On starting a way of life business: Making good on good plan B’s

More Formal Training: Just Say ‘No’

Our bleak economic situation has led many young persons to consider job retraining, advanced degrees, and Plan B’s. But might all these actually be distractions and dead-ends?

Thankfully, some sharp entrepreneurs and creative organizations have started asking big questions and envisioning bolder projects. They’re not endorsing retraining, only serious rethinking. They’re not specialists in any one field but generalists in the practice of thinking about major connections and whole systems. They know that the cause of our social unrest can’t be traced back solely to unemployment or debt or credit and so the solution can’t rest entirely on job creation, tax policy, or social engineering. They realize that we’re in the midst of a “meaning deficit” where work has become drudgery—longer, harder, more strenuous, and much less fulfilling.

And they recognize a few important truths about our present moment: that making a good living can mean doing good things; that fulfilling life needs can be both financially and spiritually rewarding; and that living well can be the result of helping others live better.

In my practice, I see a number of promising alternatives to our meaning deficit. The one that stands out in my mind is the way of life business.

Ways of Life Business

A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an intriguing article, “Maybe It’s Time for Plan C,” about individuals who had had left the corporate world in order to start their dream businesses. In some cases, they had been laid off; in others, they were fed up and decided to take off. In most cases, they were implementing their “Plan B’s,” albeit without much success.

The Plan C in the title refers to the obstacles that loomed large for all those trying to make their Plan B’s work. These included long hours, meager pay, huge risks, and likely failures. And so, the article was meant to be read as a cautionary tale.

There are a few lessons we can learn from all this. First, new businesses that stick around and flourish owe their success not to recycling old ideas but to creating new ones that aim to enhance our ways of life. What I’m calling “ways of life businesses” are companies that mean to satisfy not our lowest desires but our most fundamental life needs. During lean economic times, they’re well-stocked with intrinsically worthwhile ideas and focused on our lived practices; they have little overhead and few sunk costs; they promise to help us live better even and especially when things seem to be getting worse.

A few cases that immediately come to mind are genuine, face-to-face companions provided for the aging and elderly; urban thinkers like Ariel Arieff, the former editor at Dwell Magazine, who describes new workplace and mixed-use designs that go “beyond the cubicle”; and 1000 Passions, a website that serves as a meeting place for local artists, craftsmen, chefs, lifelong learners, and curious neighbors.

Second, anyone looking to set up a way of life business should first set out stepping stones. Stepping stones illuminate a path from unfulfilling work to novel businesses at the same time that they improve resiliency and minimize risk. As a middle route, they come in many forms. For instance, they may let us “dial back” our current responsibilities and duties at work in order to free us to think seriously. Or they may be look like “cloisters,” contemplative spaces where we can take stock of our life and our work. Or they may be “Epicurean gardens” where we learn to desire only what is necessary and get used to doing more with less. Or they could be “moonlighting venues,” extra projects we take on to pad our savings, or “halfway houses,” jobs better than the last but not quite the best. Stepping stones are thus the very opposite of leaps of faith.

If the economic recession presents us with some profound individual and social problems, still it reveals a number of meaningful opportunities. Today, the most important virtue may be that of improvisation.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Rules of Thumb for Starting a Way of Life Business.” 3-part series. Part 1 of 3.