No one ever grows up wanting to be a businessman

In No One Ever Grows Up Wanting To Be A Businessman Paul explores how Yvon Chouinard’s book Let My People Go Surfing has influenced our own business practices. We hope you find it interesting.

Many years ago, when Peak Mountaineering was just a fledgling enterprise, I read Yvon Chouinard’s book ‘Let My People Go Surfing’.  Chouinard is the founder and owner of renowned outdoor clothing brand Patagonia. In the book he sets out his business philosophy and, inextricably linked to that, his environmental stance.  I really loved the book and learnt a lot. I have always admired Chouinard’s dedication to using his company as an environmental role model and business force for good. Since that first edition, Chouinard has released an updated version and I have been revisiting his wise words.

The Education Of A Reluctant Businessman

Chouinard subtitles the book ‘The Education Of A Reluctant Businessman’. He explains that he never set out to create the billion dollar organisation Patagonia has become.  He really just wanted to be a climbing and surfing dirt bag who made enough to support the lifestyle he craved. But, the business grew and became more influential. He then started to see ways it could help environmental causes and influence others.

There is a section of the book where he describes going to see a business analyst.  At the time he felt unsure of Patagonia’s future path. He was hoping for guidance and inspiration. The analyst listened as Chouinard explained how the company had given millions to environmental causes. It had influenced government policy and had become a leading light for environmentally responsible business. All that had yet he still really saw himself as that wave seeking surfer and exploratory climber.  

The analyst said that the solution for Chouinard was easy.  Sell the business, keep a few million dollars to live on and feed the remaining money to the environmental causes he cherished.  Chouinard left the meeting feeling more confused than ever. He knew he didn’t want to let Patagonia go and yet it was sometime later that he fully understood why.

A Vehicle For Influencing Others  

He realised that he saw the business as a vehicle for influencing others. A vehicle for influencing them about responsible business practice and guiding the future of environmental sustainability. Even a vehicle for helping to shape the future of the outdoor world. Patagonia was a supplier of great outdoor clothing. It could also be a powerful vehicle for change.  He wanted to stay involved and it was all about influencing that journey.

Any business owner reading the book will inevitably draw parallels with their own journey and business practices. I was also struck by how one comes about owning a business at all. In my case it being a pair of outdoor guiding and training businesses.  Like Chouinard it inevitably came about from a love of the outdoors and a passion to share that with others. However, many outdoor lovers tick that box by choosing just to work as freelance instructors for other companies.  There must be something else that drives those who choose to start up for themselves.

No One Ever Grows Up Wanting To Be a Businessmen

Chouinard starts his book by saying something I thought was very powerful.  He explains that no one ever grows up wanting to be a businessman.  Children grow up wanting to be firefighters, sponsored athletes or rangers.  Businessmen like Donald Trump, he suggests, are heroes only to other business people with similar values.  He is right of course. I grew up wanting to join the Royal Navy. My own children currently want to be a mountain guide and sports therapist. Like Chouinard, I am now running two businesses and never did take to the high seas.

Chouinard is clear that Patagonia, much as it strives to be a responsible company, is still at odds with the natural environment.  They have led the way in sustainability. However, if you make outdoor equipment you can’t avoid damaging the environment to some extent.  He recognises this and recognises how every company does this too.  Chouinard says business’s are to blame for destroying nature and damaging the planet. Of course he is largely right.

The Responsibility To Be Responsible

We will never be another multi-million pound Patagonia and I feel proud enough simply to know our businesses have been able to provide a reasonable lifestyle to a family of four. Whether the business is big or small though, the responsibility to be responsible still exists.  

Patagonia focussed on carbon neutral buildings to house hundreds for their office space and yet our choice to use a super insulated log cabin is only different in scale.  We chose vehicles that were as efficient as practical and yet still we end up covering many more road miles than I would like.  We recycle equipment when possible and pass on unwanted items when practical. Even so, we still trash more ropes in a season than many climbers probably use in their whole climbing careers.

But when I pondered on all this for a while I at least was able to draw comfort from Peak Mountaineering and Tor Lea Training’s contribution. We still rely on those manufacturers that provide our outdoor clothing and equipment. However, at least I see the benefits, rather than damage, we can try and bring to the natural environment.

Our businesses are all about training others and enriching lives. I feel very proud of that.  Every Peak Mountaineer we skill up to enjoy their own adventures is another person enjoying the richness and beauty of the natural world.  We educate them in their responsibilities towards protecting this precious environment. With many we follow their journey and watch as they take flight for themselves.  It is a powerful and privileged role.

The Spark That Lit The Touch Paper

I was also left wondering about my own journey into business ownership.  What, I wondered had lit that spark in me? It may be that no one ever grows up wanting to be a businessman, but I did.  My parents were both business owners and my elder brother took that path too.  Was that the spark that lit the touch paper? I don’t think so.  I think it was, whether I rationed it out at the beginning or not, for exactly the same reasons as Chouinard.  

Just as he wanted his business to be a facilitator for the life he wanted to live, I hoped for the same from our little enterprises. We don’t always hit the mark with this. I work many more weekends than I would choose, but at least I have the flexibility to close up the office for that afternoon ride or head to the local crags when the sun shines.  I have taken chunks of time off for adventures when I reckon many employers would have laughed me from their offices for asking.  Owning a business has been a burden at times, but has created freedoms too.

But, of course, it is the influential role his business can make in trying to educate others and avert the encroaching environmental catastrophe that keeps Chouinard steering his ship. I see that we can all do, albeit in a much smaller way, something along the same lines.

Hatching Plans

We have dabbled in this with various environmental initiatives and conservation projects. Yet, as I put down his book and wrote no one grows up wanting to be a businessman after this latest reading, I still want to do more.  It has kept me awake at night over the last week and plans are still hatching, but I want our business to strive for better.  If we do, hopefully we will influence others (both individuals and other businesses), to strive for better too.

Please make sure you read Chouinard’s book.  It is a masterful analysis of the current state of play. It will at turns both inspire and terrify you.  But beyond that, please share ideas with us if you think you have something to offer or a way you can help.  I’ll definitely be getting some of those initiatives on the go in the coming months and years. It would be great if you could share that journey too.  That wise man once said ‘you must be the change you wish to see in this world’. He was right, although tragically he never lived to see that we are running out of time for change.

We hope you enjoyed No One Ever Grows Up Wanting To Be A Businessman. We also included Chouinard’s book as one of our Top Read choices here. Please check it out.