Masters of attention: The wisdom of 21st century entrepreneurship

Earlier this week, I spent a day with more than 200 entrepreneurs[1]. You’ll not be surprised to hear that they had picked beyond hip locations (including a conference hotel with – among other amazing features – guitars for rent), organised superb weather (including a light breeze to keep people chilled), designed a program that effortlessly outperformed any global corporation’s top management meeting’s very special edition (including a give-away backpack the usefulness of the content of which tricked me into thinking I had accidentally stolen somebody else’s[2]), and chosen a motto that could’ve been taken straight from Plato, Dante, or the Buddha[3]. Still, if this had been all, I might not have gotten around to writing about it[4]. But it wasn’t all. There was something else.

Quite a lot has been said about the 21st century appearances of entrepreneurship, often acting under the pseudonym “start-up”[5]. There are, of course, start-up companies, then a start-up ecosystem, $100 start-ups, lean start-ups, internal start-ups, start-up investing (and divesting), and, inevitably, the sickness, death, and rebirth of start-ups, maybe start-up scale-ups, start-up corporations, or start-up bankruptcies, and, one day, there’ll be a history of start-ups, and some other day they’ll become a myth or a fairy tale[6]. Interesting enough, though, all this – the nuts and bolts of business and how to run it, the (rather presumptuous) assumption that there’s something distinctive about the fact that, at some point, you have to start small if you want to start at all, and the rise and fall of sales, profits, and corporations – was not what these entrepreneurs had on their minds[7]. Don’t get me wrong: I have not the slightest doubt that every single one of them takes excellent care of their business, thinks cautiously and creatively about growth, profitability, and portfolio, and skilfully manages all day-to-day issues of operations, marketing, sales, and looking after their people. But: These were not the topics they got excited about as they invested some time in mutual exchange beyond their regular (or irregular) working lives. But then: What was on their minds? What did they get excited about? And what does that tell us about 21st century entrepreneurship and its protagonists?

Here’s my bold hypothesis: Entrepreneurs of the 21st century[8] are masters of attention, on a constant quest for examining, explaining, and expanding the web of causes and conditions within which they (and their enterprises) operate. This means: They are experts in paying attention – not in striving for the attention of others[9]. It also means: They’re never satisfied with what they see. And it means: They’re magicians when it comes to tweaking the smallest circumstances so that big things are set in motion.

Let me give some examples to clarify what inspired me to to put this forward:

Owning one pair of jeans: One conversation I had evolved around the budding trend towards having (and using) less resources, in particular in our personal lives. What, did we ask, would happen if we all would be consequent and consistent in buying only the barely necessary amount of clothes – the one pair of jeans that we wear until it’s falling apart? Or maybe the three pairs we need so we’re wearing one, one can be in the laundry, and one’s sitting in the wardrobe? The wisdom of looking at our planet in its entirety – attention to the details of things, where they come from, what they affect, and what happens to them.

Offering respect: One attitude that struck me throughout the program was the intense interest and empathic respect that the audience brought to everybody who was speaking up – not only to humanitarian and former kidnap victim Amanda Lindhout to musician or Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (to give just two humbling examples), but also to moderators, technicians, and audience members asking questions. What, did I wonder, would happen if we all would offer this amount of deeply human esteem to everybody we meet in our daily lives? What if we acknowledged everybody’s experiences, emotions, memories, and interpretations with that same focus and awe? The wisdom of seeing the living being in everyone – attention to feelings, where they come from, how they are expressed, and what they mean to us.

Selling seaweed pasta: The natural question to ask an entrepreneur is: “What is your business?”. And that is what I asked – so I learned about radar systems to track birds near airports and wind farms, fresh meals readily packaged for single households, vitamins, big data analytics, seaweed pasta, and ethanol[10]. The common denominator of all of these: What if we could serve a very specific customer need with a very well-defined, well-designed product that makes our customer’s life less dangerous, less painful, less difficult, or less boring? The wisdom of looking at each customer as a sentient being with needs and wants – attention to personal likes (and dislikes), individual preferences (and allergies), unique passions (and threats).

Killing monsters: The session I presented (Disclosure: This is half a sentence of self-marketing[11]) was about killing personal monsters – eliminating the root causes of struggles that are in the way of what people want to achieve in their (personal or professional) lives. And the question that everybody in the room asked (and, by the way, not only in my session, but throughout the program): What if I could get rid of all the flaws, obstacles, and hang-ups in myself that keep me from unlocking my potential? What if I could kill my personal monsters and then, ideally, transform their energies into useful tools for my higher aims? The wisdom of unleashing the power of unlimited, purposeful action – attention to everybody’s own mental models and learned (or inherited) patterns of thinking and acting.

