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Archive for February, 2017

Spanish cellist and conductor Pablo Casals once said, “To retire is to die.”

It is with discomfort and considerable squirming that I report I am no longer an active entrepreneur. I am a retired entrepreneur. In effect, I have been retired since I quietly passed on my company to my employees at the end of 2015. Yes, I still write this as the Founder of a corporation, but the truth is I am no longer an active practitioner of our noble vocation.

The transition to being a non-owner has been such a difficult and uneasy process for me. I utterly haven’t wanted to let people know I’d decided to hang up my entrepreneurial spurs. I have been unwilling and unable to publicly and proactively declare my change in life direction–or to declare I am letting go an old life. (As Neil Sedaka puts it, “Breaking up is hard to do.”) For example, when an interviewer recently introduced me as CEO of my former firm on a podcast, I simply didn’t bother to correct the impression. I was a closeted retiree. Perhaps this column is my coming out, as it were.

As I look inside myself, I find I am reluctant to give up my professional identity publicly. I haven’t redefined myself yet in terms of the next phase of my life. I sit in the limbo of a vocational vacuum. Though I have told some friends, I have an interior dread that my acquaintances and long-time small business colleagues will not longer respect me or want to know me or to read my column.

I am suffering from a soul fear. My fear is of being seen as an an irrelevancy, an entrepreneur without portfolio, of becoming a crotchety retired guy fading into a curmudgeonly irrelevance.

In fact, I am still an impassioned student and acolyte of entrepreneurship. My belief in entrepreneurship has never been so strong and certain. I have just chosen to not practice it actively any more since last year for a variety of personal and financial reasons.

While my company grew healthily for a number of years–it was part of the Inc. 5000–and enjoyed substantial respect and reputation, the daily process of the entrepreneurial slog began to feel rote. I had accomplished what I personally wanted–to create a through-branded company based in truth, discreet efficacy, service, and profitability. A company based in practical love. A company I could live in. A company that made me and the people it touched better.

However, the truth I is my business attention was waning. And this waning began to show in the bottom line. Profitability was more than lagging. I wanted to do something else, even though I did not know what it was.

So I stopped.

My old company gave me the emeritus title of Chief Culture Officer and kept my phone extension in their system till this year, but in truth I had almost no contact and no duties or power with my former company.

I think the process of withdrawing from your own company is very similar to mourning a death. Note Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief in her seminal book Death and Dying:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Additionally, there are moments when I feel an ego deflation. It’s a change to not be the big fish in my own small pond, to not be king of my own private Idaho. As Mel Brooks puts it, “It’s good to be king.”

My former company was my primary personal community and home to my spirit and lived beliefs. So for me and, I believe, most entrepreneurs, a business leave-taking is so much more than departing a job.

I think most folks believe the purpose of business is to make money, to amass wealth. But that has not been so for me. I believe and have found that business is a vehicle for meaning. Even without the financial rewards, the business journey is a reward in itself. It is a unique vehicle of calling, centering, and service, of finding integrity, freedom, personal dignity, and spiritual reality through an activity most would identify as quotidian and earthbound.

I intend to stay active in the local and national business community, still write this column, and perhaps start another venture eventually. I do want to continue to write and think about how business can be a conduit for meaning. Nevertheless, perhaps one truly needs to let go the known old to open up to the unknown new.

On his retirement from Cornell, Professor Scott Elledge said the following: “It is time I stepped aside for a less experienced, and less able man.” Thank you very much, Dr. Elledge.

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In his prophetic post World War I poem The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats writes:

“The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

There is a Chinese curse that goes something like, “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly seem to be living in one of those times. Peggy Noonan called it “big history” in her Saturday Wall Street Journal column.

My friend Jennifer Brown, author of the recent Amazon business best-seller Inclusion, relates a conversation she overheard last week that got me thinking about the special challenges to entrepreneurial health in a time of severe societal polarization and instability.

Jennifer reports hearing a Starbucks barista sharing about how thoroughly sick she was of the incivility of current political discourse and that she had come to a conscious decision: The minute she logged onto Facebook and saw a single political post, she would immediately log off.

I know how she feels. The political trope of our time has never been so fraught nor the urge to disengage more alluring. Everything is overly charged. It seems folks are bloody exhausted, yet endlessly drawn back into the emotional vortex of the pure drama of a seeming manichaean struggle. (Manichaeism, if unknown to you, is an early Christian heresy that divided the world into absolutes–pure back and white, pure right or wrong–a dualism with little middle way.)

This dominant current meme is reinforced by a report I heard mentioned on NPR recently, which cited a poll from somewhere that over 40% of couples who supported different candidates in the US presidential election ended up breaking up over their differences. Wow! So much for the golden example of James Carville and Mary Matalin, Democratic and Republican strategists respectively, who seem to live a very happy domestic existence despite their political disparity.

There is an almost addictive quality to the dramatic distortion so apparent in our present political moment. It can be all-consuming to the detriment of the focused passion essential to entrepreneurial success. Much like any addiction, our exciting and disturbing political moment allows us to avoid and skirt the very real challenges posed by our essential businesses and personal lives. It is just so much easier to fling ourselves into the exciting societal/political drama than to face the quotidian challenges of everyday life and business. It’s like embracing an escapist sugar high.

This is not to say that political passion and idealism of any stripe are not necessary and wonderful. I respect idealism, of course. Most successful entrepreneurs are idealists. How else do they summon the indispensable courage to attempt to create something out of nothing each day? It is an act of artistic faith, as well as of personal will.

