By. Steven Morris, Author of The Beautiful Business
In 1994, I celebrated my first wedding anniversary in a 24-foot Ryder Truck towing our 1971 VW bus from Washington, DC to San Diego. A destination city where I knew no one. I had spent that previous handful of years bouncing around east coast cities from Boston to Philadelphia and Washington, DC, after earning my MFA in Design. After graduate school had risen the agency-world ranks quickly to become a Creative Director for a firm in Washington, DC working with clients that included IBM, Discovery Channel, Coca-Cola, and others.
But I was burning out quickly. My demanding job and profession had me putting in 70+ hour workweeks. It was thrilling and exhausting. My wife and I decided a change of location and pace was in order. After a couple of years of planning, we packed up what little we owned, loaded it into the Ryder truck with the VW Bus in town, and like the pioneers before us, headed west to San Diego.
I never really had my sights set on being a business owner, but now after running multiple businesses, selling one, failing at another, and birthing new ones, I can barely remember my last “job.” Since then, every dollar I earned was self-generated with the support from my teams. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s become clear that I was cut out to lead, manage, strategize, and grow businesses — mine and others.
In retrospect, it seems that I’ve always been in the business of helping other businesses grow and flourish. By extension, doing exceptional work for others cultivated my own personal, professional, and business success. Through founding my own businesses, I’ve learned not just how to run a business, but how to shape a beautiful business.
The Awakening Pivot
In 2013 I had an awakening of sorts. I did a time-tracking experiment over a one-month period to assess where I was spending my time at work. I tracked my daily activates in 30-minute increments and put them into a spreadsheet. After a month of tracking, I tallied up where my time was being spent and invested. What I learned was not pretty.
The time assessment offered the startling realization that I was only spending about 10% of my time in my zone of genius: creative and strategic activities that helped to cultivate the heart and soul of an organization so they can realize their greatest potential. The rest of the time was spent managing my team, running the business, winning new business, managing clients, flying around the country for business meetings, and commuting to my downtown office. At first, this realization was a little depressing. I thought, ‘how can I be living life and spending the lion’s share of my time doing things I didn’t love doing? And what should I do to remedy this?’
As business owners or entrepreneurs, many of us go into business for ourselves because we want the freedom to choose how we spend our time, create value, do our work, and live our life. Choosing how we spend our time is one of the biggest freedoms we have as entrepreneurs, but so many of us don’t exercise this inherent.
For me, I realized that while I had created a highly successful business on nearly every metric, I wasn’t living the life I wanted. In essence, I loved it, until I didn’t. It was at this point that I set the business up for a merger, which took some time, and made a transition into the consulting work I do today.
In the course of launching, building, and growing my agency business — the one I founded upon arriving in San Diego — I’ve passed through some very challenging junctures. For instance, I remember all too well struggling to survive and thrive through 9/11 and the recession of 2008. I’ve lived through embezzlement from a co-founding partner of a consumer product company I created. And in the consulting business that I run now, I wrote much of my new book The Beautiful Business while much of the world was locked down from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each of these was cataclysmic events that were completely out of my control yet still had profound effects on my business. On the darkest of days, I looked inside myself for motivations to stride ahead.
On the brighter side, I’ve had the honor to work with more than 250 brands and well over 3,000 business leaders through my years of founding, building, and running my agency. I’ve grown and helped to grow many companies to all measures of business success. And, in the process, I’ve managed to shape a life that I consider to be a beautiful one.
How Evolution Works
It’s clear to me that businesses do not become a success overnight. This is good news. No matter where your business is now, you can evolve into a beautiful business. The more challenging truth is that a business is a dynamic living organism that’s ever-evolving and is never finished.
The path of a successful or beautiful business and your own personal evolution is a spiral journey. Through this journey, you’re encircling your life’s purpose, values, and passions and refining how you live, and applying them through your work and business. It’s not a direct path, as we might hope. It may feel like we’re headed in a clear direction, but we know that the messy aspects of life are part of life.
What we’re encircling as we evolve in our lives and businesses is a magnetic and central calling. Our life and business calling have gravity to it, like a quiet voice that’s courageously inviting us forward. With each day, each choice, each decision, each innovation, each step forward we’re coming closer and closer toward this calling. This dynamic movement shapes both an ever-greater business, and if we’re attuned to it, comes closer and closer to a more meaningful life.
