Father’s Day Feature: How a Philosopher Became a Businessman, with Some Advice from Dad
May 20, 2019
By Jonathon A. Flaum
I wanted to write this leadership book with my father so that the two of us could meet on the field of human life and encourage others to do the same. My own life in business came to fruition by happenstance; it was nothing I planned. I saw my father’s world of business as wholly other. For my master’s thesis in philosophy of religion, I worked on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, a rather enigmatic and hermetic German poet of the early twentieth century. I’ve written stage plays, screenplays, a documentary and a novel since, receiving my MFA in playwriting from the University of Southern California. I love the theater and have been recognized for my work, but never in a way that allowed me to pay the bills.
Knowing this about me, you would think I’d much rather sit down with a good work of fiction or a book on philosophy than pick up a book on business. So how did I end up starting my own business as a corporate speechwriter, speaker trainer and ghostwriter, as well as an editorial consultant?
My story, I have come to find out, is far from atypical. In my travels and interviews (and through general curiosity), I have come to know many people like me in business—creative writers, former academics, artists, actors, teachers, all who fell into business by necessity and happenstance. My father also started out as a writer, but he always knew that he wanted to be a businessperson. His experience is not the only way people find themselves in business or even come to lead in business. What I’ve come to see is that business needs creativity as much as the theater does, maybe more at times because its impact is felt so profoundly in our everyday lives. I have been welcomed in today’s business climate—a world that now very much wants “accidents” like me.
I was happy when the February 2004 issue of Harvard Business Review called the MFA the new MBA. As HBR noted, “[A master of fine] arts degree is now perhaps the hottest credential in the world of business. Corporate recruiters have begun visiting the top art grad schools. The supply of people with basic MBA skills is expanding and therefore driving down their value. Meanwhile, the demand for artistic aptitude is surging” (from “Breakthrough Ideas for 2004: The HBR List,” by Daniel H. Pink).
My personal story, and how I “accidentally,” thanks to my father, found myself in business, is a tale about my finding out just how much creativity and pragmatism ultimately need each other. The resulting amalgam of those two values touching hands is the source of my (and lots of others) entrepreneurship.
Years ago, the idea of becoming an entrepreneur was nowhere on my radar, but that changed quickly after my son came into the world. My father came down for a visit when my son was just a few months old. I was a social worker (exploring my values) and adjunct university instructor (exploring my creativity), living and working in Asheville, North Carolina. I had never thought about money as a motivator before. I never thought about it because I grew up with my needs met. When I became a father that all changed. I suddenly felt the weight and responsibility my father must have felt but never spoke of—the weight of wanting to provide for your family and how that just automatically comes first. Unless you’re a parent, I don’t think you can understand the way I did when I saw my son born.
My son had a terrible case of colic in the beginning, and walking was the only thing that calmed him. So during this visit, I took my dad for a walk on the trails of the arboretum not far from my house. My son was in a baby carrier on my chest and before long he fell asleep there. It was autumn, my favorite time in the mountains, and the yellow, red and purple blended overhead and around so that after a while we were swimming in color.
I didn’t say a word about my worries for the first mile or so of the walk; I was just glad to be out there. I finally spit it out when I couldn’t take it anymore: “What about business?” I said to Dad. Hearing the words come out of my mouth felt too strange to linger on them.
After the air settled back a bit, we talked about options and the idea of my using my skills as a playwright. Dad knew (though I had no idea) there was a whole field of work to write speeches for business leaders and then to coach them on how to address their audience. On the spot, he helped me come up with a plan of action. It is what Dad does best.
And there it was. When we got back to the trailhead, I took my eyes off the near-perfect leaves and looked at Dad. It was like meeting him for the first time, father to father, and without a word, I understood things about him that I never could have before.
Soon after that walk, I moved near New Orleans temporarily, to be close to my in-laws and get some physical support for my young family so I could focus without worry on turning my talent into a viable business. I set up an office in my in-laws’ study and, with high-speed Internet access, a borrowed fax machine and a cell phone, hatched my company, WriteMind Communications. Before long, after a lot persistence and a bit of luck (those two seem to go together), I was able to return to Asheville with my family and grow my business there. In time, I was able to take my playwriting and directing instincts, coupled with my approach to Zen practice, and turn them into a unique speechwriting and speaker training consultancy that Fortune 500 CEOs were glad to have access to.
From The 100-Mile Walk: A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Jonathon@writemindcommunications.com
He and his father are coauthors of the book The 100 Mile Walk: A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership (AMACOM 2006).