God and Business
I’m not sure I’ve ever brought up my religious beliefs on this blog, but there’s a first time for everything….
It’s an interesting thing to be a religious entrepreneur, as I am. Were I an atheist, then it would be easy to look at my business and say “I built this” and that would be the end of it…well, it was the end of it until Obama chimed in. Anyway, when one believes in God then one tends to believe God can bestow blessings. And if one believes that God can bestow blessings upon one’s business, then one gets into an interesting quandary of how to allocate credit for the success a business has and what that means when it comes to making business decisions.
For example, I get a phone call from a potential client, things go well, and he/she becomes a client. If you didn’t believe in God you’d probably tell me things just happen. The guy had a need, he called, I answered, I did my job well, so the credit for calling goes to the guy and whatever marketing I did to get him to call, and to myself for starting the business and getting the work done, end of story. But I don’t see things that way (not that I’m offended if you do). I see God’s hand in everything. I thank him for every deal I land, for every month a client stays happy enough to continue working with us, and for every other thing that goes well in my business. I recognize God didn’t force the client to call me, but did God influence the client at all? Did my ad stand out because God did something to draw the potential client’s attention to it and not because the ad was quite as awesome as I thought it was? And even if the ad was awesome, am I completely responsible for that? Where did I get my eye for design to make sure the ad was designed well, my sense of language to make sure the messaging was effective? If my employee did the work instead of myself, then who gave those talents to my employee? These are questions I used to ask myself.
Giving credit wasn’t the hard part, however. It’s easy to dish out credit for something that happened in the past. It doesn’t change the past, and since virtually everyone likes receiving credit it can only help the future. What I was really confused about was who or what was truly responsible for what had happened? When I landed a deal was it me or God? If I knew the answer it could change what I did with the business in the future. Allow me to give some background….
For several years I kept a close eye on another firm here in Utah. They appeared to be everything I wanted my business to become, and I often made comparisons, benchmarking my company against that one. There is some science in the comparison, it’s not apples and oranges, because not only did the founder go to BYU, like I did, and not only is the company in Utah, like mine, but he also started his company at the same time, and in the same city, as mine. You might say “Well maybe he had a bunch of money to start, whereas you didn’t, so he just got a headstart.” Ironically, no. He had no money and bootstrapped, while I was the one who borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or you might ask “How much more successful has he been than you are? You’re pretty successful, aren’t you?” Yes, I can’t complain about where I am, but his business does about 50 times the revenue of mine. “Well, revenue isn’t everything, how profitable is he?” When I talked to him, he was pretty open with me and said they were doing so well they didn’t know what to do with all the money and kept giving out more bonuses and prizes to their employees. In every way I can tell, his company has been wildly more successful than mine.
Here’s another interesting tidbit. At one point when my company and the other firm were both relatively new, my company was called to bid on a job. The prospective client was already working with this other design firm I mentioned above, but they were having problems. They told us “This other firm is too small. They can’t handle the workload so we’re looking around.” At the time my company was doing pretty well compared to the other firm. But two years later things were quite the opposite, and have been the opposite ever since.
I watched this firm for years. I talked to the founder, and I thought about it time and time again and I could not figure out what he did right and what I did wrong. We’ve since branched into different businesses that have little overlap, so it’s a different ball game today, but for seven years I earnestly tried to do what the other founder did and I failed. The more I looked at the situation the more I came back to one thing–he landed one big client that got him rolling, and I never landed that one big client. Sure, my company landed clients with big names, but we never had a client come to us and say “I need to run a $30K/month ad campaign for the next two years.” My friend, the founder of the other firm, appeared to have had that. His big break was the very company that called us in for that bid I mentioned in the previous paragraph. We ended up not getting the work because that client opted to give my friend another chance, and apparently he came through.
