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Archive for February, 2014

Photo-of-the-Day-President-Obama-s-Selfies-at-Nelson-Mandela-s-MemorialI assume most everyone saw Barack Obama yukking it up at Nelson Mandela’s funeral back in December.   He was taking “selfies” of himself with other heads of state during the Mandela memorial service.  While I assume President Obama admired Nelson Mandela as much as the next person, the tone he set made me uneasy and got me thinking again about social media and its effect on the culture of the entrepreneur.

Self-obsession seems to be growing with the expansion of all social media, the largest of which are Twitter and Facebook.  The “selfie” is just one of the latest manifestations of a culture that often confuses personal exhibitionism with business accomplishment.  I call it “Kardashianitis”—visibility as a counterfeit version of value and vision.  It seems to me this is a dangerous and distracting trend for entrepreneurs.

Psychologist Jean Twenge has reported the steady growth of self-importance in our personal lives over the last decade.  (  She and others have described a burgeoning “narcissism epidemic” abetted by social media.

5559383398_39a88d8512_zHeightened ego is the enemy of practical business efficacy.  It’s distracting and disorienting.  In this omnipresent culture of “look at meism”, the the useful tool of social media can be perverted into a quest for self-glorification.  Look at how many “likes” I have, check out this Instagram, look how many people have “friended” me this week, etc.  Or look at the case of former NY Representative Anthony Weiner, a poster boy for this new apogee of self-ardor, seductively facilitated by use of social media.  Weiner’s downfall was not brought about by a sin of lust or passion, but rather a jejune exhibitionist search for public approbation.

Dr. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, recently wrote an op-ed on this very subject.  She says the following:

“Technology doesn’t just do things for us.  It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.  The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us ‘on pause’ in order to document our lives.  It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations ‘on pause’ when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.”  (NY Times, Dec. 16, 2013)

It’s increasingly easy to confuse entrepreneurial exhibitionism with entrepreneurial success.  There are several clear dangers in this infatuation with social media.

First of all, it can be a distraction from your core commitment to your business passion and dream.  It’s easy to overvalue virtual vanity metrics, but they are often a time wasting diversion and, at worst they vitiate and belie the deeper sense of integral self needed to effectuate an entrepreneurial vision in any number of ways.

Second, it’s often just a bloody waste of time. Research shows that everyday social multitasking reduces cognitive depth.  (

757px-Jean-Paul_Sartre_FPThird, people just don’t like self-aggrandizing assholes–the energy suckers of our vocation.

So, I’ll make you a deal:  If you will not twitter me about the excellent ham sandwich you had for lunch, I will forego sending you a picture of my adorable labradoodle.

French philosopher and dramatist Jean-Paul Sartre says, “You are—your life, and nothing else.”  (No Exit)  Thanks, Jean-Paul.

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bt-sufferingFriedrich Nietzsche said that to live is to suffer.  To say that is neither a morose nor a self-pitying statement.  It is a clear-eyed, direct statement of simple truth.  Loss is the simple law of life in an impermanent and ever-changing world.

For me, entrepreneurship is a useful process and strategy for dealing with suffering.  It is a customized, personal way to create a structure for meaning and a framework for surviving suffering successfully in a world increasingly without universal verities or the moorings of faith.

When I was a younger man I tried many things in a search for truth and my own center.  I studied philosophy and even considered becoming a minister.  I sought solace in the ersatz truths of addiction and sex.  I also chanted with the Buddhists three times a day for a year and a half.

Although Buddhism was not the answer for me, I took many useful bits of wisdom from it.  One of those bits was the Buddhist concept of suffering.  In Buddhism, suffering is the prime tenet of life.  Buddhists have prayers that thank God for their trials, not their benefactions.  (“Out of the rankest darkness of the pond comes the beautiful lotus blossom.”)  Suffering is a privilege that jolts us out of our complacency and self-seeking, our separation from God.  It is not dissimilar to the clarifying Christian concept of sin.  Experiencing and overcoming suffering is a gift, an instrument for developing real self-cherishment.

buddha.statue_2The entrepreneur’s greatest form of suffering is fear of failure.  And failure itself.  Three out of four entrepreneurial ventures will fail and Shikhar Ghosh of Harvard states that 95% of start-ups fall short of their projections.  (Harvard Business Review, 12:00 PM, 8/23/13, Gretchen Gavett)  That is core entrepreneurial suffering.  (The penultimate sufferings are the constant anxieties of those many everyday setbacks we all face, like not making payroll, the IRS, Obamacare, losing clients, friction with partners, growing competition, etc.  And, of course, that general frisson of fear most of us wake up with every morning as we rise to try to slay these assorted dragons.)

John Gartner, a practicing psychologist and teacher at Johns Hopkins University, recently put out a book called The Hypomanic Edge.  It posits that hypomania, which reflects a radically-driven and innovative temperament, is endemic to America’s national character and its unique form of entrepreneurship.  He hypothesizes that the American national character was created by immigration.  He says, “We’re a  self-selected population…Immigrants have unusual ambition, energy, drive, and risk tolerance, which lets them take a chance on moving for a better opportunity.  These are biologically based temperament traits.  If you seed an entire continent with them, you’re going to get a nation of entrepreneurs.”   Gartner notes hypomanics (entrepreneurs) are at much higher risk for depression (suffering) than the general population.  (“The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship”, Inc. Magazine, Sept. 9, 2013)

khalilTo choose entrepreneurship is to choose some degree of specific pain.  To embrace creative enterprise is to accept an amount of salubrious suffering and its close kin, failure.  It’s a non-financial cost of entrepreneurship.  It is something I certainly need to acknowledge to stay honest and growing, both commercially and spiritually.  It’s important in separating my self-worth from my net worth.

