Today’s post is a conversation I wish someone would’ve had with me years ago before I started my entrepreneurial journey. I may not have been able to understand it then, but it would have been nice to at least have it on the board. I’m sharing it with you so that it is something you can think about as you walk along this road.
I started along this path because I knew that were a lot of people out there who had just as many challenges doing great work in the world as I had who hadn’t done the research, exploration, and experimentation that I had already done. I’m not a fan of duplication of effort, so I decided to share what I’d learned so that I could help others. Whether or not I ever became a giant, I wanted to give others some shoulders to stand on.
Somewhere along the path, I started reading books on business strategy and techniques, and while they helped me gain some momentum, I had to read them with a filter on because they were all about making money and selling. It seemed like every discussion focused on money and numbers – all in the efforts to pull resources from people to you.
Sometimes I would join the bandwagon, get dollar signs in my eyes, and start scheming up some plot to make a ton of money and spend my days hanging in a hammock and sipping margaritas on a beach in Maui. The few schemes I tried ended up being a waste of time and energy; in retrospect, they probably would’ve worked had my heart been in them, but it wasn’t.
Inevitably, though, I’d revert back to being me and helping people do meaningful work and flourish in their own way. That’s the core of who I am, and if that meant I had to do it on the side while I paid the bills, then so be it – I wasn’t going to sell out.
As I kept doing it, though, revenue-generating opportunities started to present themselves more and more, and because of all of the bad examples of capitalists and entrepreneurs, I always second-guessed those opportunities. I had so ingrained that being an effective entrepreneur was inconsistent with being compassionate that I felt that to sell something or make an offer was me being greedy or taking something from somebody. I thought that selling would get in the way of sharing.
I was wrong, and if my story sounds like what you’re struggling with, you’re wrong, too.
Strategy and Compassion Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
Imagine a competent, seasoned general during war. Her job is to effectively maneuver troops on the battlefield to meet certain strategic objectives. To be effective, she has to know what she’s doing; if she doesn’t, there’s unnecessary death and destruction. But since she knows that the proper end of (just) warfare is peace, she can’t neglect the human element of warfare; if she doesn’t show restraint and compassion, she’s not an effective general – she’s a bully with troops and dangerous toys.
Her difficult task, then, is to align strategy and compassion. Our task as entrepreneurs is the same in principle but different in application. (You might see parallels between the challenging task of being a parent, too.)
As I see it, the point of entrepreneurship is to help people. At its core, it’s inherently compassionate, and the more I grow and see, the more it drives home to me that an entrepreneur’s ventures aren’t about her – they’re about the people she’s helping.
At the same time, to be an entrepreneur, you have to know strategy. You have to know how to market and promote yourself. You have to learn about pricing, market trends, distribution methods, and competitive analysis. In short, you have to know what works if you want to do it for the long haul.
Actually, you don’t have to know strategy; you can hire others to manage it for you. For many creative entrepreneurs, though, this creates a frustrating chicken-and-egg scenario: to hire someone to help you figure out what works, you to have the resources, but to have the resources, you have to figure out what works. (I’ve been there, too.)
What I’d like to bring your attention to, though, is whether you’re at the strategic helm or somebody else is, it’s still a part of your business. You can’t have a successful business without it.
Compassion represents the heart of your business and strategy represents the head of your business. The best thing you can do for yourself and others is to align your head and heart. When you do, selling and sharing aren’t two mutually exclusive acts – selling is a type of sharing.
It’s All About Moderation (Surprise!)
You might be tempted to think that strategy and compassion lie on the same spectrum with strategy on one end and compassion on the other, as illustrated in this picture:
That would be an incomplete view that only perpetuates the idea that strategy and compassion are opposites. I think the more correct view is that strategy and compassion are on their own spectra, like so:
The quickest way to show that they’re on two different spectra is by asking you to think about four different possibilities:
- Case 1: It’s possible to lack compassion and lack strategy
- Case 2: It’s possible to be too compassionate and lack strategy
- Case 3: It’s possible to lack compassion and be too strategic
- Case 4: It’s possible to be too compassionate and too strategic
Case 1 is fairly common. This is the position of all the people who are just out to make a quick buck and really have no idea what they’re doing. Luckily, the market filters them out pretty quickly, but you’ll run into them before they throw in the towel.