Add to this one more factor, the constant temptation to think “I’m a good person, therefore I should be financially successful.” When I say “financially successful” I don’t mean to imply I haven’t been blessed financially, even when I was going through all this (which was mostly from 2003-2007). I’ve lived in Brazil amongst people who were happy to have a wooden shack on a steep hillside and enough food to get them through the day. There’s simply no comparison between the worst I’ve ever “suffered” and the best those people ever experienced. Even at my poorest I enjoyed comforts the likes of which no king of Europe 400 years ago could have dreamed of. But all things are relative, and around these parts financial success for many appears to mean being a millionaire or something close to it. I don’t know if this concept is common to members of other faiths, but despite examples of righteous Mormon leaders who did not prosper financially (Joseph Smith, for one) and had a lot of other difficulties in life to boot, the idea that personal righteousness leads to great wealth seems to be widespread amongst Mormons here in Utah. Perhaps it’s because of the Book of Mormon repeatedly stating “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land…” (2 Nephi 1:20). I’ve always been aware that the promised prosperity in the land didn’t necessarily mean I was going to get rich, and yet it nagged at me when I saw other people around me becoming successful, buying big houses, driving nice cars, and going on fancy vacations, and I was stuck in a pile of debt and living in a 600 square foot studio apartment, living off my wife’s meager salary, having not received a paycheck from my business for four years. I used to think “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I kick things into gear? I’m smart enough. I’m good enough. People like me. What’s wrong with this picture?”
Perhaps I’m too selfish, you say, too greedy. Maybe you’re right. But I didn’t feel that way. I wasn’t desperate for wealth. Ok, maybe here and there. But I didn’t want to show off. I’d be uncomfortable driving a BMW (remind me of this if I ever buy one). I just wanted to know whether or not I was an idiot. I wanted to know if I was doing God’s will. If I wasn’t, I wanted to know what I needed to change. But every time I tried something new it didn’t work. If God were to tell me “I know you’ve been having a rough time. To be honest, if you were on your own you’d be doing just fine, but I’ve been holding you back because I want you to live in a shack and be poor because I know in the eternal scheme of things you’ll be happier that way,” then I could say “Great, ok! I’m fine with that!”
Because I wasn’t sure whether it was me or God or something else I looked at all this and thought about it and it seemed to come down to luck. Other people got lucky, I didn’t. But of course I don’t believe in luck, so I look at this and say what is God’s role in all this? Did he help my friend and others to succeed while he held me back? Or was he hands-off in one or both situations? If he was holding me back, was that because he wanted me to learn something? If so, what is it? Has God been leading me down a path that has been less than a cake-walk in the short-run, but will be great in the long-run, and I just don’t know it? What should I do going forward?
There are some scriptures and statements that came to my mind repeatedly as I thought about this:
“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (italics mine) — 1 Nephi 25:23
“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (italics mine) — 1 Nephi 3:7
“It is contrary to the economy of heaven for the Lord to do for us that which we can do for ourselves.” — J. Devn Cornish, Conference Report, October 2011, The Privilege of Prayer
And then there are sayings such as “God helps those who help themselves” and the statement “Pray as if everything depended upon God, then act as if everything depended on you.” St. Augustine (354-430).
While the scriptures seem to be referring to things of a more spiritual nature than running a business, do they not teach something about how God works?
And yet did Christ not instruct us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread”? (Matthew 6:11) And since when does God only help those who help themselves? Isn’t Christ all about helping those who can’t help themselves? Work we must but the lunch is free and all that? And should I really be acting as though everything depends on me, as though God didn’t exist? What about all that stuff about not trusting in the arm of flesh? But then if God’s in charge, why am I working so hard? Why not lay back, be a good boy, and wait for the blessings to come in? Or as Gerald May put it in his paper Height of Christian hypocrisy:
These sayings [such as “God helps those who help themselves”] justify our desire to have our spiritual cake and eat it, too. We want to consider ourselves faith-filled, but we are terrified of actually letting go and letting God [take control?]. We pray about decisions, but we feel we must also have logical justification for everything we do. We seek God’s guidance, but we are also compelled to look like we’re using our heads. We want to give our hearts to God, but never so completely that we might appear foolish.
