Fifteen Paths

When I saw the description of David Weitzner’s book Fifteen Paths – “the work of a disillusioned business professor who gave up on old arguments and set out to learn about the power of imagination” – I knew this was a book I wanted to read. As the readers of this blog know, I am a business professor, and while I don’t think I would call myself “disillusioned”, I definitely have a lot of problems with the standard curriculum in business degree programs and with the negative effects of traditional business structures. ECW Press was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of the book, and I also had the opportunity to speak with David about how Fifteen Paths happened.

Fifteen Paths is an unusual business book. Unlike most business books, it doesn’t have bullet points, or quick takeaway summaries, or lists of things to do to be successful. Some readers might find the writing style to be dense, but the amount of detail in the discussion reflects one of the underlying themes of the book: that we need to pay attention to each other, and we need to think, especially about ideas that challenge us. This is particularly critical at a time when a lot of what passes for “discussion” is people only hearing or accepting facts they agree with, or talking past each other while competing to see who can shout the loudest.

David has a somewhat uncommon background for a business professor. His undergraduate degree is in philosophy, and he was a music industry executive before he went back to school to obtain his doctorate. But that diverse experience informs the core of the book: a set of interviews with artists who David considers his heroes. The book was originally structured around the theme of “finding hope in dissonance”, and the themes of dissonance, discomfort, and separation are threaded throughout the interviews.

The interviewees all suggest in different ways that instead of ignoring or avoiding conditions that are uncomfortable, these should be embraced, because these spaces of uncertainty are where the interesting things happen. For example, Lee Ranaldo from the band Sonic Youth talks about how Sonic Youth were initially labeled “noise-icians” because of the dissonance in their music, “[but] now people are using stuff that sounds beautiful alongside stuff that sounds a little discordant or dissonant”. So rather than just being aural irritation, dissonance can become another “color on the painter’s palette”.

David told me that he sees the book as a conversation.  In that spirit, after each interview was transcribed and edited, he sent the transcripts back to the interviewees to be sure that “it was still their voice” and that the selected quotes represented what the interviewees intended to convey. This type of feedback doesn’t happen as often as it could in the editorial process, but in this case it reflects the practices of collectivity and authenticity that the book describes. And while the book is built on the conversations with the artists who were interviewed, David also intends the book to be a conversation with the reader. I understood this point because this is the effect that the book had on me.

I read Fifteen Paths in bits and pieces, mostly while I was travelling on public transit. For some books, that way of reading just doesn’t work, because you miss the narrative flow and development that comes from reading large parts all at once. But I found that reading Fifteen Paths in small parts worked very well, in the same way that the back-and-forth of a conversation gradually develops new perspectives. I would read one part of the book, I would put the book down and think about what I had read, and then I would come back and read the next part and think about how that part fit into my previous understandings. That measured reading let me experience the discussion at my own pace, and let me draw my own connections between the concepts in each chapter.

If you’re wondering what makes Fifteen Paths a business book, other than that the author is a business professor, there’s two main reasons. First, all of the artists that are interviewed in the book are entrepreneurs. More than that, they are successful entrepreneurs who make a living from their work. They may not be operating on the scale of a Jeff Bezos, and all of them have gone through tough times when they struggled financially. But they all run their own businesses and are able to do so in a way that also lets them be artists and creative explorers.  David says, “They know how to work with people, and how to build value. Even if they don’t use the [business] terms that folks are familiar with, the ideas are there.”

Second, the book’s theme of “separation” is a really important one for business people to consider. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it’s okay for business to be separate from, and often more important than, the rest of the world. I see this separation, and this privileging, in the curriculum in most business schools. Students get a well-rounded education in business functions such as accounting, finance, and human resource management, but they get very little exposure to the society that those functions will operate within. Worse than that, they are also conditioned to think about business decisions mostly in relation to the financial health of the business – not on the larger impact of those choices on the rest of the world.

This narrow perspective is underpinned by the philosophy that profit maximization and growth are the most important goals, and that society should be structured to facilitate the accomplishment of those goals. I don’t think I have to list the many negative outcomes that result from this type of thinking – the increasing separation between the wealthiest and the poorest people is one very visible example – but business needs to see itself as part of society, not as something different that is entitled to do whatever it wants. Fifteen Paths encourages business people to think about how their actions can build integration and connectivity rather than isolation and divisiveness.

I’m still processing much of what I encountered in Fifteen Paths. It has a lot of ideas, and although I’ve read the book all the way through, I’m still going back to it to re-read parts that stuck with me or that I’m reminded of by something else I encounter.  Fifteen Paths truly is a conversation, and it’s an enlightening one. This book is an important read for business people, and for anyone who wants to be provoked and challenged to think differently about the world.

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