Arts & Culture
The Trouble with Business
When I graduated from college, my enemy was clear: the man in the grey flannel suit. The big-business corporate capitalist, fixated on greed, destroying the environment, spreading consumerism – and all so that he could get the better BMW than … Read More
When I graduated from college, my enemy was clear: the man in the grey flannel suit. The big-business corporate capitalist, fixated on greed, destroying the environment, spreading consumerism – and all so that he could get the better BMW than the next guy. There was everything wrong with this guy. He was barely human: fixated on materialism, on feathering his own anti-spiritual nest. Worse, he didn’t keep his mediocrity to himself: in his lust for more and more money, he screwed the poor and paved the Earth. Typical college naivete, I suppose–but worth revisiting, now fifteen years later, because as many of my peers have outgrown it, I’ve come to re-embrace it. In fact, I’ve noticed a strange thing happening in the last few months: I’ve come to really re-appreciate a lot of my adolescent dreams, and see how important they are, politically and spiritually, for more people to dream in their own way. In "The Dream of the Magician," the dream was about seizing the day and living an extraordinary life instead of an ordinary one. Now, I want to explore what happens when you don’t do that. I should know. I spent eight years as a part-time software lawyer, and was only able to quit that "day job" two years ago. Unlike my college-aged self, I actually have some experience with the business world. So, if you, Zeek/Jewcy reader, are in a similar place to where I once was, and you’re wondering which path to take–or if you’re somewhere along your path, and wondering what went wrong–consider this my sage advice. All of this, of course, is based entirely on my own experience, and is entirely subjective. I’m no sage, and don’t want to tell anyone how to live. But here’s what I learned. 1. Some of my story There was never a moment where I actually, consciously sold out. After college, while many of my classmates jumped lemming-like into the high capitalist business world–and are millionaires today (or were, before Madoff and the recession)–I looked to a path less traveled. I took a year out, pursued writing and mysticism, and other ends. Eventually, yes, I went to law school, but I did so to become an environmental lawyer. I felt then as though the choices were between indulgence (writing, grad school, etc.) and activism–and I chose activism, to fight the urban-sprawlers and carbon-spewers. But eventually, I fell off that track, disillusioned with the careerism of professional environmentalists and dispirited at my chances of joining them. I had thought I was going to use my talent to make a difference, but instead I found a highly competitive job market, in which dozens of qualified candidates jockeyed for the few jobs available–jobs which I couldn’t really see myself enjoying. Besides, at that time, I was confused about who I was sexually, religiously, and in many other ways. There wasn’t anything I could really see myself enjoying. So I took another year out, again focusing on writing and music, but also doing some academic work, and generally unsure of what to do. At that time, the dot-com boom was booming. People were making millions overnight. And so, when an acquaintance of mine discussed a business idea, I decided to go for it. We actually had a solid business, and a product that had merit – we weren’t selling pet food on the web. And so I thought we had a good shot at flipping the company quickly: 18 to 24 months at most. Sure, I would suffer and languish for that year or two that it would take to build up the company. But I could cash in my chips for enough money to keep me satisfied for many years. And then I would be able to spend those years doing what I really wanted to do, whatever that was. Now, such an aspiration is not unique. Many Wall Street folks have what they call "The Number" – the amount of money needed to retire for good. Of course, most of these people continue to work after ‘retirement,’ but at that point, it’s for fun, or more riches, or whatever. For what it’s worth, my Number was about $3-4 million. Much more modest than most Numbers, and entirely realistic, given the market at that time. Unfortunately, the market crashed, not long after we started the company. Because, as I mentioned, we actually had a product, we didn’t disappear like so many of our peers. (Ah, for the days of UrbanFetch!) In 2001, I cut back my hours, started Zeek, and did start doing what I really wanted to do– write, spiritual practice, teach, and make music, as well as, you know, come out of the closet and start leading a normal life. But I kept the day-job, and I was lucky to have it; it supported me for a long time. I don’t regret it. But I did learn a few things about what happens when you sink into the business world–and let me share some of those with you. 2. Darth Sidious Let’s start with this: either you’re authentically interested in your work, or you’re not. If you’re not, the result is likely to be good, old fashioned alienation: feeling unfulfilled, hating your job, sacrificing yourself for something (kids, house, etc.). You can focus on those other things, but, I’ve found, alienation is incredibly soul-killing. You just slowly become grey, without even knowing it’s happening. This is obvious.
