Existentialism for Entrepreneurs by Larry Fisher

August 22, 2014 — Leave a comment

Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.
~ Jean-Paul Sartre

My son recently entered college, so I’ve thought often lately about my own undergraduate days at the University of California at Santa Cruz and what remains of them in my world view. If I had to pick just one thing I took away from those four years it would be existentialism. 

The word “existentialism” is much misused and for many people calls to mind gloomy film noirs, smoky cafes on the Boulevard St. Germain and impenetrable texts, but at its heart is a really simple precept. We are born free; we make our own choices; and we are responsible. Or as Jean-Paul Sartre, who created the term, put it: Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

Sartre also coined the slogan “existence precedes essence,” which contains the core of the philosophy in just those three words. No generic account of what it means to be human can be given, since that meaning is decided in and through existing itself. In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human being—what makes you who you are—is not fixed by your type but by what you make of yourself, what you become.

The relevance to free agency is clear. Outside organizational life, you are on your own, the possibilities are unlimited, and you are responsible for your own successful outcomes based on the choices you make and the actions you take. Whether you find that prospect liberating or terrifying says a great deal about your fitness for the freelance life. 

I can’t claim any degree of existential scholarship, and to be honest, when I picked up Sartre’s seminal work Being and Nothingness for the first time in 30 years, I found it pretty tough sledding. Fortunately, people more clever than I have reduced his knotty prose to an actionable rationale. Jay Ogilvy, a co-founder of the Global Business Network, devised this list:

Five Principles of Existential Strategy

1. Finitude. You can’t be all things to all people. If you’re not saying “no” to some possibilities, then you’re not acting strategically.
2. Being-Toward-Death. No one is too big to fail, to die, to go bankrupt. Gliding on momentum can lead to a crash.
3. Care. Define your interests more precisely than ROI or return to shareholders. If you don’t know where you stand, you’ll fall for anything.
4. Thrownness. You have a past; you have experiences and core competencies. Know them, use them, and don’t forget them.
5. Authenticity. Don’t be bound by your past. Feel free to reinvent yourself and your company for an uncertain future.

Ogilvy created the list for companies, so let me offer a little tweaking for solo practitioners. Finitude is the core concept because it is all about making the tough choices between multiple possibilities. The first temptation free agents face is to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes their way. We do this because we worry about passing up the revenue, but also because we don’t want to miss out on something cool. But you can’t do everything, you have to choose. 

Being-toward-death sounds dreadful, but it’s really about understanding that since we are not immortal, we have to make choices and act upon them–right here, right now. As Ogilvy puts it, by acknowledging the finite number of them you’re granted, each day of your life gains both preciousness and a sense of existential urgency. Don’t dawdle, and don’t waste time on jobs that don’t engage you on some meaningful level. 

Martin Heidegger, whose book Being and Time is considered by some to be the culminating work of existential philosophy, focused on care as a feature that differentiates human beings from purely cognitive, Cartesian creatures. Ogilvy defines it as the understanding of what you’re good for, but also what you desire, what you care about, what gives meaning to your life. Successful free agency often means reinventing yourself over and over again, and care provides a grounding that can save you from losing track of who you are and why you went down this path in the first place.

Thrownness is the characteristic that connects you to your past and defines its place in your present. We all started somewhere other than where we are now and it’s best to use that history rather than to try to escape it. Much of what I do these days has nothing to do with daily journalism, but I’m always using the basic toolkit I acquired through reporting: getting people to open up; taking careful notes, rapid analysis and synthesis. I can reinvent myself as a strategy consultant and use all of these competencies; I cannot reinvent myself in a role that requires an entirely different set of skills. 

I like Ogilvy’s definition of authenticity so much that I’ll just paste it here: Authenticity is a way of being true to yourself, but the concept is tricky because, for the existentialist, being true to yourself can’t be defined as being true to your essence. Nor can it be reduced to fulfilling a function. Authenticity demands fidelity to your past, but also openness to possibilities in the future — not just one possibility (that would be a necessity), but several possibilities. Authenticity is being true to both your thrownness and your freedom. It’s making choices among possibilities and taking responsibility for your decisions.

One’s decisions and actions have consequences in organizational life, but they are often blunted or hidden by structural constraints. The free agent is always going beyond what simply is toward what can be: the factual always emerges in light of the possible, where the possible is not a function of anonymous forces but a function of your choices and decisions. You are free and you are responsible. Get used to it. 

[Note: I found a great layperson’s review of existentialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ]

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Ritu Raj

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Ritu Raj is a serial entrepreneur dedicated to bringing innovative services and systems to market, which create new experience for people at the same time makes a difference in their lives. Ritu has been in Information Technology for 25 years. In the past he has founded successful companies like OrchestratorMail, WagHotels (Largest Chain of Dog Hotels in the world) and Avasta (Pioneered Cloud Computing, acquired by Navisite). Ritu was a Partner at Accenture and a Senior Executive at TMP Worldwide.

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