope that my unsexy business also lays a brick or two in the building of civilization.
An Epic Life
To be honest, I like fiction more than philosophy as a study and as a celebration of humanity. The great works of literature, for instance, allow us to walk in the shoes of medieval heroes, space criminals, and young Victorian women deftly executing matrimonial strategies. If reading such works brings enlightenment, how much more if you are to live one?
From the outside, my work must look supremely boring: most of the time I’m just talking to people and working on my laptop. From the inside, I feel like I’m living one of the great genres — the epic adventure. My days are filled with impossible quests, the camaraderie of warriors, failures that bring me to my knees, and hard-won victories. Entrepreneurship lets me live what artists try to express and what the human race seeks in art.
The preceding worldviews tell us why all work is meaningful. But what makes entrepreneurship meaningful in particular? I found the answer in Free Enterprise.
As a first step, I had to unlearn a couple of things. I don’t know about you, but I have been taught that the purpose of business are either or both of these:
- To maximize profits for shareholders
- Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
Neither of these really reflected my experience in the trenches. I like this better: the purpose of a business is to create value for its customers, and through that activity, create personal and financial growth for the people that comprise it.
I prefer this because I hate losing to cheaters. I operate in the developing world, where a lot of wealth is accumulated through rent-seeking (essentially using political power for business advantages). Rent-seeking increases profits without increasing value or efficiency. It is like winning an Olympic gold medal by bribing the judges.
I find rent-seeking useful in demonstrating the core of entrepreneurship. On the surface, the entrepreneur and the rent-seeker look the same: they make use of capital, they operate with risk, and outcomes could be lucrative. The difference shows the essence of true business. The rent-seeker maximizes profits through power (eg, government regulation favoring cronies). The entrepreneur needs to create value to earn revenue.
Aside from political power, there are other ways of maximizing profit without creating value: eg, fraud, deception, exploitation. This is why “maximizing profit for shareholders” is a deficient principle for business. Profit is a metric that could easily be gamed.
The corporate scandals of recent decades, and the atrocities of colonialism of recent centuries (which were profitable!), must have gnawed at the consciences of good-hearted business professors, that they have created concepts like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the Triple Bottom-line. The intent seems to be to put a conscience in business education to avoid the evil excesses of capitalism.
I recently attended a short course on business ethics, a third of which was all about CSR. At the time, I could not put my finger on it, but I felt really queasy about the inordinate focus on socially valuable activities that may not have anything to do with the core of the business. In fact, I must have had a little crisis of faith in my professional calling, that I finally had to write this article. The righteous message of CSR has a disconcerting undertone: the work of entrepreneurship— my work — is not meaningful in itself.
Asking entrepreneurs to fix society’s problems is like asking engineers to start doing heart surgeries so that they could save lives. Of course, everyone (not only entrepreneurs and engineers) should try to fix society’s problems and save lives. But we have to remember that these are problems that require deep expertise. We need to respect the craft of the heart surgeon, the development researcher, the local government official, the social entrepreneur.
All these professions which save lives and fix social problems are undoubtedly laudable. But someone also has to fix the plumbing, pull teeth, do accounting, and launch and run businesses. Each discipline needs to have its own appropriate measure of excellence. Teachers need to be guided by how well their students learn, not the rainforests they save. Designers need to be guided by the usability of their products, not the hungry African children they feed. To build great businesses, entrepreneurs need to be guided by the value they create for customers and the personal and financial growth they create for their teams. Not CSR.
(One retort I have encountered is that I misunderstand CSR. It is easy to miss a moving target. The concept of CSR is so new — it gained traction only in the 1970’s — that is is still unclear whether it means the responsibility of businesses to 1) solve social problems, 2) be ethical, or 3) be good what what they are supposed to be doing. I write assuming it is 1. If it is 2, it is just a fancy new term for classical business ethics. If it is 3, it is just a confusing synonym for excellent business.)
