So-Called Zen Capitalism and Random Thoughts on Entrepreneurship

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.

25 Comments Add yours

  1. M. Hatzel says:

    I will start a new comment block, jumping off from humanities versus science, and yes, do use the quotation; I will remain curious to see how this manifests into your thoughts.

    I think this post triggers conversation, and you could write more posts on it and never fully explore the complexity of the issue. Here is where so many big questions intersect, perhaps distilled into this one, “who am I? (and how do I express this in real world actions?)”

    Perhaps everyone should consider extending their thoughts into posts, and we can see how we attempt to engage with these questions, each in our own way? (I might also use my brachiopod comment as my starter.)

    1. elkement says:

      You are right, Michelle! These questions can’t be answered in a single post. So I keep replying to comments for the time being, let me inspire by other posts, and I will wait for a few days before I tackle these existential questions again – and I hope for the Holy Spirit enlighening me next weekend! :-)

    2. elkement says:

      … thinking once more about it…. I might publish my follow-up post before it is completely outdated. It is more sort of a pre-quel of other posts to come. I will add your epic quote at the end as a question and a request for posts dedicated to all those existential issues.

      1. M. Hatzel says:

        I’m looking forward to it!

        1. elkement says:

          Done – and thanks for the inspiration!

          1. M. Hatzel says:

            That was quick… look what appeared in my reader!

  2. David Yerle says:

    I have to agree with this. It does take a lot of effort to deviate from the predefined path (inertia is a powerful enemy) but spending your only shot at life doing something you don’t like (or even something you don’t care about) seems like an awful waste of time. I also have many interests and try to spend time pursuing them all. I don’t know if I’ll make a living out of any, but like you I like to keep my doors open.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, David – I really appreciate your comment as your blog really shows your interdisciplinary capabilities as a scientist, philosopher, writer, geek, whatever …
      I might follow up on my own post as some of the comments show that I did come across as advertising simply to ‘follow your bliss’. My ‘theory’ (or probably my hope) is actually that I feel we might miss options that are commcercially viable. And I say it to myself, too – not only to the blogosphere.
      A pragmatic solution to the dilemma is following different passions in a serial way – but I am not satisfied with this though.

  3. You must have signed on to a lifetime subscription to the Psychic Friends Network (a real place, believe it or not … You have touched upon so many issues that I have been thinking about (night and day sometimes) for well more than a year. Everything you say is well and good and makes perfect sense. Sure we do best when we dump the system and Follow our Bliss. Absolutely. Logic tells us so. We do best what we love and do less well at what we like … or less. What you do not however address is the real world, is the real need for individuals to eat, to have a roof over their heads, and to be able to afford healthcare. Do not say Money Cometh I’ve been told that before and do not believe it. I resent the folks who say that it’s easy to live on just $1000 of earned income per year … what they don’t tell you is that they’re sitting on a golden-egg which pumps out $50K annually. If it were not for those three things (food, shelter, and doctors) I would be composing my letter of resignation this evening. The system has got its tractor beam on me and won’t let go. It’s been pulling at me for 30 years. I’m doomed. Everyone buys into the Nike corporate slogan that says Just Do It. Quit your job and do what you love. Why am I afraid? Yes I have confidence in myself … but I suppose it’s the system I doubt. I doubt the system’s ability to support me as I hit maximum velocity in the free fall that would inevitably ensue. I could go on but it’s already begun to sound like I’m whining. I’ll stop. Suffice it to say you hit a nerve this evening – ouch. Bit time ouch. D

    1. M. Hatzel says:

      I’m peeking in, like an eavesdropper, and you don’t sound like you’re whining. I reblogged a post on one of those retire when you’re 30 posts, not because I thought this was possible in the way it came across, but because I believe that reducing the wants for many people is required; I hope I didn’t sound snobby or judgemental when I did that. It was more like a pat on the back to anyone who isn’t a jerk (pat on the back to you) and treads lightly on the earth by reducing their consumption.

      1. elkement says:

        Michelle, I read the reblogged article and enjoyed it a lot – adding the link as a courtesy to my other readers:

    2. elkement says:

      I fully agree, Dave, and I admit the post lacks these aspects. I didn’t get across probably that Komisar’s book and advice in my opinion is not at all your typical Follow Your Bliss – as this is just the sort of simple-minded, pseudo-spiritual advice I dread and I will continue ridiculing. I think I am guilty of trying to avoid repeating myself – but probably the thing I avoid repeating is something I have added to a comment on another blogger’s post. So I should have set things straight at the beginning of this post.
      As I said in my reply to Bert below Komisar had been criticized for giving out advice in know-it-all self-serving fashion though his career was rooted in his opportunity to study in Harvard. I am still not sure about this.
      To me the gist is that we all (including myself!) are probably missing out *commercially viable options* due to some weird reasons. I would never, ever advise to following your bliss if there isn’t a chance to turn that into something profitable. Any business may fail, that’s not a shame, but at the beginning you should have something like a business plan. I am rather a conservative capitalist and penny pincher in that respect.
      My personal example of starting my IT business should just illustrate that we might miss options because we consider them ‘menial’ or we simple don’t see them because we feel other people might object to it (like relatives or co-workers would object in this ‘Why in hell are YOU going to do THAT?’ sense). I had struggled with this and that’s why I like the video of Frank Levinson so much. He explains – in a very entertaining way – how they got their business started. I believe the secret of his success was really that he had no pride, accepted odd project requests and was able to utilize anything to foster the growth of company.

