ENTREPRENEURS
Opinion | Art can teach entrepreneurs how to deal with shame

V.G. Siddhartha, founder of Café Coffee Day.

The saints of prey love a good suicide. They feed on it by assigning their own malady of interest as the cause of death. Dalit—oppression; Brahmin engineering student—academic pressure; farmer—debt and capitalism; Assamese—the National Register of Citizens. A rich Indian upper-caste middle-aged male is among the few who are allowed to kill themselves out of clinical depression. But the suicide of V.G. Siddhartha, the founder of Café Coffee Day, reminded us of some national maladies.

The police plan to interpret a letter he is believed to have dictated to a secretary as his “dying declaration”. If you wish to believe mainstream scientific opinion that a suicide is too complex to be attributed to a single cause, and that it is primarily a consequence of mental health, a suicide note will emerge as disproportionately overvalued in arriving at the “cause” of a death. Still, what people choose to mention in their final moments always has great value to us all. He wrote: “My intention was never to cheat or mislead anybody, I have failed as an entrepreneur.”

He probably knew that Indians have little sympathy for rich men who fail—if they are alive. As news of his death spread, people paid him tributes on social media, which included recounting their happy memories in his cafés. If he had chosen to live, and had fled the country to evade taxes and other financial obligations, the same mourners would have abused him. A wealthy man has to drown, lie as corpse on sand as a spectacle for television cameras, to be allowed some consideration.

Reacting to the death, billionaire Anand Mahindra said: “…entrepreneurs must not allow business failure to destroy their self-esteem.”

But is this possible? If self-esteem is a fabrication of success and luck, why must not failure and tough luck destroy it? How then must we deal with failure? Maybe there are some things that entrepreneurs can learn from artists even though there is much that they should disrespect.

If you look around, almost everyone is a failure; almost everyone is in some stage of failure. Most people do badly. It is from this that success derives its very meaning. The worth of success is in the norm of failure. Yet, people are ashamed of failure. And they flock to that spurious industry called motivational talks, which is based on the lie that there is a clear path to success. What the speakers never mention are three facts—the element of luck in their lives, which includes family wealth and social equity that makes all other causes irrelevant; their secret capacity for corrupt behaviour; and the contribution of their mental anomalies, like capacity for sociopathic behaviour, that has great professional advantages but cannot be replicated.

Very often these days, I meet men in their forties who had high corporate positions but were forced by office politics, or boredom, or the lure of a fad, to become entrepreneurs. And, as they get nowhere, they swing between wise bitterness and hope, which is chiefly a conversation with oneself and a premonition of defeat. They are a lot like many writers and filmmakers who need a break. But, unlike in the arts, in business most metrics of success are easy to measure. Entrepreneurs cannot hide in subjectivity or morality or in non-profits.

Artists can find acclaim that is disproportionate to the success of their creation if they have the right friends or the right political wound. Also, artists can promote failure itself as proof of their talent. And, they are rewarded for expressing their weakness, sorrows and even mental ailments. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, have to exude joy, sanity, clarity and hope. As a result, they have fewer places to hide. So what is it that entrepreneurs can learn from artists?

We assume that an entrepreneur is driven by practicality, compromise and consensus in his goal to achieve a material end, while an artist will not appease anyone and is willing to undergo great hardships to win his freedom to do as he or she likes. I have no quarrels with these assumptions, except that the pure entrepreneur and the pure artist do not exist. There is a merchant and an artist combined in all of us. Artists see this more clearly than entrepreneurs and that is their secret. Most artists, even honest talented artists, do make very practical and even commercial decisions.

Entrepreneurs, too, must find the artist in them. The best among them do. They invoke the artist in them when they rate poverty above compromise and values above consensus and quality above profits. A few days ago, a Hindu customer of Zomato refused to accept a Muslim rider, but the company did not relent. Deepinder Goyal, the company’s co-founder, tweeted: “We aren’t sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values.”

Very often in business practicality is overrated and integrity is underrated. What good artists know is that integrity is not the moral high stand of charlatans; rather, integrity is a form of logic—integrity tells you that in a situation there is only one way of doing something right; and practicality gives you a million ways to do something wrong.

From the logic of artistic integrity entrepreneurs too can derive joy, and the humour not to revere humanity so much that mere failure is a trauma, and the power not to be shamed until we grant the world the right to shame us.

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