Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Book Review: The Monk and the Riddle.

The full title of Randy Komisar's book (with Kent Lineback) is The Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

The title's catchy, engaging, and also misleading.

Komisar is neither the "Monk" nor the "Silicon Valley Entrepreneur"--even though the book is partly autobiographical.

Komisar, a Harvard Law graduate, did leave the law for entrepreneurship, and he writes about his journey. For example, "It struck me that no matter how interesting the clients or the case, my work as a lawyer was extremely narrow and routine. I decided at that point I wanted to do what they were doing--write the script not collate the pages. I wanted to be in the other room. Practicing law wouldn't put me there." (pp. 74-75; emphasis supplied.)

I noted Komisar allowed that his work as a lawyer was extremely narrow and routine--he doesn't say that all lawyer work is that way. One of the best things about practicing law--especially trials--is that it's neither narrow nor routine. Each case requires creating a big picture (an overarching, gripping theme); and each case is unique in its facts and personalities, so it can't be routine.

In this book, however, Komisar educates another--the "Silicon Valley Entrepreneur." Most of the book represents a series of communications (including emails) with "Lenny" who wants to launch a dot com--"" Komisar dispenses business analysis and philosophical flourishes, and not necessarily in that order or in equal doses.

Philosophically, Komisar's two big ideas are (1) exposing the "Deferred Life Plan", and (2) distinguishing "drive" from "passion."

First, he writes: "[T]he deferred life is just a bad bet. Its very structure--first step one, do what you must; then, step two, do what you want--implies that what we must do is necessarily different from what we want to do. Why is that the case? In the Deferred Life Plan, the second step, the life we defer, cannot exist, does not deserve to exist, without first doing something unsatisfying. We'll get to the good stuff later. In the first step we earn, financially and psychologically, the second step. Don't misunderstand my skepticism. Sacrifice and compromise are integral parts of any life, even a life well lived. But why not do hard work because it is meaningful, not simply to get it over with in order to move on to the next thing?" (p. 83; emphasis in original.)

Second, Komisar asserts "[p]assion and drive are not the same at all. Passion pulls you toward something you cannot resist. Drive pushes you toward something you feel compelled or obligated to do." (p. 83; emphasis in the original.)

These general observations probably can't be quibbled with in the abstract, but Komisar fails to reduce them to concrete, despite his effort to apply them to "Lenny's" scenario. The more Komisar revealed the more I thought "Lenny" was apocryphal. The clincher was the alleged email from "Lenny" who supposedly wrote Komisar that the venture capitalist to whom Lenny pitched said "Lenny" "should feel free to 'explore other possibilities.'" And, then Lenny incredibly asked Komisar, "When do we get the money?" (p. 145; emphasis supplied.) If Lenny was so obtuse to mistake an "explore other possibilities" brush-off as a commitment to invest, he shouldn't be launching any business--even a lemonade stand.

In the midst of this text educating "Lenny" and simultaneously deconstructing his business plan, Komisar injected this remarkable observation about business's perceived role in society vis-a-vis the Church (which he doesn't define):

"Business is one of the last remaining social institutions to help us manage and cope with change. The Church is in decline in the developed world, ceding leadership to a materialism of unprecedented proportions. City Hall is subservient to the economic interest of its constituencies. That leaves business. Business, however, has a tendency to become tainted with the greed and aggressiveness that at its best it channels into productivity. Left to its single-minded pseudo-Darwinian devices, it may never deliver the social benefits that the other fading institutions once promised. But, rather than give up on business, I look to it as a way, indirectly, of improving things for many, not just a lucky few. I accept its limitations and look for opportunities to use it positively. In the U.S., the rules of business are like the laws of physics, neither inherently good nor evil, to be applied as you may." (pp. 55-56.)

This quote is more revealing than Komisar realizes. So, business is the new Church, and he (and those similarly-situated) educates the new high priests?

Now that the "Silicon Valley Entrepreneur" has been identified (at least the apocryphal one), who is the "Monk"?

The "Monk" offers Komisar a riddle about dropping an egg (email me if you want to know) at the book's beginning that isn't particularly insightful or applicable. However, I have to acknowledge the narrator's skill of dangling the riddle at the outset, and then revealing its solution only at the end as a "reward" to the assiduous reader.