The Happiness of Pursuit

Thomas Jefferson, my dad believed, got it backwards.

Growing up, my brother and I always did our homework at the dining room table. Dad, of blessed memory, would unfailingly join us, sitting in his chair (don’t even think about sitting in it) with black coffee in his chipped cup (don’t touch it either). One day, I was working on my history teacher’s assignment on the Declaration of Independence.

“You know, Mr. Jefferson got it wrong,” Dad asserted. “Life’s not about the pursuit of happiness. It’s about the happiness of pursuit.” This from a horse-whispering cowboy who served as a radioman in a B-17 Flying Fortress during WWII but never went to college.

Mom, who earned a fine arts degree from the University of Iowa, chirped in,
“And what would you know about Mr. Jefferson, dear?” She always said dear to soften the punch. They loved a good intellectual parley.

So Dad argued his case, opening with, “If our happiness is mostly beyond our reach, like some carrot to be chased, we won’t enjoy the work —the hard toil of living. We must be happy in the work itself—the happiness of pursuing what we want, not just when we win it.”

What Dad Learned at Pioneer Days

“And when did you have this epiphany, dear?” she asked. (And then turned to me with an order, “Look it up.” Epiphany, she had decided, was my word of the day.)

The moment was instantly on dad’s tongue: “Cheyenne, Wyoming. Pioneer Days, ’51. Rusty and I were waiting for the steer to break.” Pioneer Days was the national rodeo, and Rusty was his incomparable, steer-chasing bottle rocket of a quarter horse.

Poking a spot in the air with his index finger, the tip of which was lost to a dehorner years earlier, “It was the happiness of pursuit.”

“I was there, dear,” Mom rejoined. “You were in the money, and you’d have been pretty unhappy without it.”

“Yes, the money was nice. And we needed it—and I handed it over to you as you recall,” he said, wagging his finger like a wiper blade at her. “But I was happy for the shot at it more.”

Enjoy the Daily Grind

Dad’s argument is an important lesson for established entrepreneurs who want to “unstick” and grow their businesses.

We must delight in the pursuit of building the business itself. It’s not enough to just savor our results or those fleeting moments of triumph, when we can pay bonuses or take an extra helping of owner’s draw.

We must enjoy eating crow warm, when someone smarter finds our errors. We must savor the patience it takes to really get our brand positioning right, for without that, we face the killing fields of undifferentiated price competition. We must delight in constantly tuning up our marketing and lead generation engine.

We have to welcome the rough and tumble of selling and developing effective sales channels. We have to focus on how we touch our customers, designing each moment of a customer interaction. We must smile as we repeatedly drive our satisfying brand into their brains, so that choosing us is unconsciously pleasant.

We must think in terms of “not yet” instead of “no” to ideas our team members propose, especially after we’ve made our intentions clear. We have to eat our accounting peas and not let money move from where it’s measured to where it’s not (it invariably will otherwise).

We have to pay attention to our front-line team members in every area of our business model, from the front counter all the way to the back office. We have to find happiness in doing the things we’re not good at by finding those who can mentor and teach us—or better yet, hiring them.

We have to remember that happiness is within our reach in this moment, and the next, and the next.

It’s true: Much of what drives our businesses’ growth is out of our control. We won’t succeed beyond what our neighborhood, our city and our nation can do to keep the seas calm enough to not swamp us. But we still have the ability to design and run a tight ship that’s hard to capsize—and there’s pride enough in that.

Before we can drive our businesses with strategy or tactics, it must be driven by our hearts—with the happiness of pursuit.