My father told me to judge people not on how much money they have but on how they make it and what they do with it. My dad was a sculptor who believed in truth and beauty; art was about uncovering the truth and creating beauty.
That is also what scientists do; they uncover the truth and find the most elegant way of expressing it. You can think of Occam’s Razor as an aesthetic litmus test for scientific theories.
But what about business?
Although my dad only ever had formal training as a sculptor, he had a very successful career arc that took him from fine art to commercial art to advertising to marketing to management consulting.
You can attribute his business success to his belief that business is just another art form, and by that he did not mean that making money was an art. He meant that business was about finding the truth (What do people truly need? What is the state of the art?) and creating beauty (How do we best meet people’s true needs?).
Running a profitable business simply means that revenues exceed expenses, and that is another way of saying that the art is economically sustainable.
But to manufacture desire where there is no real need; to exploit workers just because you can; to be dishonest with your customers or to sell them shoddy products; to do all these things does not promote truth or create beauty. Instead, it degrades the human experience no matter how much money you make.
Getting rich in ugly ways and then giving some (or even all) of your money away to the arts does not make up for the ugliness you have created.
And my dad wasn’t too impressed with many of the people he met in the non-profit sector who were more interest in maintaining their own lifestyle than sacrificing for a common good. And for many, their main revenue model was begging money off of the rich so they could buy expensive art to be enjoyed by the elites.
He’d have preferred that business people put more art and soul into their work. And if they wanted to support the fine arts he’d have much preferred it if they put their money into supporting living artists by buying their work than buying buildings to house expensive works by dead masters.
The best modern expression of my dad’s sentiments can be found at The School of Life video called Against Philanthropy.
I am grateful for how my parents have raised me and I’ve tried to honor their memory by conducting myself in accordance with their teachings and passing on what I’ve learned to my children.
Beginning in 2006 I started asking myself what my kids needed to know that they wouldn’t learn in school, and that lead to 54 questions to ask yourself if you want to create a philosophy to live your life by. I call these questions “Lenses” and they map onto a deck of playing cards. You can find them at Q54Club.org.
Although I am not a fan of “giving back” I think it is very important we all recognize and honor the effort that went into supporting and educating us when we were young. I express this on the Five of Spades, which goes like this:
The Lens of Return on Investment
Society and many individuals
have made a direct and indirect
investment in you.
How will I pay back that investment?
How will I pay it forward?
How do you answer that question? Let me know…