Right Livelihood: Doing the Right Thing
Is the phrase “business ethics” an oxymoron? Are these two concepts mutually exclusive? If you have had any experience navigating the dog-eat-dog-rat race, you would find this to be the case. The ruthlessness and duplicity of your corporate masters have no doubt filled you with profound revulsion. Or perhaps you are a premiere player in the game, and have risen to the top by any means necessary?
For those who seek some civility in the workplace and who strive to live a moral and ethical life and still make a decent living, there is the contemporary philosophy called Right Livelihood. However, it's contemporary only in how it is applied to modern life. Like almost every modern philosophy and/or fad, it has its roots in antiquity.
The first appearance of the phrase Right Livelihood appears in the Buddhist Eightfold Path, an early Eastern guide for living. The Buddhist goal is to grow closer and closer to enlightenment and an awakening in this incarnation, or lifetime. And the business world is not a world rife with spiritually enlightened Buddhas-in-training. Even the popular coaching and mentoring programs in the corporate world that are designed to emulate the age-old master-and-pupil relationships through popular bromides and self-evident clichés have the profit motive first and foremost. If said pupil does not increase the bottom line by the end of the fiscal year, the coach may employ a little tough love by sending him or her to the unemployment line.
Right Livelihood is a contemporary philosophy derived from the teachings of Buddhism that espouses the belief that the best work situation is one that does not involve lying, dishonesty, or harming other people or the planet. Though a noble ideal, it is a tall order to put into practice in this day and age.
Needless to say, Ayn Rand's Objectivists would consider followers of the Right Livelihood to be wimps. “Business is business, business is war. May the best man win and if you lose, you're a loser and so long sucker” is the Objectivist approach to the business world. Right Livelihood is a workhorse of a different color.
What's It All About?
Right Livelihood can mean many things. For some, it can mean simply trying to be ethical and moral in a world where such virtues, though loudly touted, are not practiced in abundance. While this is difficult, it is not impossible. For Right Livelihood purists, it means adherence to a more rigorous set of principles that would be almost impossible to follow to the letter in modern multinational corporations.
The principle is called
Have a Nonharming Job
There are five aspects to Right Livelihood. The first principle is nonharming. Do not have any job that will cause harm to others. Easily done, right? Well, both the tobacco magnate and the convenience store clerk sell cigarettes. That minimum wage clerk also sells beer, sugar, lottery tickets, and haute couture fashion magazines wherein anorexic supermodels are displayed as Platonic Forms of femininity. All these things have been proven to have deleterious effects on people. If the teenage cashier cannot get through the day without a nonharming ethic, what about you and your job? Think about it.
Nonharming also includes, of course, not harming the planet. This eliminates a whole battery of jobs, from big oil all the way down to the silkscreen printer who illegally dumps his toxic inks rather than pay to have them disposed of by a professional. And, of course, you should not choose a job that will compel you to lie. That eliminates a career in advertising.
Find Appropriate Happinesss
The second aspect of Right Livelihood is finding “appropriate happiness.” You have to feel good about what you do, or you will suffer and all those around you will suffer. How many miserable cubicle neighbors have you had? How many disgruntled bureaucrats have victimized you, taking out their frustrations on the next person in line? People who settle for a bland job that pays the bills or join the fast track to big bucks despite the stress and unpleasantness that is attendant to the job are not finding appropriate happiness. The ideal would be to find a job that suits you perfectly — a job where you feel fulfilled, a job that you believe is helping you contribute to making the world a better place. Part of your spiritual path is to find it. No matter how long it takes, destiny dictates that the right fit is out there somewhere for the taking.
Additional “appropriate happiness” comes from producing goods and services that help the community at large. Another is using your job to become and remain free of debt. Statistics tell us that the average American family has, during any given month, $1,000 in their savings account and $8,000 in credit-card debt. The fear of financial security that hangs over so many heads like the Sword of Damocles is a hindrance to peace of mind, and hence the path to enlightenment. You cannot be as free spirited as the Buddha with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (MasterCard, Visa, Discover, and American Express) chasing you down the path.
Are you “following your bliss?”
This should be the goal of one and all, according to Right Livelihood. The theory is that if you do what you love, what inflames your soul and fires your passion, eventually the money will follow. In a climate where surveys tell us that the overwhelming majority of us hate our jobs, bliss is apparently not in abundance.
Another happiness to be achieved is being above reproach in your job. Your choices and your actions will not adversely impact others, and you can conduct your business with a clear conscience.
The third aspect of Right Livelihood is the ability to use your job as a vehicle for spiritual growth. In this day and age, people are identified with their job. One of the first questions asked when meeting someone new is “What do you do?” Many people, unless they are a big shot or high-powered person, do not want to be identified with what they do. It is only a small part of what they are, and for too many, their job is a necessary evil, not a source of satisfaction. This aspect of Right Livelihood suggests that you can make your job, any job, an exercise in meditation.
