Between entrepreneurial seminars, personal business coaches, and the ads for marketing courses that interrupt my Alan Watts binges on Youtube, I have been gifted a lot of information on How To Do Business The Right Way.
Some has been useful. The majority of it has been incorrect, easily abusable, or legitimately destructive.
I’ve spent months in the past doing my absolute best to follow successful people’s advice to a T, resulting in stagnation and mediocrity at every level of my businesses. I got to a point where I became literally incapable of continuing to do so.
Many of the business experts I used to look to for advice have experienced real business success. Some of them are also quite wise.
Despite these facts, they tend to teach business in ways that help only a sliver of a minority of the people who take their advice, and leave everyone else either confused and stagnant or exhausted and broke.
There are almost infinite ways to teach business badly.
But the most common fall into 3 categories. The purpose of this article is to help inoculate against these poisons.
1. Enabling avoidance through superficial reframing
Business is painful.
This axiom is easily abusable as an excuse to masochistically pursue agonizing hamster-wheel activities that don’t truly help a business. I am not suggesting that anyone use the axiom for that purpose.
What I am suggesting is that there are themes inherently involved in business— e.g. money, service, selfishness, influence, and power— which are extremely uncomfortable to face head-on.
Let’s say you have to make a pitch to an investor.
To be fully aware of what you’re doing, you have to simultaneously hold your goal-oriented desire for funding as well as your desire to have a natural and beautiful connection with the investor; you may have to face all the childhood demons about worthiness and trust that frequently arise around fundraising; and you have to feel the underlying, multi-directional power dynamics in the room.
These are not comfortable things to deal with, because doing so leads to the consideration of questions like “is it morally reprehensible to willingly exert power over another person through persuasion”. That is an extraordinarily gnarly question that absolutely none of us want to seriously consider.
One of the profound beauties of business is that it brings difficult facts and questions such as these to the surface with a kind of directness that is difficult to find in the majority of other domains.
Any activity that invites inquiry at that level of seriousness should be encouraged as an invitation to inquiry.
But instead, business teachers offer superficial reframes of complex issues as anaesthetic for the discomfort caused by proximity to those issues.
Some of the most classic examples:
“There’s a difference between influence and manipulation. Influence is when you influence someone to do something that’s good for them. Manipulation is when you convince someone to do something that’s good for you.”
“Wanting financial success doesn’t make you selfish. Financial success allows you to help others more than you ever could without it.”
“Business is all about service. Just focus on serving others, and success will come.”
The fact that we buy these amazingly incomplete and superficial clichés isn’t surprising, because doing so feels a fuckload nicer than sitting down and asking ourselves intensely confronting questions about the nature of human interdependence and morality.
Business is painful. And that’s a good thing. We could use a little more painful confrontation with life’s perennial questions and a little less enablement of our compulsive avoidance of uncomfortable topics.
2. Prescribing simplistic formulae
Why do courtrooms exist?
Well, probably for a lot of reasons. But high on the list is that the just application of laws requires judgment of the unique specifics of a particular situation.
So. Let’s say someone offers a course on generating leads for your business.
That sounds pretty nice. Who would complain about a steady stream of qualified online leads? Right?
Right. So you take the course. In it, the teacher shares the exact formula used to grow their own business to 7 or 8 figures through Facebook ads and tell you to do the same.
Let’s pause right there.
So let’s assume that your business happens to be in the exact same industry as the people who are teaching (which is clearly the only way that their advice could be reliably translatable to your business).
The remaining assumptions that need to hold true for their advice to be viable are:
The level of market sophistication is identical in their market and yours
You are a sufficiently skilled copywriter and ad designer to convert the principles they teach into practice when creating ads
You have sufficient intrinsic enjoyment of ad creation and management, or at least raw motivation, to carry out a Facebook ads lead generation plan
Your market won’t become overcrowded by other people with a similar business taking the same course
To say nothing of the more serious assumptions that you’re selling a genuinely good product, or are truly happier as an entrepreneur than you would be at a cool tech company with beer and beanbags.
All this to say:
Prescriptive cookie-cutter action plans for business growth are even worse than prescriptive cookie-cutter action plans for how to date, because if you fail in the latter you can just go watch Netflix on your own, and if you fail in the former you get a fucked up credit score for 7 years and horribly depressed about your failure to fulfill your purpose.
3. Seducing through extremism
Accomplishing things, whether or not they make any real difference in your business growth or life, feels good.
Feeling good is a good thing. And, anything that makes you feel good can be abused as a palliative for severe underlying emotional struggles.
“Eating your feelings” may be the most famous version of this. But hustling out your feelings is at least as damaging a practice on nearly every level.
The GO GO GO GO GO GO hustle mentality prescribed by half the entrepreneurial world is admirable for its resemblance to devotion, but tends to be used as a convenient excuse to avoid everything that actually matters.
The other half of the entrepreneurial world champions something like radical efficiency. Do less, accomplish more; optimize, minimize, hack.
Now efficiency is a beautiful thing. Aimed at skillfully, it can help create a powerful business and beautiful life.
But… the primary vision held out as a motivation for applying principles of efficiency is a life where you don’t have to work.
I am all about leisure. But if the idea of “not working” is a genuinely compelling one, then people’s experience of work must be pretty deeply unfulfilling. And enabling people to continue doing unfulfilling work by making it bearable through minimization of hours spent working is a pretty deeply flawed plan.
Between these two extremes of sweaty caffeine-fueled workaholism on one hand and working 4 hours a week on a dropshipping company run virtually from Bali on the other lies a genuinely fulfilling path of moderation, alignment, and daily devotion to noble work.
This is a less exciting sell than either “HUSTLE TILL YOU DIE” or “SIP MOJITOS ON A BEACH,” but it is also the closest thing to a universal prescription for happiness in business that exists.
tldr; Business is an incredible route to wisdom, fulfillment, and deep personal transformation when approached honestly; simplistic approaches not only fail in practice, but they miss the underlying purpose of business entirely.