January 13, 1999
I have now spent over a decade and a half of my life focused on the transformation of society and, in particular, nudging the business community toward taking a constructive leadership role to that end. This focus began in 1982 when I met Willis Harman, the late visionary and author who could envision a possibility for a very positive future for humanity. In 1988 I left real estate, convinced that I could somehow earn a living as a full-time player in the “game” of social transformation. Thanks to Willis, I realized that I could either watch this global transformation occur from the sidelines, as a spectator, or suit-up and become one of the players in the game. I chose to participate rather than merely watch.
Since that time, I’ve had a life full of surprises, loaded with opportunities for personal growth. In 1990, I started publishing a newsletter – a publication designed to serve as a communication device for those involved in bringing about fundamental changes in the dominant mindsets found in the business community. Then I began to create books – collections of essays by the best thinkers and most visionary scholars of new paradigm thinking for business people.
People told me that my work was important. They praised me and the books and the newsletter, showering me with gratitude and encouraging me to keep at it. The sense of “right-ness” about what I was doing was very compelling. Unconsciously, however, it gradually started shifting into “righteousness” about my work.
I was very passionate about my work, grueling as it was. After all, it was important work. And to boot, it was “right livelihood” – a personal “calling”. Others eventually joined me and now I was doing important work with others. I still worked hard – in fact harder than ever. Now I had others involved and that made my work even more important. The material we published was transformative, we were told. It was rich with the best thinking about business and consciousness and transformation. The authors who contributed to the books were fabulous visionaries and quite inspiring. The people who were profiled in the newsletter were models for a new paradigm. The outside columnists for the newsletter were thought-provoking and wrote very powerfully.
From the very start, however, there was something essential to any business that was missing: capital. Due to a lack of capital, many things basic to any business went undone, overshadowed by the focus on content to be published. In 1994 we had a horrible year. We suffered big losses on two book projects that nearly sank the company. We stayed afloat but the “ship” began to list sideways as we got further behind financially.
Creditors were asked to wait. After all, we were doing important work. And so they did. They agreed that we were doing important work and they wanted to help. When we were approached by a career manager who offered to run the business affairs, I thought God had sent us an angel. Now we’d get the ship upright! Now we’ll get our house in order. I knew God would eventually pull our butt from the fire and now He/She had come through!
The company went further into debt. No, that’s “investment” not debt! And so the important work continued. Then I started hearing about bigger problems – not just late payments but “mis-statements” being made. No, let’s say it like it was: Lies were being told! Lies about the payments being made, books being shipped, and…wait a minute! Wasn’t ours a business which was established to “bring consciousness to business”? But the work we are doing is important, right? The goals of the enterprise are noble. After all, listen to all the praise being given to us for the work we are doing – the important work we are doing.
But no, there was something else going on. There was something dark, some shadow alive among all those lofty goals about transforming business and new paradigms and consciousness and spirituality – some undercurrent of negative ego. But what was it? What darkness was hiding in the inner recesses of this company culture?
Thanks to a very perceptive and skilled therapist and consultant, we were able to see the insidious portions of the company’s culture – those parts that excused poor business practices by standing behind our good intentions. We were using our stated intent – our lofty and noble objectives – as an excuse for our lack of financial integrity. We were using our over-developed sense of entitlement to manipulate creditors and associates who trusted us.
I had allowed us to confuse the importance of our work with our own self-importance. The “truth” of the importance of the work we were doing became very subtly confused with our persona, our self-image, our company ego. So we gradually started measuring our behavior with different yardsticks than we used for other companies producing ordinary goods and services. We became filled with our own self-importance, fully-inflated in ego, setting up different standards for doing business using convenient definitions of integrity and fair dealings.
I had to personally confront the dreaded demons – those previously-denied shadows that were mine to start with and which had now infected the company. The full realization that we had been wallowing in self-importance as an organization was very difficult to let in. Once realized, however, there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. It was out. The darkness had to be confronted head-on. Telling the truth had to begin immediately and the consequences would fall however they fell. I recall a phrase a friend of mine used to use: “Just tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.”
Needless to say this was not a popular stance with everyone in the company. But it was essential that integrity be restored. I was amazed at how immediate this need had become once the darkness had been fully engaged.
The company closed and we filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court within eight weeks.
The dream I once had – the dream that had turned into a nightmare – was over. Many people had been injured financially. Trusts had been broken with hundreds of people, many of whom were valued friends and colleagues. Employees were now out of work. But integrity had been restored and the firestorm of self-importance and righteousness was over.
Amazingly, only a handful of creditors got nasty. Nearly all were empathetic and understanding. Most were quite supportive, often expressing their appreciation for our taking on the problem directly and openly. The company’s assets were sold by the Court trustee to another company. Employees found new work.
After a very intense transition to a very different lifestyle, I am now doing similar work as an individual. There is no company, no employees, no investors. My work is important because I hold it that way, not because I’m special, or better than anyone else doing anything else, like a plumber or the local barber cutting hair. My work is important because it is what I feel called to be doing right now. It isn’t important because I want to change the world. It isn’t important because I want to “make a difference.” It isn’t important because I have a noble dream, lofty goals, or wish to save humankind.
After all, I have no idea if the world needs saving or not. Who am I to say that my goals are better than anyone else’s? All I know is what is important to me, and that’s following a path where I also feel very much connected to Spirit, not my image of being connected to Spirit. It’s about waking up everyday and seeing what’s in store for me. It’s being truly open to all the love available to me – from both the physical plane as well as the non-physical – and loving others unconditionally. I now treat my work with deep reverence and genuine gratitude, not obligation or an over-developed sense of responsibility so often associated with social rescuers.
When I look back a couple of years, I can see myself in my personality, my persona, my ego, absolutely attached to the self-image of a man doing important work in the world. This was my mantle of self-importance. This was my image out of control. I can see now that success in my work under those circumstances could actually have been a threat to my image! After all, what would happen to my precious self-importance if there wasn’t any need to save the world? Who would I be if there were no more need for social transformation. Like Don Quixote, what would I do if there were no more windmills to challenge?
The image I gave up was only one of many attachments I had acquired unconsciously. I’ve since realized that it’s those unconscious attachments that cause the suffering, just like the Buddhists say. Since having my self-importance exorcised from my being a year and a half ago, I have left behind many attachments and I now enjoy a life of far greater simplicity, elegance and grace. I am literally a new man.
From this vantage place I can see many of my past actions and their unconscious motives more clearly. Because I can see what I did, and have the memories of living that life myself, I can also see the trap that so many others fall into – good-hearted, well-intended people who get caught up in self-importance and righteousness – the image of being a savior, or a major player in doing good deeds. People who have fallen into this trap use up so much of their energy and make so little headway toward their stated goals.
Recently I was discussing business philosophy with a colleague, Dr. James Milojkovic, a San Francisco executive coach and Academic Director of Stanford University’s Leadership Academy. As we were talking about well-intended programs that fall short of success, he put forth an insightful challenge for those individuals and organizations who claim they want to contribute
to social change. He asked, “Do you want to be socially effective or merely morally correct?”
A good many self-appointed “change agents” might be well-advised to look at this question for themselves. I know it would have saved me plenty of time, significant sums of money and a lot of suffering if I had seriously looked at my motives before creating an organization where my own demons could find fertile soil to grow and bloom. But, this was my path and who’s to question that it wasn’t the perfect one for me?
John E. Renesch is a San Francisco writer, futurist, and business philosopher. To call 415-437-6974. More information about him and his work can be found on the Web at John Renesch.