Meditation often involves repetitive acts. Their very repetition is conducive to entering a meditative state. Have you ever found yourself in your car halfway to work before you are really aware of it? You had a quick breakfast, kissed someone goodbye if you're blessed, started your car, and were on the road before you knew what hit you. That's a form of a meditative state. You were perfectly functional, and yet you were elsewhere. It is likely that your job entails a lot of repetitive tasks. It is possible to turn that monotony into a discipline. Turn repetitive motion syndrome into repetitive motion enlightenment. Whistle while you work and find inner peace.
Keep It Simple
The fourth aspect is simplicity. This is a universal spiritual principle. Keep it simple in all your affairs. Do not overcomplicate your work life with extraneous dalliances such as office gossip or office politics. Doing your job to the best of your ability and being able to sleep at night is its own profound spiritual reward.
The fifth aspect is Service. This would create an uproar among the Objectivists, who see altruism as counterproductive, destructive, and a sign of weakness. Right Livelihood teaches that the best jobs are those that do good works for your fellow men and women, and the planet.
Follow Your Bliss
Right Livelihood is also about knowing how to “follow your bliss.” This phrase was made popular by the scholar and mythographer Joseph Campbell. He maintained that if you truly do what you love and pursue your dreams, you will be rewarded on many levels, including financially.
A Dot.Comedy of Errors 1.0
Right Livelihood is easier theorized than implemented. Consider the following case study. A company that no longer exists fancied itself a new and improved business model for the new millennium.
Once upon a time, there was a company that claimed to practice a form of Right Livelihood. This was a dot.com company, and dot.com companies often believed that they were hip, cutting edge, and vastly superior in methodology and ethics than those stodgy “old economy” businesses.
The partners spent a lot of money to make it a fun and friendly atmosphere. The “hip” interior design and furniture were contracted and implemented at considerable expense. The goal was to create what the creative people called a “funky” look. Given that this was a company that designed, built, and maintained Web sites for
The ultra-cool metal stools in the cafeteria, the seats of which seemed to be metallic imprints of an anorexic supermodel's behind, were about five feet high. The dining table they were clustered around was approximately three feet high. The designers pronounced it too chic for words, but there was one minor glitch. A person cannot sit and eat at a dining ensemble that has five-foot high chairs and a three-foot high table unless they are an orangutan. Hence, the cafeteria was unfrequented, with the exception of trips to the refrigerator for designer water and free Coca-Cola.
Selected conference rooms were supplied with crayons, and the staff was encouraged to write on the walls in an effort to encourage their Inner Children to come out and play.
Staff traversed the aisles between the rows of cubicles on goofy silver scooters that were all the rage at the time. People also played soccer with beach balls up and down the aisles, and the cafeteria had a pool table.
There was no dress code because that was simply too Old World. Freedom of expression was encouraged because they were “artists.” Free yoga classes were offered, but you had to get to the office at 7 A.M. to take advantage of them. Free lunch was provided, and fruits and other delectables were placed in communal areas throughout the day.
After-hours social activities were encouraged. In fact, attendance was taken. Because the extracurricular activities invariably involved boozing, those of a temperate disposition were regarded as pariahs. A partner actually told several staffers that they were “not cool” when they refused to “do shots” — at a 10 A.M. meeting!
The company was a leviathan that gobbled up numerous start-ups from coast to coast. People from the Des Moines office were surprised to find employees of this New Economy company reviving the tradition of the three-martini lunch and announcing in a conference room that everyone must expose the waistband of their underpants in the “getting to know you” portion of the meeting.
In the new economy, many companies are offering perks to make the working life a more positive and even a spiritual experience. What would the robber barons of the Industrial Age make of ergonomic workstations, yoga and mediation classes, and even on-site masseuses? Nevertheless, business is still business as millions of dot.com employees learned the hard way.
These and many other “quality of working life” issues were enacted to create a family atmosphere and an environment where people could not wait to get to the office and go the extra mile, the whole nine yards, and all that jazz. The message was that they were one big happy family making the workplace better through advertising.
Paradise was punctured with the failing economy. Layoffs began, and the former extravagance led to nickel-and-diming. Employees, listening to Napster on their laptops, received a tap on the shoulder. Removing their headphones, they swiveled their ergonomic chair around to see their manager/mentor/drinking buddy and a large, blue-blazered security guard by his or her side. They were told to step away from their workstation. Their computers were seized; they surrendered their cell phones and Palm Pilots and were politely but firmly thrown out of the building. Personnel would be in touch with the details of their severance package, if any. The survivors of the purge were told that they were safe for the time being, but harder work and longer hours were required.
The five-foot high silver stools were sold on eBay for $600 apiece; the $2,000 light bulbs in the lobby obelisk were not replaced, leaving it looming like a single structure from Stonehenge, a monument to faux Right Livelihood and the demise of this dot.comedy of errors.
The boyish CEO still globetrotted in his corporate Lear Jet trying to woo increasingly skeptical venture capitalists. Second, third, and fourth waves of layoffs followed, and the dream ultimately died with a Chapter Seven bankruptcy.
What can we learn from this? Right Livelihood is a noble principle, but extremely hard to implement in the modern era. When companies try to force the issue, or create the illusion that they are warm and fuzzy, please be advised that the bottom line, not enlightenment, is the Nirvana they seek. You will find that many in the business world who speak of Right Livelihood are merely corporate wolves in Buddhist robes.