As I write this in my office in Spain, I can see the sunshine in the courtyard outside and hear the cheerful chirping of the house martins that live in the courtyard here. The birds are nesting at the moment and bringing food for their tiny babies, who stick their necks and mouths out of the nest to receive the insects from their parents.
These birds are miraculously programmed. Every Spring, they or their offspring fly thousands of miles to arrive here, right here in this courtyard. They know exactly where to come, having navigated by the stars to arrive in this exact spot. Yet these beautiful little birds didn’t make a conscious decision to come here this year rather than to go to Rome or Monte Carlo or Sardinia. What distinguishes humans is that we can decide to go somewhere new to do something different – to go to a foreign country, move house, get a different job or career, meet a new person, learn a new skill, and even – though a bit more difficult – change the way we look at the world.
Are business people different? Are they really human?
Business people often get a bad rap from those who don’t mix with the business world – and that is a frighteningly large group of people with power and influence: law-makers, those in TV and the media, church leaders, artists and writers. The standard image of business executives is still derived, I think, from the idea of “Organization Man”, which was on the way out as soon as it was penned half a century ago.
But what I think is most telling about executives, and especially entrepreneurs, is that they are experimenters. Nothing in business – especially young and small business – is fixed. You can invent new products, new ways of doing the same process, new selling and marketing techniques, new ways of using the internet. Above all you can go into that fantastic laboratory that business people both adore and fear – the market. You see if it works until it does.
Good business folk never stop experimenting, even when they have made it. Indeed, those who are older and more experienced tend to experiment more, on a bigger and bigger stage. They remain curious about what will work, and their ego is tied up in the process of creating new markets and customers.
Does this make entrepreneurs different from other people? No. I think participants in business are actually more human, closer to the archetype of what is means to be human, closer to human destiny.
Why? Because human life is above all an experiment. Other animals are much more pre-programmed by their instincts. Like my house martins, they don’t make conscious decisions about new projects; their nature is anchored by routine.
How to experiment – make it easy on yourself
We are privileged to experiment – my house martins can’t do it, and even your cat, perhaps the most curious of non-human animals, can only experiment within limits determined by its instincts.
Now, it’s not always easy or comfortable to experiment. Like everyone, I am set in my ways on some things, but good at experimenting in some directions, especially business and ideas. I believe in doing what comes naturally, and giving it an extra nudge from time to time. So if you want to experiment more, make it easier for yourself. Experiment where the spirit takes you. If you like music, buy a keyboard and start to write your own tunes or songs. If you like singing, join a choir or band. If you like reading, try different authors and genres. If you like travelling, go somewhere different each year. If you like talking, try talking to friends of friends or even to strangers who intrigue you. Be hospitable – for people to whom you are attracted in some way.
The greatest experiment is always to go deeper with other people. This does not necessarily mean new encounters. It can be people around you, with whom you have connected but only superficially. Sharing what you really feel can bring shared intimacies and new ideas. Do it in a positive way, with a sense of mystery and openness to new delights. Be curious. Ask questions. But only if you are genuinely interested in their answers, not in expounding your own views. Curiosity is not something you can fake. So only be inquisitive where you really are – but push further and more often than you do now.
Finally, be certain of this. As you grow older, you really do have a choice. You can and you will go one of two ways – the road ahead forks sharply left or right. Think of all the people you know who are much older than you – maybe people over 65 or 70. If you think about them, broadly they will fall into two camps. On the one hand, there will be those whose minds question less and less, who are experimenting less and less, who cling to fixed routines because they think – wrongly – that this is the only way to cope with gradually diminishing physical powers. Whether they know it or not, they are getting ready to die, and consciously or unconsciously, many of them want to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Then there is the other camp. These older people are conscious that they are going to die, and are at peace with that concept. But before they do, they know they may have years or decades of good life in front of them. They want to make the most of it. They experiment. They continue to think and expand their minds and their contacts. They discuss and argue – in an open-minded way – late into the evening and the night. If they can afford it, they travel to new places. They are not growing old in their minds and their spirits. They are getting more agile, more limber, more questioning, more demanding. They are having fun in their minds. They are enjoying being human, while it can last. And if they are conscious that time is running out, that is all the more reason to make the most of it, and to leave behind the memory of a remarkable person, to live in the minds and hearts of people they have influenced and helped.
Which is all the more reason to resolve to change and experiment. To live life in a way that proves to bring more fulfilment and value to yourself and other people you care about. To look forward to a better time, because you know you can always transform yourself and your environment. You know, you really can, and you should. Of all the decisions you could make today or this year, a decision to experiment is the most important and far-reaching.
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