In this blog and in the comments’ section of other blogs I have repeatedly ridiculed: management consultants, new age-y self help literature and simple-minded soft skills trainers. Let alone all other life-forms in the lower left quadrant of the verbal skills vs. quant skills diagram.
Now it is time that I give you a chance to ridicule me: I come up with a simple-minded philosophy of life, adorned with a new age-y tag.
I am a true fan of Randy Komisar’s book The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living and his video lectures on entrepreneurship at Stanford university.
I have to apologize to hardcore long-time followers of his blog: I had already embedded one of my favorite videos in this post on my most recent career change.
Originally I planned to write a more detailed review, but somebody did exactly that already and summarized both the book and a related video. I learned about the term Zen Capitalism from this article, and I am breaking one of my silent rules on re-using it: Normally I detest this marketing lingo of oxymorons such as corporate responsibility. But it simply sounds too cool to be a gentle and wise capitalist, running your business on the wisdom of an Eastern mystic. I think it helps a lot that I know next to nothing about Zen and not a lot about capitalism.
Reader, if you are still here and not lost in the multi-verse opened up by clicking all these URLs, I will offer you my shortcut version of Komisar’s philosophy.
I had struggled with the existential contradiction between true passion and what to do for a living for half of my life. But the solution might be simple, or I turned into simpled-minded believer. Anyway, it works!
Komisar worked odd jobs while studying at the law school, e.g. as the manager of an unkown band. But he finally settled to the type of career that’s expected of a JD – until he realized that his future was going predetermined by the hierarchy of job levels at a law firm, from Junior Consultant to Senior Partner. I was intrigued by his story about the moment he recognized that – by looking down the aisle, framed by the doors of his colleagues offices’ all nearly ordered by hierarchy. This is probably one of the few times ‘hierarchy’ is used in the original sense of the word – sacred order. This is so very The Matrix!
He said that he was interested in the creative side of business – the metaphorical blank sheet of paper. So he abandoned his Matrix-like career and supported new businesses in the start-up phase a a Virtual CEO, denying the Deferred Life Plan – do what you have to do, then do what you want to do.
I had been incredibly self-disciplined for such a long time, so I feel entitled to state: Self-discipline and perseverance are all good and fine, but protestant work ethics has been ingrained into our society in a way that turned these virtues into self-replicating demons. I do not have a link to share as anything I read about the history of work ethics and its detrimental effects on Corporate Culture and the Cult of Overtime was written by German authors. So probably this is a German or middle-European issue anyway.
Abandoning the deferred life plan leaves you with the need to navigate through spacetime though. You need to take decisions that take you closer to … wait, closer to what actually?
Komisar argues that it is passion that pulls us and drive that pushes us. Nevertheless, your quest for the one and only true passion will paralyze you. He said he was passionate about so many different things – trying to pick a single discipline or career once for all will drive you crazy. The good thing is that there are many options out there as well – options that should be aligned with what Komisar calls your portfolio of passions.
I believe the single most common error we all make – and I am not at all excluding myself – is denying existing options that are laying before us. In the discussion linked at the very top of this post I stated pretentiously I re-invented myself as an entrepreneur three times. This post – with its references to a virtual CEO and Silicon Valley investments ninja – is probably the right place to add that this didn’t mean I funded three fancy fast-growing tech start-ups.
The very first time I became an entrepreneur I did so by seizing an obvious and fortunate option available particular in the years before the dot com crash. I swallowed all the pride I might have had as a physics PhD and set-up a plain and simple website marketing myself as an IT consultant for small enterprises. In contrast to today’s self-marketing mantras (as I see them tweeted every few seconds) I did not add a single detail related to my CV. I basically said ‘I will do it’.
This freelancing job was my leaving-academia-option. At that time I had worked for two years in a non-university research center (I believe this is similar to a National Lab in the US) – which was my first post-university job. I quit this job although it was a tenured position … for many reasons, most of which are not relevant to this post.
Above all, I saw the option that I might turn my IT experience into a business that allows me to determine how and where I am going to work. My IT experience was rather limited at that time – I had never been your typical physics graduate who worked in the lab during the day and compiled his own Linux kernel during the night. I did even use Microsoft Word instead of LaTeX for writing my theses.
My experience in business as such and economics was zero – in contrast to today’s science degree programmes I had never been force to take at least some mandatory economics lectures. So I learned double-sheet accounting from high school books from scratch.
Given that level of experience it worked out fine. Although I did turn to the epitome of the dark side later and become an employee again (having job titlethat included the term Manager) seizing this freelance option was crucial. It finally opened up more options. Later I made a decision for another job I called a 60:40 decision – but again, it opened up rather more than less options.
I shunned getting stuck somewhere with a single option left. Probably this is due to the early traumatic experiences of colleagues of mine who spent too much time as post-docs at the university. I am not sure even sure if this is correct but they felt that there is an maximum age or [time spent at the university] – and after that you are lost for industry forever.
But I am now trying to return to the first narrative level now as I do not want to turn this into a Douglas Adams novel. Currently I have a hard time following Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect through all those nested levels of meta-explanations.
I basically want to emphasize that we often don’t recognize and appreciate options – most likely due to applying a filter whose logic is crafted from statements about what you ought to do. When I had transitioned to the more prestigious management job later I had been told my colleagues that this is finally an appropriate job again, fortunately. But troubleshooting computer networks at small, rural business? That was inappropriate, out of place!
I haven’t talked about Zen yet. The opening story in Komisar’s book is about his visiting a monastery in Myanmar and a riddle given to him by a monk. I could hardly believe the story is true – because adding the monk’s riddle to the tales from Silicon Valley seems so cliché. It is really unfortunate that many good stories and excellent quotes gets so over-used in management trainings, in particular the ‘spiritual’ ones. But I digress again.
The solution to the riddle implies something which is again very simple – paraphrasing to The journey is the reward and You are in charge of defining the details of the story. I don’t find a clever example to illustrate it in a non-stereotyped way, sorry. Read the book – it is a story of a guy who wants to found a start-up that sells coffins online. His pitch to Randy Komisar starts with Putting the fun back into the funerals.
Now I hope for better search terms for my poetry – including funerals, monasteries, and management.
Finally I share another wise and entertaining video about entrepreneurship with you:
Top 10 Must Have For a Start-up, by Frank Levinson, physics PhD.
You need common sense. You don’t need market studies, you need customers. You need to have the pride of a fat baby (that is: no pride).
I am watching this video regularly. I am also re-reading my own motivational posts – I am not only the author, but the audience as well.