I carry two quotes with me in my wallet from Walden by Thoreau. One is quite well known and often cited - a portion was in fact used in the film Dead Poet Society (see it here). The other, concerning the nature of business, seems so often applicable to my daily life as to lead me to be frequently disturbed:
But I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.
I once witnessed an incident at the origami convention held annually at the Fashion Institute of Technology that illustrated this all too well and I have never forgotten it. I had a passion for origami at one time - as a young boy I borrowed the World of Origami from the local library. In the small blue collar town I grew up in, origami was virtually unknown and my folded creatures were as fascinating to others as they were to me. I once gifted a girl a small bag of origami animals. It made quite an impression.
There is a small area for vending at the origami convention. A married couple left their table, leaving their son in charge. While gone, this very young boy handled the sales quite adeptly, perhaps too much so. I sensed he had sold often and had learned his trade well, likely imitating his parents. I saw in him the desire to sell, irrespective of what was really being sold - selling to people who did not really want to buy anything, buy origami items or specific things he was trying to sell. I could sense that whether the things he was saying were true or not was secondary to the sale. Not a mortal sin, but it was just that he looked like a huckster hawking his wares. And so young. What was particularly upsetting was that I saw myself in that boy and that Thoreau quote reared its ugly head again and immediately came to mind.
That quote is a very strong assertion, one that many, particularly those in business, will bristle at. I have shown it to both business owners and non-owners and I have gotten a variety of reactions. One man, an owner of a prominent New York City architectural firm said "I don't agree with that at all." I was not surprised by his reaction. Architecture is a noble profession and the prospect that the work could be seriously compromised by commerce is, I am sure, quite distasteful.
I fully understand the sentiment, however, finding something distasteful or disagreeable does not make it untrue, much as the harsh tenets of a particular religious faith do not, in itself, make that faith or its doctrine invalid.
I have been in business or self-employed my entire adult life. I well understand the necessity of commerce and even some sales and marketing. How else to keep the machinery of businesses running to make the goods we actually do need? But as my business has grown, I have become aware how the nature of business shapes my decisions and my daily activities. When I first started and my business was more an adjunct to a hobby, I had the luxury of indulging my whims.
I reflect on this problem often, as I did on the subway recently when a group of Mexican musicians entered my car. Their playing and money collection was extremely routinized, virtually stripping any joy or entertainment from the process. Their playing seemed to be nothing other than a way of legitimizing their collection of money. See video here.
But these men need to make a living too and perhaps music is what they do best. As they moved hurriedly to the next car, only to repeat the process, I was saddened and could not help but think that they too, were doing their best to trade in songs from heaven but at least in some small way, their business of entertaining riders suffered from the curse of trade ...