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This Skill We Call “Business”

Quick, what are the first few things that pop into your head when you think of the word “business”? Here are what come to mind for me:

  • Suits
  • Briefcases
  • Financial charts
  • Handshakes

I’d imagine you more or less had some of the same things I did. Actually, the real first thing that pops into my head are those cheesy stock photos of businesspeople, and they’re all interacting with those things on my list in a very stereotypical way.

Now, here’s the irony about that list. I work in a large company, and would you like to know my actual experience with my stereotypical list? Here’s how it actually matches up respective to the original list:

  • Nice shirt and jeans (sometimes slacks)
  • Backpacks
  • Data visualizations
  • Uhhhh… we’ll see in this post-COVID 19 world!

Of course, your mileage will vary. I imagine many of you do work with financial charts or still wear a suit to work every day. But is this how we define what business is? By what clothes we wear, what charts we use, and the formality by which we agree with one another?

I have a B.A. in business administration, and I can tell you firsthand that the coursework is sort of all over the place. I took courses in marketing, accounting, management, leadership, communication, economics, and more. As great as some of these courses were, it felt as if I only got a spoonful of each subject, enough to make me dangerous but not enough to make me an expert. After all, every single one of those topics mentioned there have full degree programs at most major universities.

So is business what we wear and what charts we use? Or is business the conglomeration of a bunch of different topics, none of which you will be fully specialized in?

And then you have the ever so popular category of business books. As I publish this post, some of the top selling business books on Amazon include (which will top the list until the end of time), , and other books around emotional intelligence. I don’t question that being highly efficient and having a strong emotional intelligence are important… but do those apply only to business? Those seem to be pretty applicable to every aspect of life.

Okay, so one last time…
Is business what clothes we wear?
What financial charts we use?
How we formally greet one another?
A conglomeration of non-specialized topics?
How to be a highly effective person with atomic habits?
Having a high level of emotional intelligence?

Clearly, it’s hard to pin a definition on this skillset we call “business.”

Stepping aside from defining it as a skillset, we all know how to define “business” otherwise. Business in a more general sense is basically the thing we do to earn a living. We go to an office building and do whatever we do there in the hopes of bringing home a paycheck. Set aside your feelings about how much you like or dislike your job, I think we’d all agree that’s what we think of when we think about business.

Attending a meeting with prospective clients? Business.
Playing with your kids? Not business.
Writing code for a website? Business.
Eating dinner with your friends? Not business.
Managing your financial balance sheet? Business.
Walking your dog? Not business.

But the interesting thing is that each of these things could easily toggle between “business” and “not business” pretty fluidly. For example, writing code for a website could turn into a “not business” activity if you’re building a Harry Potter fansite. Walking dogs can turn into a “business” activity if you walk other people’s dogs and get paid for it. And it’s not as if you’re writing new non-business code or walking a dog in a business-like manner, you’re doing it the way you’d do it regardless of getting paid.

I’d say then that because of how fluid these activities are, there really is no such skillset as “business.” There are things that you can do to become more proficient at those specific activities, but it’s impossible to slap a label onto something that we could easily consider “business” in one context and “not business” in another context.

Let’s revisit my business administration curriculum then. Some of those topics listed above were hard skill topics, like accounting and economics, and the others were more soft skill oriented, like leadership and communication. I’m not really going to touch on the hard skill topics in this post because growing in those is generally pretty straightforward. (Not easy, but pretty straightforward nevertheless.) If you want to learn more about accounting, take an accounting class. If we approach anything close to “business” as a skillset, it would be more in these soft skilled areas. And there are two ways you could approach this soft skillset realm in the business world.

The first is to lie, cheat, slander, and steal your way to success. I hate to say it, but this isn’t uncommon and isn’t impossible. I’m sure we’ve all known somebody who has schmoozed up to the boss or a client with no merit backing whatever they want. I’d hope it’s pretty clear that I wouldn’t promote this path for ethical reasons, but if I can’t speak ethics to you, I can warn you about the risk you’re taking: what goes around comes around. Not always, but if you throw somebody under the bus to get to the top, don’t be surprised if the same happens to you in return.

The second approach is basically the opposite of the first: it’s seeking to promote humanity in yourself and in those around you. I mentioned above that some of the best selling “business” books on Amazon have to do with emotional intelligence, which is an area all about building empathy for those you interact with. (Quick note: Empathy ≠ sympathy.) These books aren’t bad by any means, but they generally focus on a single idea with a ton of supporting anecdotes. This is why I’ve stopped reading business books in favor of philosophy / spirituality books, which cut to the heart of the matter much more quickly. (I’ll pick on author Ryan Holiday only because I do genuinely think he’s great, but when you name your book , you basically give away the whole point of the book right in the title.)

It’s interesting how closely the lines of “business” and “non-business” are blurring in our modern age. We started this post by naming some superficial objects we have generally associated with only business in the past. Now, I more or less wear the same clothes in the office and at home and use the same language in the office and at home. That said, the growth we experience at work should also pretty well align to the growth we experience at home. I touched on how I’ve pretty much ditched business books in favor of studying topics to simply be a better person in general. In my mind, it’s the only thing that makes sense, not to mention the efficiency of studying topics that cover all aspects of life instead of this small sliver we call “business.”

I think that’s a good stopping place for this post. I’m tempted to share some of the books that have been really helpful for me here, but some of them are spiritually-oriented and I don’t want to impose anything on your worldview. If you’d like to know what those are, feel free to reach out to me on the side. I hope this gives you a new flavor on how to approach “business” as a skill. It’s not as simple as putting a curriculum together in a higher education program. Hard skills aside, it’s basically about becoming a better person in general. So if you skipped to the end here, I just gave you the TL;DR in that last sentence. 😃

See you in the next post!

Written by

Machine learning engineer by day, spiritual explorer by night.

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