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Posts Tagged “Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi”

Famed engineer and Episcopalian priest William Pollard once said, “Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.”

Much as I hate it, I am deeply convicted of the entrepreneurial mandate for constant change. That is, change should be a value unto itself, not just a reaction to periodic business challenges.

As I see it, a good corporate culture is erected to ward off and control chaos and the impact of business randomness, while generating a consistent and predictable profit. The dialectic of stability and creativity should ideally result in a vital organization that is both dynamic and steady. But if one is to err, my preference and personal instinct is to err on the side of the dynamic, on the side of change and creativity.

As you may know from my past columns, I was an actor for many years. That has had a seminal, if ineffable, effect on my instincts as a small businessman. One of my favorite acting stories was recounted to me by character actor and teacher Paul Austin. I never tire of sharing it. Paul was doing a Eugene O’Neill play with the actor Rip Torn. Rehearsals were going well, but, with two weeks of rehearsal remaining. Paul felt he had fully realized his character and was ready to open. He was in a quandary about what to do with himself for the last two weeks of rehearsal, so he went to Rip Torn and asked his advice. Paul recounts that Rip Torn thought for a moment, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Fuck it up.”

On the same theme, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of Claremont Graduate University, recounts a story, in his book Flow, told him by Canadian ethnographer Richard Kool, describing one of the Indian tribes of British Columbia:

The Shuswap region was and is considered by the Indian people to be a rich place: rich in salmon and game, rich in below-ground food resources such as tubers and roots–a plentiful land. In this region, the people would live in permanent village sites and exploit the environs for needed resources. They had elaborate technologies for very effectively using the resources of the environment, and perceived their lives as being good and rich. Yet, the elders said, at times the world became too predictable and the challenge began to go out of life. Without challenge, life had no meaning.

So the elders, in their wisdom, would decide that the entire village should move, those moves occurring every 25 or 30 years. The entire population would move to a different part of the Shushwap land and there, they found challenge. There were new streams to figure out, new game trails to learn, new areas where the balsam root would be plentiful. Now life would regain its meaning and be worth living. Everyone would feel rejuvenated and healthy.

Essentially, the Shuswap Indians elected to “fuck it up” every few decades. It kept their business culture (if you will) healthy, thriving, and imbued with aliveness and meaning. They elected to culturally and institutionally discipline themselves to see existence through perennially fresh eyes.

The reason I embrace business is to be happy and whole. Profitability and personal wealth, if they come, are useful and satisfying in this, but profitability disengaged from meaning and spiritual growth is a dead thing. Change is an essential palliative to summon meaning, aliveness, and salvation into any business culture.

Friedrich Nietzche put it, “The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”

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22555208593_9d37a9abea_bMihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Good Business, talks about the importance of “flow” (centeredness) in an effective businessman. He states, “At its most fulfilling a career in business involves a series of steps in which one takes on ever greater responsibility, making it possible to experience increasing flow for many years….It is not too far-fetched to suggest that the growth of businesses is in large part the result of their leaders’ need to grow as persons.”

How does one become a business leader and especially an entrepreneurial leader? (My short answer to this is live an authentic life and know who you are first.) For sure, there is not a simple answer to this, but the more complex answer is certainly not an MBA education. That will teach you to be an excellent corporate executive, a superb reader of P&Ls, a brilliant brand strategist, a fluid numbers runner, and a solver of classical business case study conundrums. What it does not teach is originality, creativity, passion, bone-deep ethics and meaning. And, to my way of thinking, since these constitute the base for great entrepreneurship, the traditional business schools cannot teach entrepreneurship.

However, if they want to teach real business leadership for the entrepreneur–and business schools increasingly claim to be able to teach this–there needs to be a new starting point for business pedagogy. In an increasingly anomic, bewilderingly fast-paced and complex business environment, that new starting point must be the meaning and ultimate reason for doing business in the first place. Why the hell be in business at all, except to accumulate money? Or is that enough?