    3. elkement says:

      Thanks a lot for your comment again, Dave – you have given me food for thought for a future blog post. Your arguments (and also Bert’s) are something I should address more clearly. I haven’t found *the solution* either, of course.

    4. elkement says:

      (Random additional comment: I have just received a spam comment with header “telephone psychic readings” and a URL to “meditation counselling”.)

  4. M. Hatzel says:

    I like what you’ve written about the portfolio of passions. I believe this is true, that searching for one thing alone (like a Holy Grail of Purpose) isn’t the right answer for innovative thinking. Yet, where does it begin, this grooming toward singularity? Is it entirely about expectations? And if it is, what do those expectations serve? I’ve been struggling to find my own way past singularities, believing I can be in my forties or fifties, or older, reinventing myself and offering something new to the world over and over again, without feeling unfocused or falling short. Your post is affirming. I’m looking forward to returning to read the comments others make to this.

    1. elkement says:

      This is what I asked myself a lot: Why do (do I) believe that there should be that singular purpose … and once: this single desirable career? In my case I tend to say it is the gloomy legacy of having been part of the exclusive Cult of Academia: It does not only give you the feeling that there is a worthwhile career in academia only (because only losers go for industry) …. but even after you are over academia the single career thing still sticks.
      In a very twisted way I thought that I could compensate for leaving academia by delving wholeheartedly into That other Great Career. Believe it nor not until recently I was really proud of having been able to say: I have more than 10 years hands-on experience in . But it backfired, I guess.
      If I think about these topics without any pretenses I believe that it rather was / would be / would have been my destiny to become a sort of a generalist – or serial specialist … a dilettante in the true sense of the word. I hope you know what I mean. In school I was an A student in anything – I hope again this does not make me getting across as arrogant; I’d just like to illustrate my point. Actually I was prouder of my A in German than in sciences – as I had a particularly formidable German teacher who issued an A once every few years to a single student.
      Finally I have accepted that I never be as happy as any nerdy specialist though I have proved ‘to myself and the world’ that I am able to beat the specialists with 10 years more experience than I had – if I really wanted to. But I am getting tired of that and less motivated to do that again over and over as it forces me to focus all my talents into a single rather narrow activity. I am probably still searching for the holy grail of combining anything. Though I think my blog’s site title is too long I believe it is remarkably apt and the best title I could have chosen for a personal blog (that once should have been a physics / science blog only … which failed because of the reasons explained in this comment :-) )

      1. M. Hatzel says:

        Writing has a way of combining anything. I think this is why I can throw so much energy into it… or why I feel so lost without the outlet of writing. I’ve often told my husband that it is the only work I’ve ever done where I consistently feel growth through challenge, and where I can connect the complexity of ideas to the everyday, emotional work of real life living. The only thing that keeps this from being completely wonderful is that the pay is too poor to live off of writing alone. I agree with D.–the money doesn’t always follow when we chase our bliss–and it matters little the quality of our work or the value it holds. The world can’t afford a planet of millionaire artists; someone has to make the food and the houses, or nurse us when we’re sick.

        1. elkement says:

          You have a point, Michelle! So my nice theory probably just boils down to the fact that I had been mostly lucky in following my passion (or at least: ‘enough passion’) through jobs that were badly needed by somebody – for example I do enjoy troubleshooting, searching for errors in technical systems.
          Sometimes I feel the solution is to apply a general skill – such as troubleshooting technology – to whatever financially rewarding context. However, I am not sure if that would work with writing – I could imagine that it is very hard to write phony PR stories or work as a ghost writer if you are a real, passionate writer at heart.

          1. M. Hatzel says:

            There’s the compromise of writing for hire, but the truly exciting opportunities in this are rare (I’m lucky to have encounter a few). Some writers balance their fiction with editing and teaching. I often have wondered what my life would have been like had I followed my first passion into adulthood, to study in sciences, and had a career where I could see more direct applications. Every once in a while I think about going back to university, and then realize the situation might be much the same. I’d want to study the life cycles of Devonian brachiopods and an oil company would like me to project natural gas deposits. I suspect it is the hope of academic freedom that draws people to university careers, but having seen behind the curtain, I know this might be another one of those things categorized as a holy grail search.

