You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m comfortable with metaphor. But while metaphor can help us to frame an issue or seek out opportunity, while it can alert us to questions we ought to be asking, I don’t usually find it as useful when it comes to methods for running my business–or for helping me come to grips with the very idea of being a business owner. Because, like many educators (and others!) who have founded small consulting or service-based businesses, I’ve wrestled with the “ick factor” of engaging in an activity that has a profit motive. On many occasions it’s been difficult for me to leap at opportunity because I’ve felt I shouldn’t be seeking profit from things I enjoy doing, or things that in a different context I might do as a volunteer, or as part of my job but without additional pay.
I know I’m not alone in feeling conflicted about being in business. Tremendously helpful to me, therefore, has been watching lots of other entrepreneurs grow into their new identities as they become more confident in their expertise and the value of what they’re offering. I’ve found special resonance in watching people develop a sense of self based on passion and a strong internal ethical compass.
As I’ve established myself as a teacher, historian, and writer, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to develop a mission that helps me to make decisions about my professional life. There are so many things I want to accomplish, and articulating a few key principles helps me decide where best to focus my energy and efforts.
In thinking about my personal and professional missions–my reasons for being, really–I’ve returned again and again to the writings and teachings of The Society of Friends (also known as Quakers or simply as Friends).* I’m not (yet) a Quaker, though I have attended silent meetings and found them to be compelling in a number of ways. In particular, I find useful:
- the Friends’ reframing of personal “mission” as a “leading”; depending on one’s Quaker persuasion, one might believe that a leading comes from God, or that it comes from a more general spirit, that of God within each person.
- the concept of the clearness committee: When a Friend feels concern (about her leading or anything else of important), she might go to a clearness committee, where through a series of thoughtful questions, “a group of caring friends can serve as channels of divine guidance in drawing out that Inner Teacher.”
- the straightforward and yet difficult challenges posed by Quaker queries, and the species of reflection they engender; you can see some examples from the Baltimore Yearly Meeting. One such question from the Yardley, Pennsylvania meeting: Am I mindful of how my lifestyle and my investments can contribute to the improvement of the human condition, or to the exploitation of others? I like that technically such question could be answered “yes” or “no,” but that answering “yes” is so difficult, and answering “no” opens the way to much self-work.
The Friends’ brand of spirituality appeals to me because it’s relatively free of dogma and emphasizes discernment. Instead of adhering to a single ancient authoritative text that tells them what they ought to believe, the Friends have collectively and collaboratively developed a number of testimonies that express the Friends’ core beliefs and commitments. They call these statements “testimonies,”and the Friends General Conference website describes them as “Our not formulated rules, but ways of being in the world.” Five of these testimonies have come to be known as the SPICE testimonies—simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. (The testimonies don’t exist in any kind of official written form, but you can read summaries of some of the testimonies at the Friends Meeting of Austin website.) The meaning, content, and prescriptive nature of testimonies has shifted over time. The testimonies can help Friends make decisions, as well as help them determine, as individuals and as a collective, what stance they might take on specific issues.
Conveniently, the testimonies by which I choose to live are very much in line with the Quaker testimonies, and I apply these to my business practices as well. Doing so has clarified my own leading—in both a spiritual and as well as a more secular sense, and grappling with Friends’ queries has made me a more conscious and conscientious business owner.
What if. . .?
When I’m thinking about business ethics, it helps if I think through some hypothetical scenarios, even if they’re outside my realm of what I offer in my business. (Note that these aren’t the typical stealing-from-the-corporation or deceiving-clients or taking-bribes questions you’ll find in a business ethics textbook–questions that appear to have many possible answers but really, in the business world, do have one correct answer. The questions below offer opportunities for me to prioritize my loyalties and really think through my values.)
- Would I have repaired the slashed tires of the Westboro Baptist Church congregants (AKA the “God Hates Fags” folks) who had come to town to protest at a soldier’s funeral? (This one isn’t as clear-cut as you might think; I’ve asked around and received many possible responses to this scenario.)
- If I’ve contracted with a museum to write the script for its new exhibit on the Civil War, and in the name of diversity, the museum insists on including a display and several panels about black volunteers in the Confederate Army—volunteers about whom popular books and articles have been written, but about whom there is scant evidence—would I complete the contract or would I refuse to write the panels because that particular example of revisionist history is not only based on poor historical methodology but also (and this is complicated) has a political motive that I find distasteful? Do I honor the contract with my client or my own principles as an historian and someone committed to anti-racist principles?
- As a public historian employed by a state university, I’m expected to undertake a certain amount of public outreach as part of my job. If a local history museum wants to write my historical consulting services into a grant their director was writing to support the project, do I offer to work for them pro bono because it’s assumed that I’m already being paid to perform some outreach, or do I accept payment? At what point (in terms of time commitment, content, or the spectrum of expertise it requires) does a project move from being something that I should do as part of my university duties, and when does it move into a project on which I’d prefer to be paid as a consultant?
Want to learn more? The Quakers & Business website offers a sample set of principles by which a Quaker business might operate.
What about you? What do you use as an ethical compass? How much time do you spend reflecting on what Quaker Parker Palmer calls “the undivided self” before you make a business decision?
The ebook I’m writing, tentatively titled The Friendly Vivarium Handbook, will include exercises that help you to discern your leading as a human being and an entrepreneur. (Why a vivarium? See this post.) If you go to the handbook page, you can sign up to be alerted when it’s released (psssst–it will be discounted when it’s first launched).
*There are five branches of Friends in the Americas today. I’m most familiar with unprogrammed Friends General Conference meetings, so that’s what I’m talking about in the post.