I’ve recently read that Harvard Business School has been taking a stab at addressing this question through a course led by Dr. Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. that uses great works of literature instead of traditional case studies to teach business leadership. Professor Badaracco“s course at HBS is called The Moral Leader. It focuses on great works of literature and moral philosophy. He uses books to explore “inescapable” elements of leadership: character, accountability, and pragmatism.

professor_csikszentmihalyi_2According to a recent article from HBS, Badaracco’s course eschews easy absolute answers and explores literature full of moral ambiguity and flawed humanity. He says, “I remind [students] of the Old Testament view of human beings; fundamentally, permanently, almost fatally flawed, unless they”re redeemed by something outside themselves.” To me this sounds a lot like the twinned concepts of sin and grace in the New Testament. So Badaracco’s base question to his students, as I understand it, is how do we create value out of the imperfect human vessels we are in a world without absolutes. If one is to have a practical academic starting point to being a leader, that seems like a pretty good one to me.

Here’s an abbreviated list of a few of Badaracco’s recommended great books for incipient businesspersons, with his descriptions.

  1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart–A village leader in Nigeria struggles against the arrival of the colonialists.
  2. Louis Auchincloss, The Rector of Justin–A portrait of the life and work of the founder of a New England prep school, a story of entrepreneurship, idealism, shrewdness, and pragmatism.
  3. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons-A play about Sir Thomas More and his long battle with King Henry VIII.
  4. Robert Brawer, Fictions of Business–Essays, by a former CEO and English professor, on classic works of fiction and their implications for managers and employees of business.
  5. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep–A classic American detective story, first published in 1939, which can be read as a story about the pursuit of professional excellence and the moral dilemmas arising from dedicated service to a client.
  6. Joseph Heller, Something Happened–A black comedy about success in corporate life and a fast-track executive adept at living on the surface of things.
  7. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible–The story of the quiet and heroic leadership of a mother who takes her children to the Congo, following her missionary husband, and then leaves him and Africa and reassembles a life from the wreckage of these decisions.
  8. Arthur Miller, All My Sons-A play about a family unraveling the truth about a father’s decisions at work and their full consequences.
  9. William Shakespeare, Macbeth–A study of ambition, the murkiness of values, and the powerful seduction of short cuts to success.
  10. George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara–A witty, complex, surprising play about an arms manufacturer and his idealistic daughter.
  11. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace–One of the great books, worth reading and rereading for a multitude of reasons, among which are Tolstoy’s vivid and unforgettable portraits of men and women who change the world, on both the grand stage of life and in subtle, everyday ways.

urlProfessor Badaracco’s course and courses like his may offer a more apt beginning to a true graduate education in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial leadership (if such a thing can ever be had) than sophisticated instruction in how to write a business plan or when to seek venture capital. It goes to the why of business, not the the how.

Marcel Proust, in A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, says, “Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.” Thank you, Marcel.

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Anyone who follows this blog knows my love for words.  Here’s one:  Eudaimonia.  It roughly means happiness or wellness, but the more accurate meaning is “human flourishing,” according to Wikipedia.  It describes a state of centering and contentment when your life matters because it is lived meaningfully well.

One of the great unacknowledged rewards of establishing your own company is the chance to create a personal eudaimonia.  In other words, a spiritual space that combines the earning of filthy lucre and accumulating worldly goods with the ineffable, elusive coinage of meaning.

Michael-Douglas_14

I have personally found this is emphatically not an either/or proposition.  In fact the reality is that most of the great small businessmen and women I know intuitively combine the two.  They are not immiscible.  Really selfish entrepreneurs (like me) do not live by Michael Douglas famous mantra in Wall Street, “Greed is good.”  No.  Quite the opposite.  Being good is simply the selfish thing to do.  In fact, “Good is greed.”  By your works ye will be known—and be hired and succeed.  For me, eudaimonia is partly just a matter of overcoming the inner asshole.

The evincement of business goodness is usually made clear in the simplest and smallest interactions with clients.  People like to think they are good and they want vendors that reflect this truth, this decency.  Certainly the best business folk I know see themselves as citizens of the universe and it shows most effectively in their smallest, most subtle and unthinking acts within their own business, not in big, self-aggrandizing shows of public grandiosity.  Whether they formally profess religion or not, good businessmen are people of lived faith in more than the transient and venal.

