May 26, 2015

On the Business of Potatoes and Poetry
I’m an idealist. You needn’t have known me long to discover this, just long enough to figure out that my frequent criticism comes from a deep longing for perfection and an acute sense of it’s present absence. The trouble with being an idealist is that the disparity between my expectations and what I realize can become burdensome and destructive. As a result, it’s not uncommon for a certain word to become tainted in my vocabulary through a failure of expectations. 'Business' is one of those words, and it has a history of negative meaning.

In my defense when I was in college I learned that business was the field of football players and layabouts who didn’t want to use their brain. Well, I thought I learned that about business, but that’s what we call delusion. What I’ve learned since then is that the football players and layabouts are the sort of people who threaten my identity and challenge the justification I put forward for indulgently pursuing the humanities. I say  or said  that the humanities raises our minds toward an ideal while business makes us slaves to acquisition. But it may be that this need for justification, the impulse to dismiss business, is an expression of my fear: fear of financial failure, of being bested by cultural troglodytes, of failing to take my place in the demagoguery of historical greats. But these fears are all about ego, and I would do better to get over myself and get down to business.

I confess that business as an end unto it self remains to my mind one of the most vacuous pursuits possible, but it’s something altogether different when it acts as a means toward another end. If financial dependence is a hindrance to other goals then the penny-sense of sound business practices  in the words of George Bailey, "this business of nickles and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe"  well that's a reasonable, even noble objective. Becoming a sensible business person doesn’t mean giving up on the other things in life I value, it means freeing myself up to pursue those values more rigorously. I would go even further and say that good business sense is an integral part of any "higher pursuit" that motivates us idealists. Business is simply a method of practical discipline. It’s a way of organizing, scheduling, planning, and executing a concrete objective.

My field is education. Students, teachers, and writers would all do well to consider their work a business. It doesn’t matter if there's no cash equivalent to what we produce, what matters is that we produce something of value. Applied more generally, good business practices are about the production of value even if what we produce and the value system we apply aren’t validated by the market. I never wanted to view writing and education in the same light as manufacturing because I recoiled at the idea that a page of text or a lesson has as much value as a cheap plastic toy. To an idealist, ideas have the highest value; but too often for us ideas are the only things that have value. The difference is not between the value of manufacturing and thinking, it’s a difference in the value of the results of our work, the good or bad products of our labor. Bad writing or poor teaching is as trashy, even deluding, as a piece of materialist junk. Writing and education are more subtle but they pose as much danger to the world as the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium and as much potential for good as the production of a vaccine.

Forget manufacturing, I prefer the business of a farmer. Maybe because I come from a line of farmers, maybe because 21st century yuppie romanticism has had more influence on me than I would like to admit. To cultivate potatoes takes good business sense, just as much as it does to cultivate ideas. Both are noble pursuits, and both have the potential to poison or nourish the world. The difference between mediocre nutrition and excellence is not, as I once thought, a difference in the nobility of farming and writing, it’s a difference in the quality of what each produces. Produce something of quality: that’s the essence of good business. We maximize our ability to cultivate something delicious and strengthening when our soaring idealism doesn’t hinder our practice of good business sense. And yes, I’m still talking about both potatoes and poetry.