Fearlessly helping each other: Everybody I talked to not only freely shared their own stories, ideas, and worries, but everybody was equally open and fearless in sharing observations, interpretations, and thoughtful suggestions for what I could do differently. What if this was our default mode of conversations? What if we could get into the habit of disclosing struggles and of giving and receiving feedback with a true intention of helping each other along on our paths? The wisdom of accepting each others imperfections as reflections of who we are – attention to what works and what doesn’t work and why, and what can be done about it.

Wow – what a blast. Maybe I’m totally off and what I believe could be a mind-blowing mindset of a whole generation was just a reflection of the blazing sun in the Spree’s rippled waters. But maybe not – maybe there’s something here that, in itself, deserves some gentle attention, some nourishment and some nurturing, and that actually carries the seed of bigger confidence and stronger action. The flight of an eagle[12], the continuous transformation of our realities[13], the pinching of an earlobe until the pain becomes intolerable.

Embrace the hope. Without the fear of losing hope.

[1] Disclosure: I was invited to speak at this year’s EO Unlimited in Berlin – for information about the organisation, the event and the program, read more here EO Unlimited Berlin 2015 [retrieved Jul 3, 2015]. I owe the organisers a big “Thank You” for inviting me, and I’m grateful to all the participants who shared some of their time and ideas with me – without these causes and conditions, most likely, I would never have thought about the following. BACK TO TEXT

[2] For those organisers of global corporation’s top management meetings’ very special editions who want to learn, I’ll give away, that (among other mind-blowing things I’ll keep secret so I don’t give away the entrepreneurs’ competitive edge), it contained chewing gum, a battered muesli bar, a public transport map, and an umbrella. BACK TO TEXT

[3] Ha – you did not click on the link in the previous footnote, did you? It’s right there. Once you’ve seen it you’ll understand why I want you to go through the tiniest bit of pain in order to find it. BACK TO TEXT

[4] This does not imply that the points just mentioned (and many others) are not worth writing about. It just means that, personally, I’m too uncreative a mind to find them nudging me towards putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). BACK TO TEXT

[5] Apologies to all who – with very good and elaborate arguments – differentiate between enterprises and “start-ups”. Yes, there are many differences, and I’m not denying them at all. All I’m saying here is that those who want to publish like to use the sex appeal of the “start-up” model in order to talk more general aspects of entrepreneurship today. “Start-up” sells. BACK TO TEXT

[6] Just go to your favourite online (of offline) book retailer to research a few of the corresponding titles. I believe “The Myth of the Start-up” is still up for grabs, if anyone is interested. BACK TO TEXT

[7] Disclaimer: I’m not a reader of minds. My conclusion is based solely on the conversations I had and heard, and on the assumption that what people talk about is a reasonable approximation of what’s on their minds at that particular point in time. BACK TO TEXT

[8] I’m fully aware of the fact that I’m grossly generalising from the group I met a few days ago to a whole species – apologies for any mistakes of inference. BACK TO TEXT

[9] This, I believe, is an overlooked twisted on the well-known “Generation Y” debate: The fact that there are fewer “competitors” for anything anyone wants to do or become, actually releases the need to focus on oneself and opens up a much broader horizon for thinking and acting than when I constantly have to fight others in order to get what I want. Those who grow up with abundance might indeed be less egoistical than those who grow up with scarcity. BACK TO TEXT

[10] Apologies to all those whose businesses I do not mention – let me know if you want to be on the list. For those whose businesses I do mention: Let me know if you want me to link a website! BACK TO TEXT

[11] The hero and monster that I chose as companions for this journey can be found here [retrieved Jul 3, 2015] BACK TO TEXT

[12] Like, for example, here [retrieved Jul 3, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[13] Like, for example, here [retrieved Jul 3, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

2 responses to Masters of attention: The wisdom of 21st century entrepreneurship

  1. WOW, Anja. This is an amazing summary of the EO Unlimited. I think the motto “Embraxe the struggle” was boldly chosen. Thanks for your part in an neverending, positive struggle 😉

  2. Hey Anja, congrats on this fantastic blog, thanks for the reflection and the truly valuiable and insightful workshop you gave us !

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