This week, as I mentioned two days ago on this blog, I had a mystical experience. And I want to recommend that you go and do likewise. I think it will be great for business.
A recap: I had just worked for two weeks to launch this new website and blog, and my head was buzzing with technical details, as well as the normal philosophy of life stuff that provides my own inner elevator music every day. I was taking an afternoon exercise walk, when, suddenly the grass and dirt beside my feet came alive in a new way. It was as if a firmly established mask slipped from the face of normal reality, and I caught a glimpse of what was behind it all. A thought came into my head, forcefully. As I recounted in that earlier blog post, I heard myself saying: "It's just so weird to be alive, and conscious, and walking like this on the earth." In that otherwise ordinary moment, the sheer unexpected strangeness of existence washed over me.
And I've had some new thoughts on it this morning. Plato had an image for our everyday consciousness. He believed that we're all like men in a cave, deep below ground, chained to the floor, and watching shadows parade across a wall, illusions that we take for realities, having known nothing different. The philosopher, he says, is anyone who manages to break his chains and get out of the cave into the bright light of the sun and see things as they really are out in the world. He then returns to the cave and shares the remarkable news with his former fellow captives, urging them to liberate themselves as well, and join him in the light. Many scoff. A few respond. And those are the ones who become philosophers, too.
Plato's ideal of a leader was what he called "a philosopher king” – a person with position and authority who, by virtue of his own personal liberation from the deceptions of appearances, shadows, and illusions, would be able to use that authority powerfully well.
I've been in and out of Plato’s Cave a lot in my life. I have to admit that, on some of my trips back into the realm of illusions, I stay too long, entertained, mesmerized, and sometimes forgetting what I've seen and learned outside it all.
My little mystical experience this week reminded me of all that. When ordinariness unexpectedly peels off the face of your day, and you glimpse, for even a moment, the utter strangeness and wonder underneath it all, you can't help but pause, and take note, and reorient yourself. And I'm convinced that such a reorientation can have huge implications for business.
There are two largely unconscious models for business in our time. One, that it's all a game, with its own rules and referees, cheaters and winners and fans. We play it. We watch it. We keep score.
The other model for business is that it's really supposed to be a work of art, a creative endeavor productive of real beauty, across many dimensions. This is the model I argued for in a 1997 book called If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business. The book had a surprising impact in its day, among a certain group of business leaders, but not widely enough, although there are signs that this is changing. But, in the meantime, gamesmanship certainly rules in our day, down here in the cave, where speculative spelunkers are richly rewarded and widely applauded for playing their games shrewdly and making their killings in the market, regardless of the other implications of their actions.
The vast majority of the people who merely play the game do so, I suspect, at least in part, unaware of the fact that this is how they're approaching their work. But others are different. They engage in what I call Existential Gamesmanship. They consciously, self-reflectively think of it all as a game, signifying nothing beyond itself. They then choose to play it as they like. They keep score with every metric that strikes them as appropriate. And, so, they fill their lives.
A mystical experience such as the small one I underwent this week can, oddly, have either of two results. When you’re struck, really powerfully smacked awake, with the utter strangeness of existence, perhaps meditating as a consequence on the unimaginable size of the cosmos, the seeming eternity of time, or the fragile contingency of your own life on this small planet, precariously hurtling through space, you're often brought up short to reflect on what you're doing with your life, and what, if anything, it all means.
There are certainly those who conclude that there is no meaning, or, to put it another way, that everything is meaningless in the vast indifference of the cosmos, and that anything in life is just, at most, a game. These are the Existential Gamesmen. They often seem to operate in a void of values, except, of course, what's required for any good PR that might help with the game.
But there's an entirely different reaction to the realization of the strangeness of existence, one captured by Rudolph Otto in his famous book Our Idea of the Holy. It's the response of deep and abiding awe. Existence can be considered as an amazing, unmerited gift. Life is a gift. What then will we do with it? This response to the extraordinariness of reality moves people in a very different direction.
This second group of people in business and the professions and, actually, doing any form of work, often think of themselves as something like artists. Life is a vast studio for creativity and love.
Nobody really knows the full story of why we're here, despite many revelations and intimations, but many of the wisest people ever to walk the earth have suspected, or even felt sure, that it's all about creative love, or loving creativity. The bold among them suggest that there is no other reason a universe, or multiverse of universes, could or should exist at all. But, whether we're the unanticipated products of an immense blind process who appear for a blink in this tight, radiant bubble, or rather are intended agents of innovation lured into existence by the ultimate creative love, we can choose to treat anything we do as art. We can think of ourselves as artists.
And that choice can make the mystical glimpse of realization, that quick peek out of the cave, into a million dollar moment, or much more. As our current experience of business start-ups that blend design, service, and sometimes wonder, is revealing anew, it’s oddly the artists, more than the gamesmen, who win in the end.
Business is art. And it isn't just art for art's sake. It's art for our sake. Anyone who is still chained down in the cave and doesn't see that has failed to grasp what could be one of the most beautiful forms of strangeness of all.