The Disquiet of Beautiful Business
Jonathan Cook, House resident and ethnographer, discusses the struggle to maintain identity, beauty and enchantment
This November, an ambitious community of artists, thinkers, seekers, and decoders will travel from all over the world to Lisbon, Portugal, to live, talk and explore at the House of Beautiful Business. Throughout the weeklong event, participants will grapple with the creative opportunities that arise where technology and humanity meet.
Of course, in this age of global travel and communication, such a gathering could take place anywhere. Why, then, did the House choose Lisbon for its home?
Lisbon is known as a city with a vibrant cultural life. It’s a place of bold colors and intricate shadows built up over a long history of competing influences. Lisbon is liminal, on the edge of Europe, a place where innovation lives alongside the preservation of ancient things.
For me, the call of Portugal is heard in the soulful voice of a man drowning in the despair of everyday business. The main attraction that leads me to Lisbon is the city’s most famous literary figure, Ferdinand Pessoa.
The Poet of Disenchantment
Fernando Pessoa brings this important reminder to the deliberations of the House of Beautiful Business: The pursuit of beauty isn’t a leisurely walk in the park. Those who seek to restore an element of humanity to the practice of business will be called upon to give at least as much painful sacrifice as blissful inspiration.
Pessoa was one of the first writers to give authentic voice to the Great Disenchantment provoked by the Industrial Revolution. The disenchantment wasn’t an intellectual curiosity for him, as it was for sociologist Max Weber. Pessoa experienced the cultural disruption firsthand as a mid-level clerk, a translator of commercial documents.
The use of new technologies to achieve unprecedented economic efficiency caused widespread feelings of cultural alienation in Pessoa’s time, much as it does today. Pessoa mourned the loss, and despaired of ever finding a meaningful place in society, writing, “What they destroyed was the very thing that gave society its strength and allowed them to destroy it without even noticing the cracks in the walls. We inherited the destructions and its consequences.”
Despite his feelings of hopelessness, Pessoa did not walk away from the world of business. In his Book of Disquiet, he recorded his experience of the visceral struggle to maintain a sense of self amidst the experience of splintered alienation that became emblematic of the modern age. He mourned the death of myth and ritual in modern life, but refused simple calls for a return to the old order.
“If I left them all tomorrow and discarded this Rua dos Douradores suit of clothes I wear,” he asked, “what else would I do? I would have to do something, and what suit would I wear? I would have to wear another suit.”
Resisting the temptation to look away from his life in business for purpose, Pessoa turned his gaze with even greater intensity to his work, to try to understand, rather than escape from, his tortured alienation within the disenchanted world of business. His hatred for his tedious life was only made possible, he wrote, by his love for the way it ought to have been.
Beauty in Small Things
Pessoa’s determined effort to maintain an enchanted view of the world took his attention away from the grand to the banal, to find the beauty within the tiny objects and experiences of everyday life. He found big ideas in small things.
“Even though nothing truly merits the love of any soul, if, out of sentiment, we must give it, I might just as well lavish it on the smallness of an inkwell as on the grand indifference of the stars,” he explained.
It wasn’t in just small objects in which he perceived clues of hidden depths, but also people who are ordinarily regarded as small. He regarded himself as one such small person. Pessoa wrote, “If only one could know the human reality of the woman selling fish and go beyond just labeling her a fishwife and the known fact that she exists and sells fish.”
Those of us who work in business are all selling some kind of fish. Pessoa asks us to see beyond the data that measures our work as small, to grasp that we are also selling something more expansive.
A Legacy of Re-enchantment
Fernando Pessoa had a vision of a future he could not inhabit.
“One day, perhaps, they will understand that I carried out, as did no other, my inborn duty as interpreter of one particular period in our century; and when they do, they will write that I was misunderstood in my own time; they will write that, sadly, I lived surrounded by coldness and indifference, and that it is a pity it should have been so. And the person writing, in whatever future epoch he or she may live, will be as mystified by my equivalent in that future time as are those around me now.”
We are now finally in a position take up the challenge of Pessoa’s vision, to face the mystifying forces that alienate us from beauty, dedicating ourselves to finding a path of reenchantment.
Amidst the many activities this November at the House of Beautiful Business, we will become flaneurs, traveling in Pessoa’s footsteps on the Rua dos Douradores. We will not only look for what remains of his Lisbon, but also seek in small things for clues of a world of business that once again makes room for humanity.
Please join us.
Jonathan will be leading ethnographic excursions at The House of Beautiful Business, which takes place in Lisbon, November 3–10, 2017. Alongside start-up founders, executives, nonprofit leaders, investors, writers, philosophers, scientists, designers, technologists, artists, we will be discussing and prototyping how to lead with purpose and passion; how to build human companies and workplaces; and how to design for deeper connections in an age of exponential change and massive societal disruption.
Hosted in collaboration with the BCG Henderson Institute, the House will serve as salon, stage, and sandbox for people who are keen on rehumanizing business and exploring meaningful conversations around humanity and technology. You can find more information and buy tickets at: houseofbeautiful.biz