This is not idle philosophizing. Just try out CSR in daily decision making in business and you will see how useless it is. A useful principle is one that guides you on what to do, and more importantly, what not to do. Especially in the early days, this could mean life or death for a business. In contrast, simply asking myself, “will this create value for my customers and create financial and personal growth for my team?” has surprisingly given immediate clarity to my decision making.
I have a tendency to get obsessed with winning, which I could deliberately sustain for years. This has served me well many times in the past. However, If I don’t feed myself the right metric, this maniacal desire to win could lead me full speed ahead along the wrong path.
For several years, I did not realize that I was inordinately protective of my percentage of ownership of the company. It was a number, and I automatically wanted to win it. Giving myself a better metric — creating value and growth — allows me to be obsessed with something more healthy, enlightened and fair.
Our 1:1 meetings are now laser-focused on learning and growth. For salary and equity, we now follow this principle: if the company hits a conservative success metric, each one of us should make more money than our peers for the duration we contributed to the business. This has a straightforward translation into salary and shares. Tell me if you want to see a sample spreadsheet computation for this.
I also like “creating financial growth for your team” more than “maximizing profit for shareholders” because it reflects better how businesses are made. Capital is just one player in a team with varied talents and resources. This is also why I prefer the term “Free Enterprise” to “Capitalism.” The entrepreneur brings together talent and capital, and leads this team to make their collective dream a reality.
Surviving a Crisis of Meaning
Let me share how I continued to be productive despite a slump in motivation, and how I got back to a state of clarity of purpose. It might be useful to you or someone you know.
First of all, make sure the crisis is not because of physical or mental tiredness from the long grind of entrepreneurship. Here’s my personal checklist to prevent burnouts:
- Get enough sleep (7–8 hours normally)
- Play sports regularly
- Daily meditation
- Get out of the city occasionally
- Eat healthy
- Read good books
- Take care of relationships
I was living these things yet I still fell into that crisis of meaning. I had responsibilities to my customers and my teammates, so I could not simply drop everything, travel the world and go on a quest for meaning. I needed crutches to keep me stay productive while I nursed that injury in my motivation. These two were effective:
1: Weekly meeting with a peer group. The shorthand for this is “Mastermind.” We follow a set agenda designed produce the following:
- Gratitude and recognition. We share our biggest wins in the past week. Sometimes we focus too much on problems, we forget the good things to be thankful for.
- Camaraderie. We share what we are currently working on and the challenges we are facing. It turns out we face a lot of similar challenges. We get varied perspectives on problems and get reminded that we are not alone in our battles.
- Accountability. We share our goals for the next week. This really works. Several times, I got an important but unpalatable task done simply because I did not want to look like a loser in front of my buddies.
We started with this template and gradually modified it as we saw fit.
2: Timeboxing. An Italian programmer branded and popularized this as the Pomodoro Technique. It consists of 25 minute work sprints with 5 minute breaks, or a similar variant. The ability to count and track the number of Pomodoros I do every day activates the competition maniac in me. I use Trello + Pomello.
I’m even better off now than before the slump. I’m back to 100%, plus I increased my capacity by continuing with the Mastermind and the Pomodoro technique.
I am unsure how I eventually recovered. What I know is that I’m back to Godzilla mode. Looking back, these three things might have helped:
- I wrote and talked about it. This post is an outcome of that. To quote Flannery O’Connor, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
- I went on a business trip visiting customers and prospects. Writing clarified my purpose intellectually. Talking to the people my business serves does the same thing on a more visceral level.
- I read P.G. Wodehouse. Every single time I do, Wodehouse knocks me off the downward spiral of taking myself too seriously.
This is just based on my own one-time experience of recovery, so I’d love to hear your own experience. I imagine different techniques work for different personality types. I’d also love to hear your perspective on the meaning of work, especially if you come from a different religious or philosophical tradition.
I look forward to having a conversation here in Medium. In the meantime, I better get back to work. This meaning thing only works if I’m actually creating value.