            1. elkement says:

              This quote about brachiopods and oil companies is so apt – I hope I am permitted to re-use it someday (incl. proper citation of course). I wonder what happened if I had studied philosophy and literature – it was a 55:45 decision to go for science. The final argument pro science was applicability and employability – yet I found myself pondering: I wished for discovering the secrets of the universe, but the defence industry wants me to develop infrared sensors.
              I had started to craft an follow-up post on this – I wanted to clarify that I didn’t want to advocate “Follow your Bliss” but the draft is overtaken by the discussion in the comments :-) This topic has so many different aspects, and there is a fair chance it turns out misleading again.

  5. bert0001 says:

    Interesting read – still have no idea what zen capitalism is, right now.
    Also thought that passion IS an inner drive, pushing and pulling at the same time – looking at a mind map lying next to my keyboard for the past 2 months about emotions and mental constructs.
    In my own case. I wanted to close my business last year, and ceased all activities to get a regular job. But this didn’t work out the way anyone expected. Making a venture from my passion? Yes, I’ve been doing this for the past 20 years, but right now I have no idea yet how to sell ‘witnessing anger’, ‘consciousness’ or ‘free will’ …. without selling hot fried air.
    (now that’s something you try to do literally :-) )

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Bert. I don’t think ‘passion’ and ‘drive’ are as well-defined here – compared to your mindmap. I think Komisar rather tries to stress that ‘drive’ is triggered by some external forces such as Those Corporate Goals whereas passion is something brought into being within yourself. I am aware of all the weaknesses here … that anything internal is probably rooted in stimuli once fed into us from an external world (as we would not even be able to speak if we grow up in a wild-life) etc. In addition external drive could be internalized and experienced, given you had enough brainwash.
      But putting myself again into my former corporate employee’s shoes it resonates with me – I had a lot of drive, but it wasn’t my passion. Even worse some components of what used to be my passion were sort of misused in order to feed that drive.
      Re creating a venture from your passion(s)… trying to think along Komisar’s lines I would say he’s probably answer that it is likely that one of your passions might be turned into a commercially successful business. He objects to the common belief that there is a single passion and you either need to follow this – or bust. But this is all about probabilities still – and the ‘model’ does not rule out that there really might be something as THE passion … which could hardly be turned into a business.
      But there is an ugly truth to it as well, also captured in some of the comments on the book on Reviewers say it is easy to find your passion(s) and turn options into opportunities if you had a head start – he graduated from Harvard so he probably didn’t really had to work his way up. He might have been given options and opportunities that others never had.
      I have not made up my mind on this: On the one hand I feel this kind of comment is basically made about any celebrity writing a book on work and life (e.g. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a prime example) – those people could do whatever they want and their successes will forever be blamed on their ‘Harvard pedigree’. On the other hand I would say I have met many – not too happy – people who would have had a similar head start but didn’t even use that to their advantage. I’d like to see some statistics about people’s happiness, opportunities they had been given early in life and opportunities they deliberately sought. I believe an early success in your life in X makes it easier for your to be successful in Y later – and even if this is just due to the fact that X made you so wealthy that you are able to experiment with Y. The question is if you ‘deserved’ and ‘earned’ X – or if this was just lucky coincidence.
      Sorry for the wall of text!

      1. bert0001 says:

        I see passion itself as an interior energy level, and passionate people will react a little bit more emotional than the less passionates, but it goes all level, also in ‘your passions’. Regardless …
        I see what you are telling. External drive for doing something … makes you living up to what other people expect of you, and maybe more. I had such a life in the nineties and early two thousands.
        But in the IT business, Linux has always been a passion, while building networks was the way to make a living. Teaching is another passion, and bringing linux and teaching together from 2004 till 2011 was a great and marvelous experience.
        Right now, Linux is losing its interest – while teaching has not.
        Perhaps my real passion is encounters with interesting people, and whether linux or teaching or writing or travelling will get met there, is not important. However, I have to make living. :-)
        So teaching linux is going to bring me more funding than travelling and blogging about it.
        I’ve also noticed that over the years, passion is not a constant, neither the energy level, neither the interest.
        When following my passion, I also noticed that I could do the work one colleague produced in one week just in a day. Now that’s interesting when you want to do business. You will produce more and faster when following your passion.

        1. elkement says:

          Thanks, Bert! I can relate to this a lot – I am still very passionate about networking protocols, RFCs and sniffing … in particular about building something large, interconnected based on open standards. But my passion (if I ever had any) on contributing to your typical global corporate blah security projects had vanished. I am currently learning a lot about security protocols in smart metering. As you said it… your passion will change and/or you might be passionate only about an aspect of something. And sometimes you need to make a change in order to still heed the passion for this aspect.

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