There is an intuitive wisdom in the decision of the young barista mentioned above who chooses to cut off any further political discourse rather than get caught up in ad hominem manichaean disputation. It is sometimes necessary to disengage temporarily. It may well be a healthful disengagement from present polarities to maintain a practical and mindful center. There is no shame in keeping your attention on the main business chance.

Successful entrepreneurs are nothing if not practical people. They are risk-takers but not reckless adventurers. They may live on the cutting edge, but not without shrewd calculation. To maintain that focus this may be a time for the withdrawal from the tropes of the popular meme. It may be a time of making choices as to where to place limited personal energy. Just as it is good to stay clear of individuals who are energy sucks, so is it also sometimes necessary to resist the lemming-like madness of societal drama.

Entrepreneurial practicality militates a functional utile, a nuanced understanding that truth exists in the gray non-absolutes, not in the blacks and whites of political purity. It is important to recognize a bone-deep weariness that can sap creative and functional business energy.

So, this is not a time of tolerance and the truth of “the gray.” But we do not need to surrender to distracting, uncentering angry absolutes.

As Carl Jung warns us, “We all feel the opposite of our own highest principle must be purely destructive, deadly, and evil. We refuse to endow it with any positive life force; hence we avoid and fear it.” Thanks, Carl.

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Russian playwright Mikhail Bolkakov once said “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices.”

I’m a member of the International Wizard of Oz Club. (That’s only one of my eccentric personal hobbies.) I’ve been a huge fan of the Oz books since my mother read many of them to me when I was a boy. (Most people know only L. Frank Baum’s first book, “The Wizard of Oz”, but there are actually 40 marvelous, magical, beautiful books in this series.)

I love the Cowardly Lion. He reminds me so much of me. In the movie version of “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy confronts the Cowardly Lion and tells him he is nothing but a great big coward. The Lion’s reply is:

“You’re right, I am a coward! I haven’t any courage at all! I even scare myself. Look at the circles under my eyes! I haven’t slept in weeks!”
Me too. To be an effective executive for my company Corporate Rain International I have needed to slay this “fear” dragon each day for many years. One of the things I do to cope with this fear I learned many years ago from a fantastic acting teacher I had in New York named Michael Howard.

Michael Howard spoke to my acting class one day about how to begin rehearsing a new scene. What he said was to go immediately to the most risky, scary, personal place in the scene: that place that made us feel most fearful and exposed. This might be a spot that involved physical intimacy, like kissing, violence, or nudity. Or jealousy, rage, or cowardice. By facing the most dangerous part of the scene immediately, the rest of the scene became more accessible, less fraught. As Joseph Campbell puts it in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

How do I apply this lesson to entrepreneurship? By each day immediately doing that thing I most want not to do–by immediately making that call where I have the greatest fear of rejection, where my own feelings of cosmic inadequacy might be most called out and exposed–and taking this sweaty-palmed action the first thing in the day. I act as if I had courage and confidence and thereby have it in reality. I guess it’s kind of a business version of your inner mother telling you to eat your vegetables first. For me, it works to go daily and immediately toward my most fearful task.

So go to the danger first. As the Cowardly Lion so insightfully sings: “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!” A sage observation indeed. As science-fiction novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” Thanks Kurt.

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Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “When virtue has slept, it will arise again all the fresher.”  (Human, All Too Human -1879)

A couple of years ago I was drawn up short by a headline to a one paragraph story in the Harvard Business Review on-line.  The headline read, “Do Depraved Thoughts Make You More Creative?”  The answer, at least for Protestants like me, seems to be absolutely yes.  Depraved creature that I am, the headline certainly got my attention.

The headline refers to a study conducted by Emily Kim and her team at the University of Illinois.  Ms. Kim, et.al., discovered that subjects, particularly Protestants, produced more creative work when they were (a) induced to feel unacceptable desires and primed with words evoking so-called depravity, and (b) induced to feel out of the norm sexual desires.  It was the forbidden or suppressed nature of the emotion that gave the emotion its creative power.  (Sublimation, Culture, and Creativity.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Oct 2013)

This column is putatively focused on what creates meaning, ethics, happiness, and practical business efficacy for entrepreneurs.  So where does depravity fit into this?

Well, just this.  If you seek to become a creative business innovator it’s good to shake things up periodically.  Just for the hell of it.  A jolt of the counterintuitive (perhaps another word for depravity), can summon the innovative, the fresh, the disruptive, the freeing, the new.

We all naturally gravitate towards playing it safe.  The real danger of playing it safe is subtle.  This danger doesn’t make headlines.  Yet excessive business caution is like a slow leak in a tire.  You become aware of it only when you realize that you’re stuck and wondering how the hell did it happen.

I’ve shared a story about this in the past, but it bears repeating here.  I was an actor for many years, a profession I ultimately failed at.  But it is a profession that lends itself to many good stories.   Here’s one.

A friend of mine, Paul, was playing the role of “Jamie Tyrone,” the older son in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night starring Rip Torn.  Rehearsals had gone very well for my friend, but, with two weeks left in the rehearsal process, Paul felt he had fully realized his character and was ready to open.  His quandary was what to do with himself for the last two weeks of rehearsal, so he went to Rip Torn and asked him what he would do with this actor’s conundrum.  Paul recounts that Rip Torn thought it over for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and said “Fuck it up.”

Exactly.  If it ain’t broke, break it.  That may sound depraved indeed, if not mentally unbalanced, but there is a sound business reason for disciplined and constant strategic change in any healthy enterprise.  Even to the point of seeming arbitrariness.  Sometimes a dollop of depravity may be just what the doctor ordered.  Great creative entrepreneurs may often need to walk gingerly on the border of what their colleagues, wives, and friends may consider the insane.

On the other hand, Carl Jung said, “Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.”

Thanks, Carl.

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