Zen masters like to describe the highly sought after experience of enlightenment as a non-event. They say things like: before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. The proverb conveys that in some ways, things continue as they always had.
For those who are not familiar, an enlightenment event in the Buddhist tradition is the ultimate experience of universal one-ness and the purpose of our human existence. According to the teachings, we are all put on this earth to experience one-ness. Zen practitioners work hard to experience one-ness through an enlightenment event.
There are some unsettling similarities between entrepreneurship and Zen practice. In business, success is the ultimate experience. Success is usually defined in terms of revenue or business growth. Oversimplifying the point a bit, if you sell you service or product and you make a profit, you are successful. Eventually you may experience success though increased revenues, an IPO, or an acquisition event. Many entrepreneurs work hard to experience success through increased revenues, an IPO or an acquisition event.
Here is the ironic similarity between success and enlightenment: once achieved, nothing is really different. The Zen proverb instructs the student that regardless of their level of attainment, the things which need to be done in order to sustain life, including the ultra-mundane, do not go away. Similarly in business, once a certain threshold of success is reached, challenges and problems do not go away. They are likely to increase and become more complex.
The research suggests that the most successful women-owned small businesses actively limit growth so that the problems associated with growth remain controllable. Said another way, extreme growth activity is not the path to avoiding the difficulty of starting and building a company.
I see my own company growing every day and I am very cognizant of the issues that arise: increasing demands on my time, increasing needs for capital investment to meet customer needs, increasing infrastructure and management systems, an increased need for skilled workers. I have a whole new set of problems to solve and if I don’t solve them, my business will not grow.
The proverb reminds us to always maintain the right perspective. We must appreciate the mundane and difficult, as we experience the exquisite in our daily lives because the cycle of life is inescapable; entrepreneurs will experience both great highs and great lows at work. We must embrace the whole experience, including the stuff we would rather avoid, because avoiding difficulty or discomfort is not realistic. When we avoid what we dislike, we pretend that the world should be as we wish it to be and we lose touch with reality. This is a sure route to failure.
Chop wood, carry water. Keep it real.