I find many of my business colleagues “closet sufferers.”  I think it is important to come out of that closet, both to ourselves, our friends, and even in public sometimes.  Hopefully with humor, grace, and self-compassion.

Khalil Gibran said, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”  Thank you, Khalil.

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Danny_Meyer_FT_Charity_Wine_Dinner_2010I have always believed that money is as much a bi-product of goodness as it is of technical business prowess.  Restaurateur Danny Meyer is a good man.  He is a living testament to my frequently voiced mantra, “Good is Greed.”  Or, as Danny puts it, “Generosity is clearly in our self-interest.”

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to hear Danny speak at the Inc. Business Owners Council at Inc. Magazine in NYC.  What a sweet guy.  (As well, of course, as a wily, tough, successful businessman.)  He is a relaxed, almost impish fellow, full of bonhomie, unfeigned humility, and self-directed humor.  He is both playful and unpretentious.

Briefly, Meyer is the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York.  He owns some of the most respected eateries in the US.  They include Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke and JazzStandard, as well as the rapidly expanding upscale burger chain, Shake Shack, with multiple locations nationally.

I personally have zero interest in cooking or creating food (though I love to eat and am a member of the James Beard Foundation.)  But Meyer’s passion for both food and business philosophy is palpable.  He wrote quite a fine book called Setting the Table (HarperCollins, 2006), which should be read by any business owner interested in creating culture.  The book is a compelling memoir of a master restaurateur, as well as a thoughtful and moral creator of business culture.

setting_the_tableIn reading Danny’s book I found myself skipping or scanning long sections on the ins and outs of food, though he is a good writer and story teller, kind of like a kinder, gentler Anthony Bourdain.  But his book’s pedagogical value for the entrepreneur is his thinking about branding through what he defines as “hospitality.”  He states, “Service is the technical delivery of a product.  Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes you feel.”

Meyer says the key to creating a hospitality culture is your employees.  They are more important to Meyer than his clients.  He says if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers.  He starts with hiring people with the emotional skills of empathy and genuinely liking people.  His hierarchy of importance is employees, customers, community, suppliers, investors—in that order.  As anyone who reads this blog knows, I couldn’t agree more.

In addition to his missionary zeal around hospitality, I believe his key insight for entrepreneurs is his deep commitment to giving back.  He is a person of a karmic faith that the universe gives back to you what you put into it.  His greatest entrepreneurial success to date is Shake Shack.  He attributes this success to nothing more than his five year pro bono commitment to clean up the rat infested, run-down Madison Square Park.  He is overly modest and the story is too long for this column, but suffice it to say Danny Meyer is a man who walks his talk.

9e36d6cd2a4e0ad8956ee9.L._V152622659_SX200_Meyer calls his foundational philosophy “hospitality.”   I would call it simple goodness and decency.  Or, at the risk of sounding treacly, love—truly the selfish way to practice successful enterprise.

Here’s a bit of advice I like from page 189 of Setting the Table.  “Where ever your center lies, know it, name it, stick to it, and believe in it.  Everyone who works with you will know what matters to you and will respect and appreciate your unwavering values.  Your inner beliefs about business will guide you through the tough times.  It’s good to be open to fresh approaches to solving problems.  But when you cede your core values…it’s time to quit.”

Jim Collins, in Built to Last, puts it this way.  “Core purpose is the organization’s fundamental reason for being.  An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work—it taps their idealistic motivations—and gets at the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond just making money.”  I think Danny Meyer would agree.  Thanks, Jim.

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StanislavskiThere is a famous quote in the theatre that was said by Constantin Stanislavski of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1924.  It goes, “There are no small parts, only small actors.”  Likewise there are no small jobs, only persons who don’t glory in the chance to learn from all experiences.

Humility is a key entrepreneurial quality.  It keeps you open for constant new learnings and Eureka! moments.  Humility enables you to be unobstructed and present to the accidents of life that often go under the name luck.  Hence, the value of the small jobs most of us started with that often trained us in the importance of the small mundanities of courtesy, care, and listening that are a great aid to the everyday success of the perfervid entrepreneurial striver.

I got quite a good volume of response to last week’s blog, Small Jobs and Great Entrepreneurs. Here is a letter I received from Don Zinn, owner of Exigent Search Partners, Inc. in Westchester, NY. which I thought well worth sharing.


I love your columns – you know I read them and get a vicarious thrill as only a fellow entrepreneur can.  So many today claim to be entrepreneurs, but so few are.

I agree with your premise about small jobs first – I too started as a bus boy at Bar Mitzvah’s when I was 12, also mowing lawns and shoveling snow, until I was 14 and was able to get a job in a union deli – the meatcutters union.  There I felt that same contempt your Harvard professor discussed – those guys looked at me and knew my track was very different.  But I fought to be respected and proved them wrong by working hard.  It was a good lesson.

donThere is another layer to your premise about being young and foolish when we were young, and foolish.  The path to entrepreneurial success is not a straight line.  To get to where I am today – the happiest I have ever been as I run my 7th entrepreneurial venture – I had to go through all the other stuff.  The failures and the wrong directions were part of what got me here.  I wish I had found my place sooner, but I probably wasn’t ready.

Some find that niche sooner, but for me, I had to wander through my own “desert” before I was ready to cross into the “promised land.”

Be well and stay warm


Well said, Don.  Thank you.

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