One of the most thought provoking books I have ever read is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Even many months after completing it I still find myself pondering several of the ideas explored.
One of the concepts I keep coming back to is the idea of the Church of Reason and how it relates to startups.
The Church of Reason
To explore the concept of the Church of Reason first we must discuss what exactly a church is. At its face, this seems an obvious question to answer. A church is a building in which people worship, predominately in the Christian faith. But what if the building is no longer used for this specific purpose, is the church still a church?
Pirsig gives the example of a roadside sports bar located in an old church. My wife and I for our last anniversary visited a vineyard located in an old church. Whatever example you use, the question remains, are either of those buildings really still churches?
Pirsig contends, and I agree, that the answer is no. The object of a church is defined by its purpose. If a church is not being used for worship, it is just a building. We may continue refer to the building as a church because of its familiar architecture or because that is how it has been known historically, but it no longer is a church. Not really. There is a deeper meaning to something being called a church. There is a required ‘spirit’ of the physical object. As that spirit leaves, the purpose and very essence of that object leaves with it. It becomes something else entirely. A simple building. A husk.
Pirsig draws a parallel from this line of reasoning to modern universities which he dubs “Churches of Reason.” Similar to religious churches, Pirsig argues that these Churches of Reason are intrinsically defined by their use or purpose. In the case of universities that purpose, that spirit, is to pursue truth through learning. To expand the boundaries of knowledge itself.
Just as with religious churches, these Churches of Reason become simple buildings as soon as the Spirit of the University leaves. As soon as the pursuit of truth and expansion of knowledge stop becoming the purpose for the endeavor, the buildings become nothing more than a mausoleum to their former holy endeavor. Husks.
Pirsig observed this loss of the Spirit of the University in the 60’s and 70’s when he was a professor himself writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, his part auto-biography part philosophical treatise magnum opus. It saddens me to admit that this trend of the departure of the Spirit of the University not only continued, but has accelerated in the modern day.
But that is a discussion for another time. Next we will turn our attention to a different type of church.
Churches of Entrepreneurship.
The Church of Entrepreneurship
Startups are Churches of Entrepreneurship. They are the altars at which we worship the gods of technology and innovation while hoping that our sacrifices of blood, sweat, and tears change the world.
Just like other type of churches, the object is defined by its purpose. A fundamental part of any startup’s identity is the Spirit of Entrepreneurship that resides within it. The Spirit of Entrepreneurship is the driving passion to change the world through the creation of something new.
Really, the word “startup” is just a name for young companies in which the Spirit of Entrepreneurship resides. They are vehicles for the Spirit of Entrepreneurship to hopefully live and thrive. Just like with churches or universities, if you take the spirit out of the building, it is just a pile of bricks.
Startups are no different. Just because a company is young or small or technology-focused does not mean it is necessarily a startup. Without the driving passion to change the world through the creation of something new, they are just small, risky businesses. Bars within an old church. Husks.
This passion to exert one’s will on the world can come in many different shapes and sizes. There are mission driven founders. There are financially driven founders. There are rage driven founders (this was a new one for me that I heard about this week. Basically someone that is so infuriated by the status quo they say “screw it, I will change it myself”.) But while the prime motivating factor changes, the passionate drive of all strong founders is nearly identical.
This spirit of entrepreneurship can inhabit the halls of older incumbent companies as well, though it does so rarely and often in the places you would least expect. Be wary of large corporations touting their innovation groups and “startup culture.” The spirit of entrepreneurship does not reside somewhere simply because someone wishes it to. It can be born in a moment when a group of mavericks suddenly decides try to change the world against all odds. It can die just as quickly if not properly nourished.
Viewed through this lens, providing a nourishing environment that is ripe for the Spirit of Entrepreneurship to inhabit becomes of the utmost importance.
But even with help. It’s not easy.
And it shouldn’t be.
Things worth doing rarely are.