As you learn life and business lessons, you refine your beliefs and thinking. You may come back to the same ideas—creating products and services, attracting customers, hiring, building teams—more than once, at different levels. This spiral journey will teach you what you need to know. It may even surprise you how the journey changes you.
Walking with Wisdom
Revealed and earned wisdom is more potent than education simply because it comes from the experience of our unique journey. By walking our own unique path, the path of authenticity, we discover what matters most to us. Our sequestered time in COVID lock-down has encouraged us further to examine our non-negotiable priorities in life. Through this discovery, we remove obstacles of distraction so we can commit our finite time and attention to what we believe matters.
From this deeper awareness’s, we gain more clarity to Mary Oliver’s question “What it is that we intend to do with this one wild and precious life.” The hard-earned “ahas” in our life will reorient our life trajectory and reframe what we want, what we do, and what we envision is possible.
On the journey to evolving your thinking and approach to a beautiful business, one of the first things you will learn is what matters to you. What is the vision for your beautiful business? What is your true north, your driving purpose, beyond just making money?
Only with the power that comes from committed contemplation can we realize what matters and what doesn’t. If we are conscious business leaders, we have likely come to the realization that there’s much more to business than just making a profit. Of course, making enough money is an essential element that permits us to continue on our business journey. While air, food, water, shelter, and psychological safety are essential for human living, these vital elements are not what we live and work for.
Choices in the Games of Business we Play.
The life of the business leader exists on a unique plateau. She or he looks out upon a vast horizon that has a vista yet to be fully shaped. It’s called the world of possibility.
It’s a unique stance that the people with and behind you—your colleagues, staff, partners, customers, investors—are entrusting you to create, almost out of thin air. But you know it’s not an illusion. It’s made of the same ground you’re currently standing, which is solid as a rock, because you created that, too.
Ultimately, there are two types of games a business leader can play.
The competitive game of short-term wins is played by the people on Wall Street who are focused on making a big profit next Wednesday. This is the win-at-all-cost game that takes a scarcity mentality to play, where you see the world as a competitive landscape, and those that play this game will do anything it takes to win.
Indicators of those that play the competitive game (AKA the short game, the scarcity game):
- You see anyone who’s not with you, as against you.
- You view the market as a combative landscape and your competition as the enemy.
- You treat your customers as dollar signs, and you market and sell using promotions, discounts, pressure, and incentives.
- You hire “yes” people and mediocre staff because you’re convinced you can’t find good people.
- You believe that your customers will evaporate at the next wind of change.
The competitive game is a trap.
There’s no such thing as a winner in the game of business. The competitive game of business is a never-ending Habitrail Wheel of chasing customers, profit at all cost, the next big thing, the next win, and the next score. It leads to burned-out teams, toxic cultures, and it’s likely to lead to unethical or illegal behavior. We’ve read the headlines of companies and people who’ve played this game. But they don’t have to, and neither do you.
The alternative is to play the abundance game (AKA the long game, the cooperative game, the value-centric).
This game is played by people who are in it for the long haul—people who want to create value for customers, investors, and staff. It’s played by people with an abundance and growth mindset. You see the world as an abundant place where there are endless resources in front of you. Here, you collaborate with as many good people as you can to do great work for and with the world.
Warren Buffett invests in these types of companies. Blake Mycoskie has created them. So has Yvon Chouinard, Tony Shei, and Ben Cohen, and Jerry Greenfield.
This is a value-centric game. Here, you create value for your customers, investors, and team. And, you do work based on your organizational core values, which are the operating system for your culture and your customer service.
What you believe defines the game you play.
I advise, write, and speak a good deal about getting crystal clear about what you believe because it creates the trustable ground on which you firmly stand. Your values created your past and will create your future. If you believe in scarcity and short-term wins, that’s what you’ll get. If you believe in an abundant, collaborative world, you’ll live in that abundance.
Your beliefs are a beacon, a calling, and an invitation to those who believe the same or similar. When you stand on your core beliefs, you can create any future you imagine.
If you’re playing the long game, you’ll create an abundant, long, and fruitful future. Leaders who live and work from this vista are more likely to know exactly where they’ll be a year from now, ten years from now and where their company will be in 100 years from now.
You can’t create a company that is going to be valuable a year, a decade, or a century by playing the short game.
So, as you stand at this point in this moment of time, which game would you rather play? The choice is yours.