I wanted to let go, oh how I really did. I would think back on two experiences and think about how nice it would be. The first was when I was perhaps 10 years old. I was camping at the Santa Fe Dam in Southern California near where I grew up. It was me and my dad and a bunch of other boys and their dads. I was out on the lake in a canoe with my friend Joe Dupre. Joe kept standing up and rocking the canoe, and at first I laughed, but then I started getting annoyed. “C’mon Joe, it’s not funny anymore, just sit down!” But Joe kept rocking the canoe, and I started to get angry. Finally I thought “I’ll scare him a bit so that he stops.” The next time he stood up to rock the canoe I rocked it a bit myself. But it was too much, and we capsized in the middle of the lake.
Immediately all my annoyance and frustration disappeared. I was soaking wet, treading water with an upside down canoe in the middle of the lake. I was only annoyed and angry when there had been a risk of this happening. Now that it had happened, it was just funny. An adventure. We swam back to shore, dragging the canoe with us, and had a good story to tell the other boys. To this day I can’t forget how easily and quickly my anger disappeared. It was such a remarkable feeling once I let those negative feelings go. It was…peace.
The second experience happened when I was 21. I was a missionary for the LDS Church in Manaus, Brazil. All missionaries are assigned a companion, and every few months you’re assigned a new one. My first companion was Te Koi Smith. We were at the missionary training center together for two months. We got along great for a few hours. A month later our relationship reached a low point when I tried to get him sent home but my plan failed. You could say we didn’t see eye to eye about what it meant to be a missionary. The main problem was that I was trying to force him to be like me, or like what I thought a missionary should be. Te Koi, like most people, didn’t like being forced, and rebelled. We were given new companions, and other than the second month of being in the training center we didn’t see much of each other for the next two years. When we did happen to meet I ignored him and we didn’t say anything to each other. In retrospect I can see it was more me than him.
Near the end of our two year mission I received a transfer notice assigning me to a remote city. My companion was to be Te Koi Smith. I couldn’t believe it. I knew right then and there that God has a sense of humor, but I wasn’t laughing. All I could think about was that this time with Te Koi was going to be a disaster unless something changed. But I didn’t know what to change. So I gave up. I let go. I told God “God, you assigned me to be Te Koi’s companion. I don’t know what to do about this. So I give up. I’ll do my best, but basically I’m just going to agree to do whatever Te Koi wants to do and let him lead the way, and if he wants to do crazy stuff I’m just going to smile and say ‘Ok!'”
And that’s what I did. We were only together for three weeks. But those were the best three weeks of my entire mission experience. Miracles happened, not the least of which was that Te Koi is now one of my best friends and saved my life by getting me into doing triathlons. And it never would have happened if I hadn’t let go and put it all in God’s hands.
But when it came to the business I would think “Should I really let go?” Wouldn’t my employees and clients be a bit worried if I focused on God all the time, stayed inside a church all day, and prayed instead of sitting at the computer sending emails. Wouldn’t everything immediately break down in my business? Who’s going to sign checks? Letting go, despite my lessons, sounded a lot like being lazy and doing nothing.
I had set up a false dichotomy. It didn’t have to be one or the other. I had been in a quandary of my own making for years, trying to figure out how to balance hard work with trusting in God, and I had it wrong. I’m not supposed to balance one against the other, I’m not supposed to make sure my hard work meets up with trust in God somewhere in the middle. They are one and the same. If I know what God’s will for me is, then working hard to do his will is trusting in him. There is no balance, it’s 100% hard work and 100% trust at the same time. Yes, if God wants me to do something, he will prepare a way for me to do it. No, he will not do for me that which I can do myself. Yes, I should try to figure things out as best I can, pray to God for assistance, act to follow whatever I feel God wants me to do, do my best, and act knowing that God is assisting. I can act, and I can also let go. I can answer emails, invoice customers, encourage my employees to work hard, and work hard myself, all while trusting completely in God. Why? Because first I verified that this was what God wanted me to do. If I know God wants me to work hard in my business, treat employees right, and treat clients right, and work hard to market my company and advertise my services, then I should work harder than if everything just depended on me. I wasn’t supposed to work by myself and then trust in God to make up the difference, I needed God assisting me all the way from start to finish. I needed to trust God to take care of me–not after I had done all I could do–but before, during, and after.
