The Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur by Randy Komisar with Kent Lineback (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000, 181 pp., $36.95)
Randy Komisar dishes out chicken soup for the dot-com generation. While his California spirituality is mildly irritating and ultimately unsatisfying—I just don’t get the attraction of this by-now-familiar fruit-blender mish-mash of Buddhism lite and American self-obsession—Komisar comes up with a handful of interesting insights. His writing does indeed read like the motorcycle ride promised in the cover picture, although he gives Mr. Lineback the obviously well-deserved credit for the book’s literary merits.
Komisar is a virtual CEO. Having made his money as CEO of LucasArts Entertainment and Crystal Dynamics, CFO of GO Corporation, and one of the founders of Claris Corporation, Komisar now hangs around in coffee shops and gives advice to young people running start-up companies with the money of his friends in the venture capital business.
As a virtual CEO, Komisar fills in the experience gap for his clients.
My specific work in each of the companies depends on the backgrounds of the founders and the particulars of the business. My work is improvisational. Though involved in all the planning and major decision making, I don’t play any day-to-day operating role. On the org chart I’m a bubble around the management team. Startups require frenetic execution and relentless perseverance. My role is to keep my head out of the cyclone and provide insight, direction, and stability.
Komisar does what he does because of his conviction that business really matters—and a pervasive cynicism about the possibilities of other social institutions to provide us with a sense of order in a chaotic world. “Business is one of the last remaining social institutions to help us manage and cope with change. The Church is in decline in the developed world, ceding leadership to a materialism of unprecedented proportions. City hall is subservient to the economic interests of its constituencies. That leaves business.”
But he recognizes the downside of business. “Business, however, has the tendency to become tainted with the greed and aggressiveness that at its best it channels into productivity. Left to its single-minded pseudo-Darwinian devices, it may never deliver the social benefits that the other fading institutions once promised.”
Komisar’s biggest gripe is with the attitude that business life engenders in many people, an attitude he calls the “Deferred Life Plan.” This plan requires that people divide their life into two parts. Part One: Do what you have to. Part Two: Do what you want to. Divorce your work from your passions. For instance, in the conventional economy: Part One = Work; Part Two = Retirement, with a hobby reflecting your true passion. Or in the Silicon Valley economy: Part One = Get Rich Quick; Part Two = Have Fun.
Komisar is bothered deeply by people living their lives according to this plan. “Too many times, unfortunately, I have seen this attitude lead to a lifetime of successive bets, all heading away from their original dreams. It is too easy to get lost in the hype and swallowed up by the casino economics of it all.”
It bothers Komisar because he believes that work has meaning. “Sacrifice and compromise are integral parts of any life, even a life well lived. But why not do hard work because it is meaningful, not simply to get it over with in order to move on to the next thing?”
It bothers him because it “dictates that we divorce who we are and what we care about from what we do in that first step. By distancing the real person from her actions, all manner of bad behavior is justified in the name of business.”
For Komisar, business must be about passion for a big idea—an idea bigger than merely making bigger bucks. “Business conditions are forever changing. You need to reconsider your strategies and business models constantly and adjust them where necessary. But the big idea that your company pursues is the touchstone for these refinements. Ditching the big idea in order to deal with business exigencies leaves you without a compass.”
And business is about the weave of social interactions. “Business . . . is about nothing if not people. First, the people you serve, your market. Then the team you build, your employees. Finally, your many business partners and associates. Sever the chain of values between leadership and people translating strategy into products and services for your customers, and you will destroy your foundation for long-term success.”
Komisar challenges his readers with a handful of really big questions.
Work hard, work passionately, but apply your most precious asset—time—to what is most meaningful to you. What are you willing to do for the rest of your life? does not mean, literally, what will you do for the rest of your life? That question would be absurd, given the inevitability of change. No, what the question really asks is, if your life were to end suddenly and unexpectedly tomorrow, would you be able to say you’ve been doing what you truly care about today? What would you be willing to do for the rest of your life? What would it take to do it right now?
Among the many vignettes in this book, one brings over Komisar’s point particularly well.
The last time I was in Amsterdam I spent an afternoon in the Rijksmuseum studying Vermeers and Rembrandts. Rembrandt’s the Night Watch particularly impressed me. Like many of the Dutch Masters, he painted it on commission for a group of well-heeled patrons. The work portrayed a dozen or so elaborately attired commissioners, reliving the past glory of their civic militia, arrayed according to their financial contribution and status. These were some of the many movers and shakers of Holland’s economic Golden Age, affluent and prominent, seeking immortality on canvas. But I was struck that I didn’t know any of them, nor did it matter. They were just characters in another man’s masterpiece. The only person of importance, the only one whose fame had lasted beyond that period, was the eventually penniless artist—Rembrandt.
Randy Komisar manages to present his readers with the challenge of integrity in a time when integrity is not at a premium. He resists the split between pursuing profit and purpose. He insists that a person’s work and life should connect. He persists in the conviction that a person’s life should be a whole that makes coherent sense, rather than an aggregate of fragments.
Perhaps a few of the bright young things whose good educations enable them to get great jobs—or to start up companies—will be inspired by this book to do something that is intrinsically worthwhile, rather than merely to aspire after a quick buck. And this would be a good thing.
But Komisar does not really give any good reasons why a person would pursue work with purpose and a life with integrity. Neither does his argument for the pursuit of one’s passion give guidelines for determining whether one’s particular passion as such is indeed intrinsically worthwhile.
Books like Komisar’s remind those of us caught in the velvet trap of materialism that regardless of the velvet, it remains a trap. Life, including work, demands meaning. Money is not that meaning.
But upon consideration, why trade in money for passion? Does hot passion itself give any more lasting satisfaction than bleak profit?
The quality of a passion depends on the purpose of that passion. As the Greeks would have it, the telos of our eros. The deeper question—which Komisar does not answer—is not how to connect our passions and our practices, but how to determine what purposes are worth being passionate about in the first place. At work, or in life as a whole.