Irish Times Book Review – “The Business Romantic”
Human emotion is the beating heart of enterprise, writes Tim Leberecht
Business and romance make unlikely bedfellows but according to the author of this book, romance is an important, if all too elusive, quality in the world of work.
An unapologetic romantic, Leberecht says that as a marketing executive, he views business as one of the great adventures of the human enterprise. The world would be a better place if we had more romance in our lives, more emotion and a little less reason.
Even markets – often viewed as drivers of ruthless efficiency – can be viewed through a romantic lens. The philosopher Robert C Solomon gets it right, he says, when he observes that humans are first and foremost social and emotional beings and that markets provide a sympathetic community for social exchange.
The key lies in seeing markets in this human context. Scale that up and it becomes more difficult. In the context of an industry or a large system, juxtaposing the words ‘business’ and ‘romance’ starts to sound suspicious.
He introduces us to seven business romantics, individuals and couples leading unconventional lives. Unlike romantics from the 19th century, who seek solitude and isolation, these are not drop-outs from mainstream culture. They are active types, travelling, producing, publishing or provoking change in boardrooms.
We meet artists and entrepreneurs Emily and Adam Harteau who along with their two-year-old daughter packed up their belongings and drove their iconic VM Wesfalia camper out of Los Angeles heading south. Adam is a photographer of note and his images of nights under the stars and off-road exploring have attracted significant audiences while Emily writes an accompanying popular blog of their adventures. The online community provides a marketplace for unusual craft items the couple buy along the way, funding their ongoing adventures.
This reverse take on the American Dream strips the function of business down to its bones. Cultural capital is the only thing that accumulates and the project can never scale.
Romanticism also has a place in more conventional workplaces. Generosity and altruism are key characteristics. One of the more enlightened takes on business is to open to the idea that you should give more than you receive. A giving culture enhances performance including collaboration, innovation, service excellence and quality assurance. A Wharton Business School study quoted here shows that interrupting employees’ work by giving them occasional altruistic tasks increases their sense of overall productivity.
A willingness to help others lies at the heart of a fulfilling career. As Adam Rifkin, a social entrepreneur and, so we are told here, the most connected person on LinkedIn, puts it: “You should be willing to give up five minutes of your time for anybody.”
The greatest threat to business romanticism is cynicism, Leberecht says. Business formalises, standardises and serialises our decisions and experiences until they represent the thinnest stratum of humanity. When the sublime is too ephemeral and a curious, open mind too vulnerable, cynicism offers a safe harbour, in the boardrooms, at meetings and at desks. When you scale cynicism and squeeze the bitterness out of it, it becomes a cold engine of indifference where ‘making a difference’ no longer matters.
We are reminded here that the word ‘amateur’ – sometimes a term of abuse in a corporate setting – comes from the Latin amatorem, which means ‘lover’. Amateurs do things because they love them, not for the pay cheque or even because they excel at them. Yet amateurs can give business some of their greatest inspirations. The case is cited of toy firm Lego, which came back from near bankruptcy by connecting with lovers of its brand. It focussed its energies on fan communities – both children and parents – and celebrated the most creative work of its devoted users.
Leberecht sweeps over a diverse territory here with an easy to absorb narrative about the search for meaning in our lives and how the hours spent in work mode fundamentally define who we are. While he stops short of preaching, there’s plenty of inspiration and even a helpful series of cultural playlists in an apprendix to stimulate further thoughts on these matters.
This article first appeared in The Irish Times.