This week's column is a riff on the foreword to my new book The Poetry of Small Business: An Accidental Entrepreneur's Search For Meaning.
There are two experiences in my life without which I personally could never have become a successful entrepreneur. These two things are addiction and failure. They are seminal to my entrepreneurial vocation and the bedrock of my current joy and fulfillment.
In my life I have been a committed addict of several sorts. Without detailing the specifics of this, suffice it to say I was at times a liar, a thief, a drunk, a seducer, a narcissist, a scofflaw, and a devotee of magical thinking. I was a wastrel using his innate gifts, education, and background to avoid reality, to not grow, to hide his authentic core and to avoid an engaged life. I was a creature of ashen hollowness living in the shadows of a moral and mental abyss, a soulless Gollum caught in a vertiginous descent into life-killing compulsion and escapism.
I was not unaware of my fallen state, but felt quite like St. Augustine, who famously prayed, "Lord, take this sin (read compulsion, addiction, lust) from my heart--but not yet." I told myself I could give up my addictions any time, as long as it was next Tuesday. Nevertheless, at a nadir, I had to stop or spiritually die. I chose to come to a dead stop with the help of the usual suspects--Twelve Step programs, friends, family, faith, therapy. But, most importantly to me, I discovered, quite by accident, a new vehicle of salvation into which to pour a repairing soul. For me that vehicle was entrepreneurship.
The formation of my executive sales outsourcing firm, Corporate Rain International, was an attempt to simply create a company, a world, I could live healthily in. Yes, I needed to make a profit, but my primary purpose was to become useful and whole and sustainable in rebuilding a personal center. For me that meant staying honest with myself and others and forming a communal value system that constantly buttressed those qualities.
My addictions were close kin to my series of failures in life. I started out to be a minister or teacher or professor. Something ennobling and service oriented. I actually was on the road to a Ph. D. in philosophy, but I dropped out to become an actor for 10 years, where, despite appearances in a couple of Broadway shows and a soap opera, I basically crashed and burned, supporting myself mostly on unemployment and bar-tending. (Being an actor was also like catnip to my addictive nature. It was like putting Miracle-Gro on my character defects.) I tried to sing opera for two years and totally failed. I tried to produce a Broadway show and lost a ton of money.
As I approached 40, I was broke and I didn't know what the hell I wanted to do. Quite out the blue, a corporate big-shot, who I knew socially, asked me to represent him around some high dollar discreet business matters. It was essentially a customized, high-level sales job. The very idea of sales made my gorge rise. What was sales? Used car sales? Glengarry Glen Ross? A corporate Willy Loman? I had no business training, no sales training, and no interest in being a corporate cog. But the offer was from a friend, so I tried it.
Lo and behold, I was a tremendous high-level salesman. And I loved it. I saw a niche in executive sales outsourcing and formed a company around the idea. It worked. Out of the maelstrom of confusion, chaos, and bleakness in my life to that point, I became a successful entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship offered me a unique life saver and a shot at personal redemption.
My gratitude for the institution of entrepreneurship is beyond words.
My entrepreneurial journey is not about money. It is about meaning, integrity, recovery, and usefulness. Entrepreneurship gave me a magical palimpsest reset to my life of addiction and failure. It allowed me to banish demons and pour myself into a profit-making service vocation, fraught with meaning and value. It was the ultimate therapy, offering the where-with-all for a life awash in grace and earned dignity. A life after death, so to speak.
Thus, for anyone with a yen for meaning, I suggest entrepreneurship. It is a gift quite separate from its value as a vehicle of capitalist striving. If I went bankrupt tomorrow I would be a success as an entrepreneur because I have grown courageous, passionate, free, and whole through living in my company and serving its corporate community and clients.
So, as a recovering addict and as a multiple failure, my business life daily offers me a spiritual home and a locus of centered growth and earned satisfaction. This is the goal and chief reward for my personal business journey.
One of the many insights of AA include the suggestion of shifting out your addiction through substitution. My small business is The Good Addiction.
So addiction and failure can be the hand-maidens of success, when mediated through the leavening antidote of entrepreneurship. While the bad stuff doesn't go away, it is transmogrified into new and useful experience through productive enterprise.
I am convinced we are all addicts and failures to a lesser or greater degree. Sherman Alexie, in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, says, "There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make that pain go away."
Thank you, Sherman.