My belief, that money is as much a bi-product of goodness as it is of technical business prowess, is obviously highly subjective.  But there are many and compelling new scientific studies that increasingly support this practical philosophy.  I will not go all academic and boring by listing and quoting them encyclopedically, but there was an excellent summation of this research by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic posted recently in the Harvard Business Review online (9:50 AM, April 10, 2013) in an article titled, “Does Money Really Affect Motivation?  A Review of Research.”   And I can never not acknowledge the profound and philosophically seminal work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont Graduate University on flow and happiness.

While we are all imperfect, sinful beings, we are also viscerally creatures of our own social interconnections.  We unspokenly swim in the knowledge that we are not only our brother’s keeper but we are our brother.  (Note July 23rd’s post to the African concept of Ubuntu.)

desmond-tutuLet me close with a study noted in the NY Times on June 19, 2013 (p. C-5).  The Times reports when economists asked the citizens of a Swiss village if they would accept being designated a nuclear waste storage site, 51% said yes.  When the question was posed again, this time with the promise of a cash reward for living with the waste, the Times reports the yea votes plummeted to 25%.  The money they said, made them feel that they were being bribed to perform a civic duty.  Isn’t that encouraging?

Bishop Desmond Tutu says, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”  Amen, Brother Desmond.

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manlookoutwindow - EntrepreneurshipI’m a lazy guy.  I like staring at walls.  I like revery.

This may not seem to be a very good modus operandi if one wants to stay in business, particularly to judge from recent advice of business gurus like Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In), John Bernard (Business at the Speed of Now), Michael Port (Book Yourself Solid), Gary Vaynerchuk (Crush It), or Keith Ferrazzi (Never Eat Alone).  The very titles of these books bespeak a push-the-limits, go-go, uber aggression that ain’t me.

I like to think.  I long to do less and less and still be effective.  I hate our plethora of pinging, demanding, interruptive new technologies distracting me, demanding my time and eyeballs, offering more so-called efficiencies, and making me feel stupid and inadequate.

Well, I won’t drift into a Luddite screed today, but there is a wonderful column in The Economist (Schumpeter, August 17, 2013, p. 58) that argues eloquently that our biggest business problem is simply trying to do and absorb too damn much.  It points to an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the US, reporting that Americans now labor over 81/2 hours per week more than in 1979 and the CDC reports a third of waking adults get less than six hours sleep at night.  A survey by Good Technology last year reported 80% of respondents worked after leaving the office, 69% cannot go to bed without checking e-mail, and 38% routinely check their work e-mails at the dinner table.

teresa_amabile

This epidemic of overwork has a clear impact on the creativity of workers.  (And what business work is more dependent than entrepreneurship on creativity and innovative problem solving, the alpha and the omega of disruptive originality.)   Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, in a study of work and creativity, has reported that workers are more creative on low-pressure days than on high-pressure days when their hair is on fire.

The Economist points to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University, who, in researching a book in the early 1990s, asked 275 creative thinkers if he could interview them.  The Economist relates,

“A third did not bother to reply at all and another third refused to take part.  [Csikszentmihalyi’s own colleague at CGU] Peter Drucker summed up the mood of the refuseniks:  ‘One of the secrets of productivity is to have a very big waste-paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours.’   Creative people’s most important resource is their time—particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time—and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings.  Indeed, creative people may be at their most productive when, to the manager’s untutored eye, they appear to be doing nothing.”

reagan43So let us celebrate, just for today, the contrarian strategy of purposeful laziness in business leadership.  Note that when he was head of GE, Jack Welch reported consciously spending an hour a day just “looking out of the window.”  When he was still running Microsoft, Bill Gates used to take two “think weeks” a year when he would lock himself in an isolated cottage.  And Socrates said, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

Ronald Reagan certainly believed in not overdoing things.  He said, “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”  Thanks, Ronald

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mihaly-flow-ted-previewMihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Good Business, talks about the importance of “flow” (centeredness) in an effective businessman.  He states,  “At its most fulfilling a career in business involves a series of steps in which one takes on ever greater responsibility, making it possible to experience increasing flow for many years….It is not too far-fetched to suggest that the growth of businesses is in large part the result of their leaders’ need to grow as persons.”

