September 8, 2021
In 1996, I spent a short bit of time working at the Small Business Association’s office in Spokane, Washington. I knew very little about business back then. I was only a millimeter less clueless than most of the people who walked through the door, but apparently that was enough.
In the back offices sat a couple of business advisors. They were retired managers or senior executives. One used to work at Walmart. I wasn’t sure how a senior manager at Walmart was helpful to the hopeful entrepreneurs that came in for advice, but I didn’t have the interest to solve that mystery.
Anyway, the advisors would make appointments with various clients needing help starting a business or getting a loan. One day, after walking a client to the door after a meeting, and while scuttling his way back to his office, the former Walmart executive stopped to exchange a few words of frustration with me. According to him, a lot of people were coming in for help without the right frame of mind. According to him, the people who asked him for help didn’t understand the goal of business. “The only reason to have a business,” he told me, “is to make money. If you don’t want to make money, then you shouldn’t start a business.”
There was judgment in those words.
A few days later, a woman about 45 or 50, with no makeup and a long gray-blond hair wrapped in a braid, walked into the office. She was gentle, quiet, and curious. She was thinking about starting a business, she said, but she didn’t know where to start. Eager to help, I walked over to a shelf in our library and pulled out a book on how to write a business plan. I sat down with her and started walking her through it. As she flipped through the pages, I sensed her getting tense.
“I don’t know.” She said, interrupting me. Her eyes drifted upward, sifting the air for the right words. She sighed as she looked back down. “I make dream catchers,” she said. “I make really nice ones. I’d like to start a business selling them.”
Ok, I thought to myself. You make dream catchers. I thought dream catchers were kind of corny, but hey, it was the 90s, and people loved them. I told her to take home some pamphlets, think on it, and come back for more help when she was ready.
As I walked home that evening, I thought about her. I also thought about the words of that former Walmart executive. The only reason to have a business is to make money.
Dream catchers: you could find them at truck stops for a few bucks. They were everywhere back then; she’d never make money selling those. How silly! I thought.
There was judgment in those words.
I never saw the woman again, but over the years, at random moments, she popped into my head. Dream catchers! I’d think, chuckling to myself. How dumb! The only reason to have a business is to make money!
But more recently, as she pops into my head, I find myself having a different point of view.
When you’re indoctrinated into the world of business, you’re socialized into believing that making money is the thing that matters. It’s why many people (including me, for a very long time) aren’t interested in going into business. Maybe no one comes right out and tells you, “Greed is good.” Maybe no one explicitly points out that, no matter what you do, you should consider the bottom line. Even if you want to sell something amazing you created, see a great idea you want to see come to life, or make the world a better place, the underlying message always seeps through: The only reason to have a business is to make money. Otherwise, you should turn your idea or creation into a hobby.
In most every aspect of life, we are socialized into believing what matters. When we enter the world of dating, we’re socialized into looking for a particular type of partner. But a good partner doesn’t have to be about that.
When we enter the world of parenting, we’re socialized into believing that some ways to go about things are the right way. But good parenting doesn’t have to be about that.
When we go to school, we’re socialized into accepting a particular model for what learning looks like. But learning doesn’t have to look that way.
We strive so hard to reach goals that may not be anything other than normative. Maybe they’re good goals. Maybe they’re the right goals for us. But if we don’t take the time to really question them, we won't know for sure.
Every now and then I ask myself: am I the Walmart guy, or am I the dream catcher woman? Sometimes I’m the first, striving for what I’ve been socialized to chase after. Other times I’m the second, bucking the norm at the risk of being a weirdo or misfit. It’s a constant struggle because when we internalize norms, it happens under the radar. We have to be vigilant in recognizing it.
But it’s a struggle worth having. Choices that lead us to the wrong goals are worthless choices. If we can’t maximize what matters most, then whatever norms we’ve learned are just that: the way things are.
And I don't know about you, but the way things are aren't always that great.
That's all I got.