Hands Patiently Stacking Stones

I was the CEO of Brush Dance for more than fifteen years. When I look back at the initial business plan that I wrote in 1989 I see that the company achieved exactly what I set out to achieve in terms of revenues, product line, and distribution. It took us nearly fifteen years instead of the projected three years to reach these benchmarks. I sometimes describe Brush Dance as an overnight success — that took fifteen years to achieve.

I also did not project the ups and downs, the near-bankruptcies, the comings and goings of employees. I never expected the pain of wondering how we were going to meet payroll and the worry about how to keep the business going when the retail environment (our customers) dramatically shifted, and when the financial picture looked completely bleak. I had no idea that we would transform into an Internet company, that my board would hire a CEO to manage the company, and that it would take years to transform the company back into being a wholesale business.

I sometimes think that Zen students and entrepreneurs are the most patient, and at the same time the least patient, people. Zen students spend long hours, days, and years, sitting, facing a wall, expecting nothing. Entrepreneurs spend a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money planning and working without knowing the results of their efforts. While Zen students and entrepreneurs exhibit great patience they are equally impatient when it comes to accepting anything less than aligning actions and values, and striving for quality.

Basho, a Zen poet wrote:

                 Fleas, lice
                The horse pissing
                Near my pillow

This poem describes the rawness of Basho’s life and his ability to describe things just the way they are. My poem for today could be something like:

               Fires everywhere
               No power
              Where is there hope?

Our lives at work are filled with difficulty. People are late for meetings. Our ideas are not met with enthusiasm. Computers crash, restart, and crash again. Other people don’t meet our expectations. Our overnight package is lost. Relationships become impossible. Cash shortages are threatening, and businesses fail. Patience requires that we fully and directly face our difficulties, that we embrace and learn from situations and from our feelings about them. Owning and transforming our pain and disappointment can be a tremendous challenge, as well as a tremendous gift.

Patience is what connects the entrepreneurial spirit required in business with facing the truth of what is actually required in mindfulness practice. It takes patience to face the truth of where we are in our work lives. The truth may include the pain of not meeting expectations, a variety of messy and challenging situations facing us each day, as well the possibilities of transformation and great accomplishment.

Zen describes several kinds of patience that can be practiced at work: acceptance of difficulty and hardship, not acting hastily, and acceptance of what is true.

Acceptance of difficulty. Our lives at work can be transformed when we completely accept that difficulty is to be expected and cannot be avoided. This doesn’t mean we take the negative attitude of “what will go wrong today?” Instead, we just pay attention to our own state of mind. We make our best effort. We meet each situation as it arises.

Not acting hastily. Given how difficult, unpredictable, and stressful our work lives can be, it is easy to respond quickly and impatiently. In difficult situations, just stop, think, and look more carefully at what really is the cause of the difficulty. When things go badly you can get upset and yell at whoever is the cause. Or, when things are rough, what if you just stop, take a breath, and notice your breathing, notice what is around you.

Acceptance of what is true. Most of our impatience comes from our wanting things to be different from what they are. Our overnight package did not arrive overnight. This is just true. There is nothing we can do to change what is. We can take actions to expedite the package’s delivery, but this action includes accepting what is difficult, not acting hastily, and accepting what is true.


  • Notice when you are patient and when you are impatient at work.
  • Write down and fill in: I feel patient when…. It is hard for me to feel patient when…
  • Notice what is most difficult for you at work. What part of this difficulty do you create? How can you transform this difficulty?