Maybe this is a “Yeah, duh” moment for you, but for me this was a big revelation. A big, eye-opening realization, and yet…it was just a small switch from where I was. It was as though I were looking at one of those printed 3-D pictures that you look at without glasses and you have to make your eyes look straight ahead in order to see the picture. At first you see nothing, just a bunch of jagged shapes, and then all of a sudden one of your eyes twitches and you see mountains, a lake, and trees with a wolf in the foreground and it’s all in 3-D. It was as though I had turned my head an inch to the right, and suddenly the entire world had changed before me.
The morning after this all clicked for me I didn’t wake up with a new to-do list. There were no major projects to do, no major overhaul to be made. I went about my work doing the same things I did every day, and yet something felt different. I had let go. A burden had been lifted. All day long, and in the days thereafter, I told myself “It’s in the Lord’s hands now. You can relax.”
Since then I haven’t worked less, I’ve worked harder. But it’s a peaceful kind of work, rather than the stressed out kind. Granted, my transformation isn’t complete and I’m not sure it will be in this life. I still get worried about stuff. A client has a concern and I think “Oh no! It’s all going to fall apart!” Then I remind myself that God is in control and that whatever happens I just need to do my best and things will be ok and then I go forward with a smile on my face. Since I made the conscious choice to let go, the business has improved dramatically. I’m a lot less pessimistic about things, which means I return phone calls and emails I otherwise wouldn’t have. I chase after potential clients more. I’m trying new marketing ideas I had never thought of before. I’m doing these things because I have more faith they will work, or at least that if I’m doing all I can then the right things will happen, whatever those “right things” may be.
That brings us back to the credit. Can I take credit for anything? Yes, I can. I can take credit for my choices. God has given me the freedom to choose. He doesn’t make my choices for me, even if he does influence them. What I can’t take credit for are the results of those choices. That credit I give to God. I know this is anathema to many of you. It sounds irresponsible. It sounds crazy. It sounds like a recipe for disaster. But in reality I behave more responsibly. Even if there were no God helping me along, this way of doing things would still produce the best results possible because the choices I make due to my perspective are to work harder and work smarter.
What about my employees, don’t they deserve any credit? Sure they do, they deserve credit for the choices they make, just like me. If an employee chooses to work hard and get a project done before a deadline, then I can praise him for getting the project done early. I know that he couldn’t have gotten it done early without God’s help. Without God he might have been in a car accident, gotten sick, or fallen victim to a host of other maladies. If nothing else, God is giving him air to breathe and keeping him alive from one moment to another. But I don’t think I’ll explain this every time I praise my employees. I’ll just praise them to the skies for whatever it is they do. I’ll let them worry about whether or not they keep the praise or give it to God. Curiously, understanding that choices are the only things we can take credit for somehow makes me more grateful to my employees for what they do.
These days I try to give credit to God for everything. I’m not very good at it. I’m not sure how to do it in the right way. I’m still learning. I don’t want God to become the object of ridicule on my account. This blog post is an attempt to redeem myself to some extent.
Will God now bless me with business and financial success beyond my wildest dreams? I don’t know. The difference is I don’t care so much anymore. It seems like it would be fun to start something and have it grow and become huge and affect lots of people for good. But business isn’t the only road to that end, and if nothing I start ever becomes big I don’t think I’ll care too much 1,000 years from now. More important to me is to try to be in tune with God and do his will. To really trust in him. Whatever comes next, I’m sure it will be fun, and I thank God for it.
“And I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land; and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led…. [and] After ye have arrived in the promised land, ye shall know that I, the Lord, am God; and that I, the Lord, did deliver you from destruction…” — 1 Nephi 17:13-14
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