Buddhism for Business

Faisal Butt seeks some perspective in contemplation, patience and fasting.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 24 Sep 2018
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Down to business

Before we jump straight back on the hamster wheel after the summer holidays, we should take a deep breath to pause, look inwards, and ask some fundamental ‘life’ questions. How do we take to our day to day lives the mental clarity we felt while standing atop that Mediterranean cliff edge? To answer this question, I’ve sought inspiration from Buddhist thinking

The Beginner’s Mind

Perhaps the best place to start is to look at our own mind set. The zen master Shunryo Suzuki was known to have said, ‘In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's, there are few.’

Being a beginner again is humbling. Humility, however, is woefully under-rated in business.  Brashness, on the other hand – a distinctly American trait – is often associated with success and achievement. But the humility of a beginner’s mind is a surprisingly advantageous weapon in business.

Beginners are humble enough to know they don’t have all the answers. They are hungry to prove themselves, resourceful, and insatiably inquisitive. Unlike experts, the beginner has no shame in asking questions…sometimes endlessly. This one Buddhist principle alone, when genuinely adopted by founders and management, can protect a company from the decay of complacency.

Think, Wait, Fast

One of the most profound novels inspired by Buddhism is Herman Hesse’s classic, Siddhartha, which I read in grad school and have revisited again this year. When Siddhartha, the main character, is asked by a rich merchant what is it that he has learned during his travels, and what is it that he is able to do, Siddhartha pauses for a moment, and then replies, ‘I can think, I can wait, I can fast’.  Surprised, the merchant asks if that is all he can do. Siddhartha replies, ‘I believe, that is everything!’ 

Siddhartha goes on to renounce the life of a wandering monk and uses these three qualities to become one of the most successful businessmen in the local town.

The ability to think, infer, analyse, and plan is humanity’s most differentiating quality. Great thinkers are also great strategists; great strategists, particularly when paired up with hard-nosed operators, can make outstanding business leaders. It is no coincidence that Bill Gates locks himself away in an isolated forest cabin for two weeks a year to just think. I myself spend half an hour a day looking out of the window to just to think and strategise.

The ability to wait is another often unappreciated attribute of successful leaders. High achieving entrepreneurs and CEOs recognise that company success is a long-term thing, and they have the patience and resolve to see through the hardships that are so prevalent in the early days. These thick-skinned executives have the tenacity to hold on, and the doggedness to keep going, even if success takes a lot longer than initially anticipated. Like Siddhartha, successful entrepreneurs can out-wait most people, and have the longevity and ‘staying power’ that very few of their rivals possess.

The ability to fast is rarely associated with success in business. But the wise Siddhartha refers to fasting in both the literal and metaphorical sense. Entrepreneurs in the early years of a start-up often have to go without the frivolities that a top job can afford. This period of ‘fasting’ can often last a very long time, until an exit finally occurs. While ‘fasting’, entrepreneurs have to make many personal sacrifices, forgoing worldly pleasures such as big houses, fast cars, and luxurious holidays that have become synonymous with the upper echelons of today’s business world.

Sudden Realisation

In Chan Buddhism, enlightenment hits you suddenly like a bolt of lightning. Instantaneously, the noise and confusion of this world evaporates, and one has complete clarity on the meaning of life. While I won’t pretend that the ‘business epiphany’ is anywhere close to being as profound as true enlightenment, there are some parallels with the business world.

The most successful business I’ve founded was conceptualised around a breakfast bar in Shoreditch when I least expected it. One of the best documents I’ve produced was written frantically on a flight to Marrakech. You’re far more likely to have an epiphany if you get out of the office environment and expose yourself to stimuli that are not part of your everyday life. 

For those of you about to take that first step back on the hamster wheel, pause and think about what you want to do differently this time around. Hours in front of our computer screens and smartphones may help us move an inch forward, but don’t expect any quantum leaps. So before we deep dive back into the sea of work, why not do something creatively destructive and break up the monotonous routine? Who knows – we might suddenly be struck by our own ‘sudden enlightenment’.

Faisal Butt is the CEO of Spire Ventures, a property focused private equity boutique, and the Founder and Chairman of Pi Labs, Europe’s leading PropTech venture capital firm.

Image credit: Public Domain Pictures/Pixabay


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