We all define success differently, so of course this quote should mean different things to different people. To me, success IS being of value; I strive to be someone others look to for pragmatic, empathetic, and trustworthy actions and advice. None of those elements of success are particularly ego-stroking. To many, success might be owning a big house or luxury car, possessing significant power in their career, or any number of impalpable qualities related to being well known. If we separate these into serving humankind vs. ourselves, I think we get at what Einstein was saying.
How does this apply to business or to you?
Do you think differently than what you've been taught at your job or in school? Do you find the ideal of maximizing profits for the company lacking in follow through? What do you do with those profits? Reinvest them into growing the company, pay them out to shareholders, hide them in a company that owns licensing rights to your brand (I’m looking at you, IKEA), or some variation of these? That’s what we've been taught to do, anyway.
As I discussed in a previous blog post, there is more to business than lining our own pockets.* I believe maximizing profits while maximizing benefits are compossible. Ayn Rand fans may disagree with me (as I do with her) that there is no inherent social contract in capitalism. But I believe that in our increasingly complex world, expecting that everyone will just bootstrap their way to success or else parish is morally vacuous.
Humans are mostly communal animals, even us introverts, but the past two centuries have pushed many cultures to become increasingly individualistic and isolated. Rand fans will say success comes merely from personal fortitude and will. They say that’s human nature, to survive by being liable only to ourselves and our families. Everyone for him(her)self.
Try testing this theory on someone whose only perceived opportunity to work is as a Walmart clerk (or similar); someone who often is not able to make ends meet. Tell her that she just needs to try a little harder, work a little more, be a little more creative, and watch the reaction you get.
Perhaps she went to an urban or rural school where they had little training in practical skills and failing overall standardized test scores. Her parents likely worked hard to put food on the table, too, but knew little about teaching skills and work ethic to their children. For this hypothetical (though very real) woman in today’s world, it’s often not the lack of will as much as the lack of confidence, skills, know-how, and access to all of the above.
You’re probably wondering where social entrepreneurs fit into this story. This is in fact what drives us. We know there are many people, in the United States and globally, who want to work, have ideas, have hopes and dreams of doing something so crazy, no one would ever believe they are capable of doing it.
In fact, I fit that mold. I've been in IT for 15 years, but for several years I've wanted to explore beyond that narrow skill set. I often tell myself no one would value my opinions if I offered them. I’m just a techie, or so people think. I wouldn't know where to start to move myself beyond that world.
In order to change my path and broaden my skill set, I chose to pursue my MBA, which has given me the competencies and the know-how. I still lack the confidence, though. No degree can give that to you. Even after working on the incredible projects I've had access to work on in the program, confidence comes from someplace else. I’m working on that part, and while I know it primarily comes from within, having a strong community around me helps boost that confidence, and I think it helps others, too.
There are so many out there who have access to nothing but a community and a society that judges them and holds them back. How can we expect them to contribute beyond (or even up to) the level we expect them to if we just tell them to work it out on their own? It’s not that simple anymore. I believe those of us who have the fortune of success need to turn that into something useful for those who want to succeed but have no idea where to start.
So I consider myself a social entrepreneur of sorts. I may not be the guy improving the suits for health care workers fighting Ebola in Africa, but I’d love to help the people who want to make those and even far simpler dreams a reality. Not everyone has business knowledge, nor should they have to. Those of us with the gift of those skills should be partnering with those who want to break down their boundaries so that our collective solutions create a better foundation for the next generation.
What do you think?
How do you see our role in helping others? Agree or disagree that business plays a part? Want to join the movement?
Because the 2,500 people in attendance at the Net Impact conference shared this outlook with me, I’ll be heading to their conference in Seattle next November. Join us, won’t you?
*I could get into statistics about income inequality in the US at this point, but I leave that up to others. It's scary, but also polarizing, and I don't want to appear politically biased. Big isn't necessarily bad, but big is fragile (something else I learned from Temple Grandin at Net Impact). I'm more interested in grassroots action, and if we don't nurture those around us, there won't be anyone left to support the big guys one of these days. I'll leave it at that.