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Johnny Depp once said: “Trips to the dentist; I like to postpone that kind of thing.”

I was stuck in the dentist’s chair for two and a half hours last Tuesday. This was perfect for a rainy spring day in New York. I came in depressed and anxious about business and some personal issues. After hearing the dentist’s usual homily on my dental sins (poor brushing, insufficient flossing, erratic check-ups), I grimly settled in to endure my dental cleaning penance.

I like my dentist Marvin. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of American popular music which he plays while drilling away. I learn a lot from him. Also, I tremendously enjoy his excellent laughing gas. (Last week’s aroma was piña colada. Yahoo.)

For my appointment, Dr. Marv’s musical play list was from radio broadcasts of the 1930’s. Enlivening and enjoyable, as always. In my existentially saturnine mood I found myself listening to a song I’d never heard, called, “If You Want To Have The Rainbow, Then You Have To Have The Rain.” It was a lovely, light depression-era ditty about looking on the bright side of life. Nothing especially deep. Yet it got me thinking positively again and jolted me out of my stultifying, self-pitying funk. It restored me to gratitude and clarity.

I treasure those blessed moments of unexpected captive stillness that can sometimes quiet the frenetic, unreasoning pace of daily business life. They can be both a palliative and a meditative grace. Even five minutes stuck waiting on a line or 30 minutes on the train can imbue a renewed centeredness and insight. These moments are a gift and make me a clearer, freer, happier man–and, I am sure, a more sure-handed writer and a more prosperous entrepreneur. I am so grateful when these captive moments find me, pull me up short, and bring respite and perspective to the headlong rush that is the essence of most of my business days.

German poet Gottfried Benn (Statische Gedichte) says,

“To represent some part,
Busy-ness,
Traveling to, and from,
Is the distinguishing stamp of a world
Which does not see well.”

Thank you, Gottfried.

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Margaret_Thatcher_croppedIn 2002, Margaret Thatcher wrote prophetically about the future of the European Union.  She said in her book Statecraft, “…that such an unnecessary and irrational project as building a European superstate was ever embarked upon will seem in future years to be perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era.”  Fourteen years later the British electorate seems to agree.

In the midst of the post-Brexit cacophony–both apocalyptically gloomy and euphorically joyful–I do not see how the decision of Britain to depart the EU can be anything but positive for our moribund European entrepreneurial brethren.  The one foundational essential for healthy entrepreneurship is freedom.  This is what Britain is attempting to reclaim through Brexit.

Britain has chosen to reject the sclerotic rigidity of the arrogant bureaucrats in Brussels.  It is saying “No” to the suffocating pillow of micromanagement that has mandated rules and one-size-fits-all standards for all European products and services–from teapots to toasters to the fat content of cheese.  It marks the end of power, at least in the UK, to the tyranny of over 40,000 overpaid, unaccountable oligarchs and four unelected “Presidents” over all aspects of British business life.  It is a full-scale rebellion against the creeping, faceless totalitarianism of what the Hunger Games movies call “The Capitol.”  It gives European entrepreneurship hope.

There has been a cost to the expanding regulatory burden and governmental micro-management of small business in Europe.  And that cost continues playing out.  Entrepreneurship is virtually dead in many EU countries.

This week my eye was caught by a short pre-Brexit article in a file I had printed out from Bloomberg.com.  It was about a small Italian company called Firem.  Firem has sales of $4 million per year and a work force of 40, but hasn’t posted a profit since 2008.  Here’s what happened.

map-1019896_960_720“Early in August, Fabrizio Pedroni wished his employees a happy summer holiday and told them to return to work in three weeks.  That night he began dismantling his electrical component factory in northern Italy and packing its machinery off to greener pastures.  “Had I told them earlier about any plans to shift the production abroad, they would have occupied my factory and seized all my stuff,’ says Pedroni, owner of his family company Firem.  “The plain truth is that I wanted my business to survive, and there weren’t the right conditions for me to operate in Italy any longer.”

Leaving Italy was the last thing Pedroni wanted to do.  But he could no longer survive under the rigid EU strictures in Italy.  He was forced to make a clandestined escape in lieu of the freedom to run a nimble, creative small business in his own country.

Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffe, professor of business strategy at Milan’s Bocconi Uiversity says, “Pedroni, like many entrepreneurs before him…abandoned the ship called Italy because it was the only way to survive.  In Italy most businesses like Firem have been posting losses for at least five years.”  From 2001 to 2011, about 27,000 Italian companies, each with annual sales more than $3 million, moved abroad, with a concomitant accompanying loss of revenue and employment for Italy.  (Much bigger firms, like Fiat, are also abandoning Italy.)

Italy is not alone in Europe with it’s failing anti-entrepreneurial economy.  Spain, France, Portugal, and Greece face very similar issues.  In none of these countries can you easily adjust to the rapidly evolving world economy.  You can’t move, you can’t downsize, you cannot fire or reduce workforce, you cannot change–finally resulting in a vertiginous economic descent for these countries of old Europe.

italy-880116_960_720Furthermore, the countries that have embraced America’s traditional capitalist freedoms and processes (like Poland, Singapore, Vietnam, and India) are beginning to eat even America’s lunch as well as old Europe’s, beating us at our own game by nurturing rather than repressing entrepreneurial animal spirits.  American historian Markham Shaw Pyle says,  “If the power to tax is the power to destroy, the power to regulate is no less so.”

Brexit may well be the canary in the coal mine for the triumphalist, over regulated, oligarchic state and a plangent death knell for the EU.  Brexit is saying that hubristic, statist government overreach just doesn’t work to create a salubrious business climate.

So Britain has made the first move to reject the regulatory snake oil and closet totalitarianism of Brussels.  Can Frexit, Spexit, Grexit, et. al. be far behind?  I, for one, hope not.

Lawrence Lessig, in Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity says, “Free culture depends upon vibrant competition.  Yet the effect of the law today is to stifle just this kind of competition.  The effect is to produce an over-regulated culture, just as the effect of too much control in the market is to produce an over-regulated-regulated market.”  Thank you, Lawrence.

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411bLjUOvdL._UX250_I found this line in a recent John Grisham best seller.  “Prisons are fascinating places, especially when the inmates are educated white-collar types.”

The distance between the criminal and the successful entrepreneur is not so very far.  We both intuitively operate out-of-the-box with an instinct for not accepting the status quo.  We both are not inclined to accept the tyranny of the given.  We both intuitively color outside the lines.

Note the work of Bill McCarthy (UC Davis) and John Hagan (Northwestern) who report that people who are the most successful at crime have a strong desire to succeed, to take risk and to live by their own rules.  Hmm.  Sounds very much like most driven entrepreneurs.

I recently met a wonderful man named Jeff Grant who heads up an organization in Connecticut called the Progressive Prison Project, a non-profit dedicated to guiding and supporting business owners and white-collar executives. who have been accused of, convicted of, or been incarcerated for crimes ranging from DUI to financially motivated felonies.

Jeff Grant feels entrepreneurs, single-practitioners, DBAs, and small businessmen increasingly face exceptional dangers of drifting into damaging legal problems and even incarceration for a variety of reasons.

  1. Entrepreneurs lack the infrastructure resources to keep abreast with the increasingly complicated and onerous regulatory load emanating from all levels of government.  They are  overwhelmed with putting out constant fires in their real business. They have neither time or nor the inclination to spend days boning up on staying exactly on the right side ofevolving law.
  2. Furthermore, entrepreneurs frequently don’t even have a peer-level partner to challenge them on their interpretation and/or ignorance of compliance issues.  It becomes all too easy to carelessly cut corners.
  3. The combination of daily pressure and aloneness may make it tempting to make a deal with the devil—a deal often abetted by drugs or alcohol or sex, which fuzz over and break down a  man or woman’s moral center.  More than in most professions, entrepreneurs may be tempted to take ethical risks when bills threaten to overwhelm.
  4. Entrepreneurs often have big egos and suffer from hubris.  When they do not have the tools or knowledge for compliance, it is hard for them to admit it.  They (we) can suffer from  grandiosity.  We may begin to exaggerate, to lie, to puff ourselves up.  We sometimes don’t want to admit a core fear that we may not be the master of the universe, that we are not Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or Mark Cuban.  Not even remotely.  We may begin to exaggerate, to lie, to puff ourselves up.
  5. Entrepreneurs are dreamers who can drift into not living in the rigorous reality of what their life actually is.