How does one become a business leader and especially an entrepreneurial leader?  (My short answer to this is live a life and know who you are first.)  For sure, there is not a simple answer to this, but the more complex answer is certainly not an MBA education.  That will teach you to be an excellent corporate executive, a superb reader of P&Ls, a brilliant brand strategist, a fluid numbers runner, and a solver of classical business case study conundrums.  What it does not teach is originality, creativity, passion, bone-deep ethics and meaning.  And, to my way of thinking, since these constitute the base for great entrepreneurship, the traditional business schools cannot teach entrepreneurship.

However, if they want to teach real business leadership for the entrepreneur—and business schools increasingly claim to be able to teach this—there needs to be a new starting point for business pedagogy.  In an increasingly anomic, bewilderingly fast-paced and complex business environment, that new starting point must be the meaning and ultimate reason for doing business in the first place.  Why the hell be business at all, except to accumulate money?  Or is that enough?

badaraccoI’ve recently read that Harvard Business School has been taking a stab at addressing this question through a course led by Dr. Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. that uses great works of literature instead of traditional case studies to teach business leadership.  Professor Badaracco”s course at HBS is called The Moral Leader.  It focuses on great works of literature and moral philosophy.  He uses books to explore “inescapable” elements of leadership:  character, accountability, and pragmatism.

According to a recent article from HBS, Badaracco’s course eschews easy absolute answers and explores literature full of moral ambiguity and flawed humanity.  He says,  “I remind [students] of the Old Testament view of human beings; fundamentally, permanently, almost fatally flawed, unless they”re redeemed by something outside themselves.”  (HBS, Why Leaders Need Great Books, August, 2013)  To me this sounds a lot like the twinned concepts of sin and grace in the New Testament.  So Badaracco’s base question to his students, as I understand it, is how do we create value out of the imperfect human vessels we are in a world without absolutes.  If one is to have a practical academic starting point to being a leader, that seems like a pretty good one to me.

Here’s an abbreviated list of a few of Badaracco’s recommended great books for incipient businesspersons, with his descriptions.  I’ve only read five of these myself.

  1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart—A village leader in Nigeria struggles against the arrival of the colonialists.
  2. Louis Auchincloss, The Rector of Justin—A portrait of the life and work of the founder of a New England prep school, a story of entrepreneurship, idealism, shrewdness, and pragmatism.
  3. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons–A play about Sir Thomas More and his long battle with King Henry VIII.
  4. Robert Brawer, Fictions of Business—Essays, by a former CEO and English professor, on classic works of fiction and their implications for managers and employees of business.
  5. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep—A classic American detective story, first published in 1939, which can be read as a story about the pursuit of professional excellence and the moral dilemmas arising from dedicated service to a client.
  6. Joseph Heller, Something Happened—A black comedy about success in corporate life and a fast-track executive adept at living on the surface of things.
  7. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible—The story of the quiet and heroic leadership of a mother who takes her children to the Congo, following her missionary husband, and then leaves him and Africa and reassembles a life from the wreckage of these decisions.
  8. Arthur Miller, All My Sons–A play about a family unraveling the truth about a father’s decisions at work and their full consequences.
  9. William Shakespeare, Macbeth—A study of ambition, the murkiness of values, and the powerful seduction of short cuts to success.
  10. George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara—A witty, complex, surprising play about an arms manufacturer and his idealistic daughter.
  11. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace—One of the great books, worth reading and rereading for a multitude of reasons, among which are Tolstoy’s vivid and unforgettable portraits of men and women who change the world, on both the grand stage of life and in subtle, everyday ways.

Marcel_Proust_1900-2Professor Badaracco’s course and courses like his may offer a more apt beginning to a true graduate education in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial leadership (if such a thing can ever be had) than sophisticated instruction in how to write a business plan or when to seek venture capital.  It goes to the why of business, not the the how.

Marcel Proust, in A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, says,  “Every reader finds himself.  The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would  perhaps never have seen in himself.”  Thank you, Marcel.

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