Case 2 is also really common, especially amongst the creative entrepreneurs that I encounter a lot. This is where I started.
Case 3 is probably the example that most of us think of when we think of all the types of entrepreneurs that we don’t want to be. There’s a large army of marketers who know exactly how to press your buttons and it’s not at all clear that they actually give a damn whether they’re helping you or not – what matters is that their pockets are lined. Maui’s expensive, after all.
Case 4 is an interesting one and it requires taking things to extremes. What I’m imagining is that it’s the people who are so focused on strategy and compassion that they lose the ability to be grounded in the reality of the individuals they’re dealing with. These people can be big dreamers and great strategist, but since they no longer deal with individuals, they’ve lost that true connection with themselves and the people they’re helping.
I’d like to pause here because it’s probably not clear how you can be too compassionate. Has someone ever tried to help you but bungled it up because they weren’t listening to what you actually wanted or needed? Have you ever done the nice thing and given somebody some “help” only to have it make the situation worse because it fed into the same patterns that caused them to need help? If you’ve seen something like these examples, you’ve experienced compassion taken to an extreme.
Similarly, few things are more interesting than talking to a blogger whose readers are almost demanding that she give them something to buy just because she’s given them so much that they can no longer receive her goodness without feeling guilty. Most of the people I’ve talked to and coached through this situation had trouble seeing that sometimes the best way to help people is to give them a way to buy into the help. (Yes, this does happen, and yes, you can go wrong by trying to either force or resist it.)
The challenge of aligning strategy and compassion is figuring out the moderate way that works for you. Obviously, I can’t help you figure out exactly how to do that in a general post like this, and, really, that’s part of the journey that we’re all on. As your resources and opportunities change, you’ll have to continually reevaluate what the best steps are, too.
For example, a recent challenge that I had to face was not being able to respond to most of the comments on this blog while do everything else that I thought would be more valuable that responding to those comments. My belief is that writing a post like this has better compassionate outcomes than focusing on responding to comments, as much as I’d like to. It’s taken me a while to recognize that placing my efforts on activities that help more people is both the most compassionate and most strategic thing that I can do.
You Don’t Have to Choose Between Being Broke and Helping People
When I talk to people about compassion, I always have to remind them that being compassionate also extends to taking care of yourself. If you can’t and don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others. As I’ve said before, your happiness counts.
Taking care of yourself doesn’t mean doing whatever you can to get as much as you can from others – that’s one side of the egoist zero-sum game that so many people are already caught into. On the other hand, denying what you and your loved ones need is just invoking another zero-sum game with you being the loser. True compassion is about finding the win-win scenarios that are almost always possible.
You can’t do your best work with and for people when you’re worried about how you’re going to pay your mortgage. If there are sound business principles that align with your compassionate principles that would help you pay the mortgage, everyone loses out if you don’t bring them to fruition. Your current clients/customers aren’t getting the best out of you, your loved ones aren’t getting the best out of you, and you’re not as happy as you could be. That’s a lose-lose situation that you wouldn’t wish on somebody else, so why do you force it on yourself?
And what people don’t talk about often enough is that as your business gains momentum, you’ll be more able to be compassionate without having to worry about the outcomes. Because you don’t need the sale, deal, or business, you’ll be able to do share your gift without worrying about the outcomes – which has the counter-intuitive effect of making people more likely to buy stuff from you or hire you since they see you without the mask of worry, insecurity, or anticipation.
My own experience bears this out: since people are buying the stuff that I’ve decided to sell, I’m able to leave a lot of value on the table without worrying about it. I can be a weirdo and help people now more than I ever was before, but it’s only because I’ve aligned my compassionate thinking with sound strategic thinking.
You don’t have to choose between being an effective entrepreneur and being a creative, compassionate person. You can be both once you see that your head and your heart doesn’t have to be at odds.
If you’re ready to start working towards a building a compassionate, strategy-driven business right now, click here to learn more about the Productive Flourishing Academy.