The Pursuit of Happiness at work

The Pursuit of Happiness at work

What would Jefferson tell business? Go forth and pursue

Jim Verdonik

Would you company founders out there like some help running your business from one of the Founding Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson?

With Independence Day fireworks still ringing in our ears, let’s go back to the basics to see what wisdom the Founding Fathers have for our businesses. For me, this involves re-reading the Declaration of Independence, which is always a treat.

The U.S. Constitution is like reading a car manual, while the Declaration of Independence captures the soul of the American people. Souls are by nature more dramatic and full of conflict than manuals.

The Declaration captures two conflicting aspects of the American soul – both good and bad. The longest part of the Declaration is a list of complaints – all the things the colonists didn’t like about King George. Frankly, the English must have looked at that list and said something like: “What a bunch of complainers!” This whiny side of American culture is not our best side, but it definitely exists. One easily forgets this part of the Declaration, because it deserves to be forgotten.

What we remember about the Declaration are the values that are part of the other side of our soul: “independence,” “inalienable rights,” “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” …

That’s a nice little history lesson, but what does this teach us about how we run our businesses?

First principle, no one likes a whiner, and whiners will soon be forgotten.

Second principle, concentrate on basic values in your business. They will get you through the hard times.

This year’s basic value from the Declaration for business analysis is … “pursuit of happiness.”

This was a radical concept at the time and remains so today. Note that “pursuit of happiness” is given equal billing with “life and liberty,” but that life and liberty are not modified by the word “pursuit.” American culture guarantees everyone both life and liberty, but guarantees the right to only “pursue” happiness. That distinction reflects our inherent distrust of people who promise happiness – a belief fundamental to our concept of business. Nothing is guaranteed.

Pursuit implies the possibility of failure. Some people succeed and others don’t. All good businesspeople understand these rules, and there’s no sense whining about them, but not everyone understands this concept is embedded in the fundamental concepts on which our country was founded.

So, my admonition this next year of independence is for us all to root out complaining and whining in our businesses and foster a culture of pursuit. Here are some recommendations for how to do that in your business:

1. Hiring: The best way to have a company of pursuers without whiners is, don’t hire whiners in the first place. There are ways to identify these traits in the hiring process. If you choose to ignore these tools, it’s your own fault. No matter how talented a job candidate is, you are better off with a whiner working for your competitor than for you.

2. Motivation: After you have screened out all the whiners in the hiring process, are you home free? No. The absence of people who are by nature compelled to whine removes an impediment to creating a pursuit environment, but it doesn’t guarantee pursuit. Pursuit requires positive effort. Some people jump out of bed in pursuit mode, but your whole team won’t do that or won’t sustain that positive effort 24 x 7 unless you make it a high priority to build team pursuit motivation into all aspects of your business. That’s difficult to do, but it’s one of the primary jobs of company leaders. So, stop whining about how hard it is and start doing it.

3. Pursuit orientation: The Declaration of Independence elevates the right to pursue above actually achieving happiness by guaranteeing the right to pursue without guaranteeing happiness. That has remarkable effects. A society or business that values pursuit over actual happiness is by nature dynamic. Achieving a goal is by definition the beginning of a new pursuit, not the end itself. That’s the secret of fast-growing businesses. They grow quickly because success doesn’t cause their team to slow down like a toy whose battery is running low. Pursuit-oriented teams automatically recharge their batteries to face the next challenge.

4. Success contingency plans. Not all pursuit leads to success. Highly motivated teams sometimes fail, but they have the ability to recover from failure. They view failure as an opportunity to go to plan B. That means you have to have Plans B, C, D … Google blew through three or four revenue models before successfully implementing its current advertising revenue model. You can’t have a business that is oriented to pursuit unless you develop contingency plans. Many companies develop plans for what to do after failure. Fewer companies develop plans for what to do after success. Both types of contingency plans are important for pursuit-oriented companies.

So, with the business advice of Thomas Jefferson (as translated by Jim Verdonik), go forth and pursue.