I’m more interested in the less obvious, more insidious consequences. Chances are, after awhile, you either get interested in your job, or leave and find one that interests you. But this, too, has its pitfalls: because you start caring about the job, instead of things which, I think, should matter more. The worst is the small stuff: issues which can’t possibly matter – but, dammit, there’s a right way and a wrong way! But even the bigger stuff is a distraction. Our poor, human minds are limited, and you can only feed one part at the expense of another part. It is, to some extent, a zero-sum game. So which factor do you choose to feed: the loving-life one, or the business part? The naive, open, loving, artistic part, or the practical, nuts-and-bolts, time-to-grow-up part? Of course, you can have both, but you do, at some point, have to choose which to feed more. It’s not even that the business side is all about greed or avarice, like in Hollywood movies. On the contrary, I found that the money is often beside the point. It functions exactly as points in a sports game: to see who’s winning. The point is that the whole game is a distraction. Personally, I entered business for instrumental reasons, and yet most people around me, at least on the leadership level, are here for intrinsic ones. I’m like someone who started to play tennis to improve my hand-eye coordination, but who eventually got really interested in the game–instead of other stuff, like living a good life, experiencing awe and wonder, all of it. The more comfortable I became in business, the less I resembled the person I set out to be. Next point. Business is not just a neutral distraction from the important stuff; it tends to reinforce certain values over other ones. For example, asking "how much stuff can I get for the self" instead of poking the head up, looking around, noticing that there are six billion of us confused and suffering ants in this anthill, and saying "wait! I see! I’m awake! I don’t have to get more stuff!" The first view is quite natural; every animal wants more and bigger stuff, and so many conservatives will tell you than any other view is just delusion. But, having lived from both views, I will tell you that the second one is liberation. It is the essence of religious and spiritual teaching, and the opening to spending life wisely. Yet at times, I’ve been so enmeshed in business, and also the cost/benefit fetishism of legal academia, that I’ve tried to quantify the value of an afternoon picnic, or the utility I get from gazing at a flower. This is horrible. But when I’m a bit more centered, the "natural" view looks like insanity. What is the point, again? Similarly, it just doesn’t do, in most workplaces, to be the kind of warm, fuzzy, hippieish loving person that I want to be. I want my heart to be open–but it’s pointless to do that in the business world, where there is work to be done, and where you’ve got to work with people you might not choose to interact with otherwise. I remember trying it, a few times, coming off of meditation retreat and being a bit warmer and more human in my business conversations. Usually, it was just weird. Getting along in business means holding back on the love a little–and that, to me at least, sucks, especially as its replaced by values of efficiency and professionalism. I’ve come to see the "businessman" as one of many voices I can take on. He’s a valuable voice; I create mean Excel models and Powerpoints. But he also is kind of dismissive, contemptuous, and, well, mean, just like the financial models. I don’t like being him for very long; it’s toxic to the parts of myself I love more. So, these are some of the troubles with business. It sneaks up on you, and gradually changes you into someone you never set out to become–only, since so many other people are doing it too, you get a whole ready-made ideology for why that is a process of "maturation" rather than alienation. Maybe you’ll have a midlife crisis when you suddenly realize how little time you have left to live–and maybe someone will sell you a sports car as a result. Or maybe you’ll look at your kids and put your deferred dreams onto their heads instead. Or, who knows, maybe it’s right for you; remember, my only point is it wasn’t right for me. Of course, almost all of us must do some business some of the time, even if it’s only balancing our household budget and paying taxes. It’s part of life. But when it becomes a primary part, I can be sure that the qualities I appreciate most, about myself and my life, will be threatened. 3. The rest of the story As I mentioned at the beginning, many people I went to college and law school with became millionaires, not to mention mayors, professors, and partners in huge law firms. They are more powerful than I am, and their money can buy them the best seats on Broadway, the best hotel rooms in the Caribbean, and many other best things that I’d like to enjoy, but rarely can afford. Obviously, one reason I have spent time considering "the trouble with business" is that, as I discussed a couple of months ago ("The Dream of the Magician"), there are plenty of troubles with the non-lucrative life as well. I cop to all of that. So, if you, reader, feel yourself authentically drawn to the business world, and not drawn to anything else, go for it. Give at least 10% of your adjusted gross income to charity, build thick retaining walls between your professional and personal lives, and make sure you can take enough vacation to do real spiritual work on yourself. But if you’re like me, and wondering which path to take, just remember that there are costs on all sides–it’s a question of which you want to bear. For myself, even copping to all that envy, I remember a very simple point: Life is short. How much of it are you going to waste making money?
Header Image: The Devil That You Know by Thomas Hawk.