JeffGrantNewHeadShotJeff Grant can speak with authority on this subject.   He spent 14 months in a federal prison for a financially motivated crime stemming from bad decisions made under the dual influence of prescription drugs and financial pressure.

Grant headed a highly successful legal practice in Westchester County, New York.  The Greenwich Sentinel reports Grant as saying, “In the course of rehabilitating an [achilles heel] injury, I got hooked on prescription narcotics.  Doctors were more than happy to continue to prescribe them to me, and I took them for about ten years.”

Grant gradually lost control of his firm and eventually couldn’t meet payroll—at which point he made up the shortfall by dipping into client escrow funds.  He lost his company, his marriage, his money, his respected position in the community, his freedom.

What he found in prison was that there was little or no support for small businessmen like himself.  His present wife and Co-Founder of the Progressive Prison Project, Lynn Springer, puts it this way:

“Typically in the upper-middle class, where white collar criminals tend to come from, the husband has been the bread winner.  Generally, these are people who are considered to be very well off.  All of a sudden, all of their assets may have been seized by the SEC.  They don’t know how they are going to buy food, how they are going to heat their home, how they are going to put gas in their car.”  (The Greenwich Sentinel)

Furthermore, when Grant came out of prison he had to deal with what he calls the “schadenfreude” of many folks who took a closet joy in seeing the mighty fall.  Grant thinks there is an ecosystem problem in our society in which the rich person and the celebrity are both adored and virulently hated, and there is little sympathy, governmental or societal, for the fallen entrepreneur, who many see as a stand-in for the greedy 1%.

Grant speaks with power out of his own humiliation and suffering.  He has the well-earned authority of a deeply humbled man.  After his release from prison he got an M. Div. degree from Union Theological Seminary and founded the Progressive Prison Project, which is the first ministry in the U.S. created to provide support and counseling to individuals and families with white-collar and other non-violent incarceration issues. Der Amerikanische Priester haelt Vortraege und Seminarien in der Elisabethenkirche ab. Photo Stephanie Grell(For further information on Jeff Grant try www.prisonist.org.  Also related to this issue check out my Inc. column of last year titled Criminals and Entrepreneurs.)

Robert Rohr, in his excellent book on addiction, Breathing Under Water, says, “People who fail to do it right, by even their own definition right, are those who often break through to enlightenment and compassion.”  Like Jeff Grant.  Thank you, Robert Rohr.

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ptbarnumPhineas Taylor Barnum (P.T. Barnum) once said, “A salary was not sufficient for me.”

I love P.T. Barnum.  Yes, he was  bit of a scoundrel, a scalawag, and a con man.  But he also was prescient in his seminal and practical thinking about business.  Perhaps the first modern entrepreneur.

I was reminded of this watching Meet The Press back on January 10.  Host Chuck Todd, interviewing Donald Trump, recited a litany of unflattering comparisons sometimes used to describe The Donald, as he interrogated Trump.  The list included “Kim Kardashian, Biff (from Back to the Future), George Costanza, and P.T. Barnum.”  Said Todd, “Any of those you consider a compliment?”  Trump’s immediate response?  “P.T. Barnum.”

Trump has a point.

P.T. Barnum wrote the most wonderful essay back in 1880 entitled The Art of Money Getting, or Golden Rules for Making Money.  In 20 very short chapters Barnum limns a remarkably useful philosophy of business that anticipates the cutting-edge business insights of now.  It is simply and clearly written, almost like a contemporary self-help book, full of aphoristic wisdom, as well as sound, day-to-day business advice.  The book deals with fundamental human well-being, as much as the amassing of wealth.  The roster of short chapters in this essay neatly sum up Barnum’s thinking and advice.  They are:

  • Don’t mistake your vocation
  • Select the right location
  • Avoid debt
  • Persevere
  • Whatever you do, do it with all your might
  • Depend upon your own personal exertions
  • Use the best tools
  • Don’t get above your business
  • Learn something useful
  • Let hope predominate but be not too visionary
  • Do not scatter your powers
  • Be systematic
  • Read the newspapersurl
  • Beware of “outside operations”
  • Don’t endorse without security
  • Advertise your business
  • Be polite and kind to your customers
  • Be charitable
  • Don’t blab
  • Preserve your integrity

It is impossible to go through all of Barnum’s insights in a short essay like this, but here are a few that struck me as remarkably modern.

