The Hungry Ghosts of Entrepreneurship

In many Buddhist traditions, a rather obscure metaphor is one of the “hungry ghosts.” Imagine a ghoul-like figure with a giant head and gaping mouth connected to a hunger-deprived and bloated belly connected only by a needle-thin throat. The image itself visually and viscerally demonstrates an insatiable need for “more” but a forever unmet need for “enough.”

I often see this type of thinking and behavior in entrepreneurs. When I very purposefully ask business owners how much money is “enough,” the sky is the limit. Or maybe a better metaphor would be a bottomless pit.

No matter how big their company gets or how significant their net worth becomes, the need for consumption rarely fades without some intention work. The needle-thin neck of entrepreneurship always starves us from the satiation we so deeply desire.

I’m becoming more and more confident that this chronic need for satiation can be fairly easily traced back to early childhood – it’s just not easy to quantitatively measure. 

Entrepreneurship results from our need to create things and solve problems. Solving problems comes from our need for safety and validation. And safety and validation are deeply ingrained desires that were never truly met in childhood. 

Ergo, as entrepreneurs, we’re really just attempting to find the love, affection, safety, and validation we never received as children and we’re using our second (work) family to supplement the unmet needs of our first (biological) family.

Ask yourself when you started to have the itch to build things or solve problems. Most founders I talk to say, “I was born this way,” which is most commonly followed by a childhood entrepreneurial story involving lemonade or grass cutting.

But when we take a culture based on the American Dream – one that highly values success and power – it shouldn’t come as no surprise that much of our entrepreneurial spirit is driven by and often coupled with a need to make money and grow influence.

If you’re wondering if this is you, ask yourself when the last time you were “bored.” Can you remember an extended period of time where you simply pressed pause and had nothing to do? How did it feel? Was it comfortable or were you restless? Were you able to relax and \enjoy life without the need for stimuli and problem-solving?

If you’re unable to remember a time when that was true, that could be something to investigate. Just because “it’s always been this way” is far closer to correlation than it is to causation. In fact, it makes Plato’s Cave analogy just a relevant today as it was 2,400 years ago. 

To investigate and understand our true motivations allows us to begin designing a life where the hungry ghosts disappear. And when they’re gone, we can stop using so much of our precious energy to feed them. And when that happens we experience deeper levels of happiness and contentment – almost without effort.

So it’s once again Friday at 3:30, my challenge for you is to go be bored. See what it feels like to simply be present with yourself. See how long you can “be” without trying to solve a problem; yours, someone else’s, or the never-ending list your business generates.

Then ask yourself, “Did I create my business to be free and happy or did my subconscious create a beautifully architected system of never-ending problems for me to solve?”

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