Zen and Entrepreneurship
Starting your own business from scratch, whether a small operation to earn some side income or something that you hope can carry you all the way to a comfortable retirement, can be like banging your head against a brick wall. After experiencing the ups and downs of working for myself over the past five years as a freelance writer, I can definitely say that those “downs” can sting worse than aforementioned bump to the head.
It takes loads of effort to develop your product or service so that it is salable and to find clients or customers willing to pay you for it. After all the growing pains and the sometimes-steep learning curve, you can still fall victim to a fickle client or a series of poor product reviews. In short, waiting for things to get easier doesn’t always work because “easier” may never come. Even after 5 years of writing articles, ad copy, and blog posts for money, I still get clients who don’t like the work I am doing or simply don’t have the communication skills to give me a coherent assignment. Even though I have a much better grasp of the business than when I started, I still get dropped by clients occasionally and have my pitches and ideas rejected more often than I’d like to admit.
It takes a zen approach to survive these downers without letting it bother you too much. The low feelings can be even worse in business because rejection or failure is not only about feeling like your skills or ideas aren’t good enough, it is about losing income as well. By the way, I don’t mean “zen” as in shaving your head and meditating on a mountaintop, but “zen” as in maintaining a calm-ness when the proverbial shit is hitting the fan.
One way to get this calm-ness is to detach yourself, as much as possible, from outcomes of your efforts and to focus only on the effort itself. Again, this can be pretty hard to do when money – your livelihood – is involved. Focusing on the effort – making the best product or writing the best copy or creating the best program that you can – means that you will be, hopefully, doing good work and using all the skills and knowledge that you have available to you without letting stress get in the way.
Marketing strategist Ryan Holiday provides one of the more interesting resources for changing your inner game when it comes to business. Despite his success in his field, his blog is not about marketing at all, but about how the things he learned from reading ancient stoic philosophy can be applied to modern life. It might sound like a heavy read, but it really isn’t. The gist of a lot of Holiday’s posts is simply to keep yourself from getting too high or too low. This can be accomplished by following the stoics’ ideal of living your life and carrying out your business (just “doing your thing”) without being influenced by what anyone else is doing. In the context of business, this makes a lot of sense to me. While I can’t really control how people are going to respond to my work, I can choose how I will respond to their response. I can choose to give up or get mad, or simply focus on the next thing that I have to do and forget about the frustration.
Obviously, this is an ideal. Human nature – well, at least my human nature – is to get pissed off when you feel you have been wronged by a client or to get frustrated when things don’t work out as planned. This is where zen comes into play. Again, I don’t mean mountaintop meditation, but a less stereotypical part of zen philosophy. Some of the more practical teachers of zen see meditation as a exercise in which you continually bring yourself back to your center when your mind gets distracted. For these teachers, getting blissed out is not the goal, but getting better at dealing with distractions and your emotions and getting back to calmness is the ultimate end. I think that seeing each business setback as a chance to practice getting back to “doing your thing” instead of focusing on anger or frustration can produce positive results and really change your outlook on business, and maybe even on life.
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About Josh Lew Josh Lew lives in the Midwestern US when he is not traveling. He is a columnist for Gadling and has contributed to Hackwriters and Skive Magazine.