Navigating the New Economy

Barry Boyce talks to Marc Lesser about his business philosophy and the tools necessary to become a successful entrepreneur.

Marc Lesser isn't afraid of being honest and direct. As an entrepreneur and business consultant, this has served him well. 

Lesser, who has been practicing meditation for 30 years, is the author of Z.B.A.: Zen of Business Administration and, more recently, Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less (both from New World Library). He earned an MBA from NYU’s graduate school of business and spent 15 years developing a greeting card company, Brush Dance, from a garage operation to a multi-million-dollar business. He now operates ZBA Associates, which provides consulting services to businesses around the world. He was a member of the team that developed Google’s Search Inside Yourself curriculum, which trains Google employees in mindfulness and social intelligence. We spoke in 2009 at Samovar tea lounge in San Francisco, where Lesser was one of the featured speakers on how to navigate the new economy.

Lesser’s business philosophy of accomplishing more by doing less marries his hard experience in starting and running Brush Dance with his training as a Zen priest. “There’s a real need and hunger for mindfulness and awareness in the business world,” Lesser told me. “There are clear boundaries concerning bringing religion into the workplace, but once people understand that mindfulness and awareness are not religious per se, they’re eager. They long for meaning and connection and a better way of being in the place where they spend so much of their time and energy.”

Not surprisingly, Lesser says, businesspeople don’t respond well if you approach them with a simplistic, don’t-worry-be-happy prescription. “From my years at Brush Dance,” he says, “I know what it means to be concerned day to day about concrete existential pressures like productivity, performance, return on investment, and financial targets.” While Lesser is sensitive to what busy entrepreneurs and corporate leaders face, he also feels it’s important to be direct with them, just as Zen teachers are direct, sometimes even shocking.

He tells the story of waiting to see the CEO of an internet company to give him a coaching session. The CEO was bounding around the office, not just busy but panicky and disjointed. When he was able to see him and slow the interaction down, Lesser probed for “false beliefs.” Did he believe that to be CEO he needed to be frantic? Would things go wrong if he weren’t always moving? Was stopping and taking stock too much of a luxury? The queries brought the leader to a halt and enabled them to explore the benefits of awareness: being able to see how our beliefs shape the world, deceive us, or trap us in habitual responses. “With some awareness,” he says, “people can begin to let go. They feel a little liberated, that there are more choices and possibilities.”

Like Zen students, Lesser says, “Entrepreneurs are the most patient and the least patient of people.” They know the path is long and arduous, but they’re strongly motivated to go ahead. This combination can work well, he says, particularly when meditation practice enables you to “see your changing environment more clearly.” Both entrepreneurs and Zen students look into the utter uncertainty of the future, but step forward anyway. The key skill in both cases, Lesser says, is “being able to move smoothly from the focus of mindfulness, which eases the natural busy-ness in our minds, to awareness, which allows us to just be with whatever arises within and around us. The practice is all about developing a responsive and flexible mind. That’s also the critical tool in business and entrepreneurship. One of my favorite quotes from the business world is, ‘Let cash be your king, but let flexibility be your god.’” 

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