  1. Barnum anticipated the current warnings of neurological science, which have pretty much disproved the efficacy of “multi-tasking” in the age of social media.  Barnum says, “When a man’s undivided attention is centered on one object, his mind will constantly be suggesting improvement of value, which would escape him if his brain was occupied by a dozen different subjects at once.”
  2. Barnum understood the dignity and the non-monetary value of autonomous creative enterprise, saying, “There are many rich poor men, while there are many others who have never possessed so much money as some rich persons squander in a week, but who are nevertheless really richer and happier than any man can ever be.”
  3. He understood the value of through-branded culture and a servant’s heart, a trope passionately espoused currently by exemplars like John Mackey, Danny Meyer, Bo Burlingham, Kip Tindell, Tony Hsieh, etc.  Barnum says, “Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business.  Large stores, gilt signs, flaming advertisements, will all prove unavailing if you or your employees treat your patrons abruptly.  The truth is, the more kind and liberal a man is, the more generous will be the patronage bestowed on him.”
  4. Barnum understood that creating something out of nothing is basically a commitment to the impossible.  He understood that achieving the impossible is what entrepreneurs do. “If I shoot at the sun I may hit a star.”
  5. He learned from failure.  He was undiscouraged by his several bankruptcies.

I don’t mean to wax hagiographic about Barnum.  He was a merry hoaxer.  A cheery fraudster.  A great and brilliant showman, not unlike Donald Trump.  Certainly a con man not unreminiscent of L. Frank Baum’s Great and Mighty Oz, the man behind the curtain.

But he was also a truly great and passionate businessman, an unapologetic capitalist, saying, “…money getters are the benefactors of our race.”  He was a courageous risk-taker—a Randian hero and an ur-entrepreneur. maxresdefaultThe Steve Jobs of the 19th century.

His little book The Art of Money Getting… is a wise compendium of practical moral philosophy and human life lessons, as well as a wonderful guide to creating a salubrious font of everyday business health.  He understood and celebrated business’ ability to create meaning, as well as money.

He commented, “Money is in some respects life’s fire:  it is an excellent servant, but a terrible master.”   Many thanks, P.T. Barnum.

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Given we’re entering the early stages of a prolonged political season and we have already been treated to two scintillating debates, this seems an opportune moment to refresh an old Zen parable I first heard from storied pastoral theologian, Henri Nouwen, one of my mentors at divinity school back in the day. (Isn’t that a great moniker—divinity school?)  teacup-356619_640He first heard this parable from Thich Nhat Hanh, a highly regarded Buddhist monk, teacher and author of over 100 books.

The short vignette tells the story of a politician, who, in a moment of rare self-awareness, decided to visit a Zen master to ask for wisdom in how he might govern.  Nan-in, the Zen master, served him tea.  He poured his visitor’s cup full and then just kept on pouring.  The politician watched the cup overflow until he could no longer restrain himself.

“It’s overflowing, Nan-in!  The cup cannot hold any more.”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “You are full of your own opinions and attitudes.
How can I teach you anything unless you first empty your cup?”

At the time I was a cocky young stand-in for the politician.  For that matter, I suppose I might as well admit that I’ve matured into a cocky middle-aged stand-in.  The only difference between then and now is that experience has confirmed this basic law of personal physics, which predicts you can’t take in something new if you’re already full of yourself.

unnamedI’ll leave it to you to determine how this might apply to high profile politicians.  But that’s only a distraction from the important discovery that the work leading to spiritual maturity involves a relentless pursuit of emptiness a la Nan-in’s tea cup.  It’s the emptiness created by humble acceptance that we know less than we think we do and that God is surely larger than our last opinion.  This is the emptiness that allows us to listen deeply and ripen values like respect, compassion and personal integrity.  Find this in another, and you’ve likely found a friend.  But to find it in oneself, well, that would require some emptying for certain.

-Rev. Dr. Stephen Bauman

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