By Tolulope Ilesanmi
I remember an Economics term paper I wrote while studying for my MBA at McGill, where I proposed that the solution to the conflict between maximization of shareholder value and sustainable development is love, as opposed to self-interest.
I argued that self-interest creates diminishing returns and makes booms and busts inevitable because it works from the premise of scarcity, even if there is obvious abundance, which drives the need to maximize. Love is infinitely generative and works from the premise of abundance, even if scarcity is apparent. Love is inherently creative. Love is content with apparent scarcity and nothingness because it works from the invisible to the visible. Self-interest focuses on what exists and attempts to maximize it, for obvious reasons: All we see is all there is. Self-interest caps our intelligence while love uncaps us.
I left the MBA with the thought that without shifting to love, we are doomed. Our best solutions become weapons of mass or self-destruction where self-interest rules. I believe our greatest need is a heart shift from self-interest to love.
Instead of going into a traditional MBA domain, my wife and I chose instead to start a cleaning company because it was very simple–remove dirt. I also thought that since self-interest makes us pay less attention to the seemingly non-existent, there must be something in this humble activity we are missing. Although I struggled with my identity as a cleaner, I thought that if driven by love, it is okay to not be an investment banker or a consultant or an entrepreneur in a flashier domain. It is okay to be a cleaner, if what we need to shift is the intangible, held in our hearts.
Love causes beauty to emerge from dirt.
I started to see cleaning as an obvious metaphor for addressing the challenges in our world. I started to see how the profound simplicity of cleaning contrasted with our complicated way of addressing our significant challenges. I concluded that “cleaner” was not my job but my calling. In retrospect, I was self-cleaning. I had to. The effectiveness of cleaning rests on intermittently turning inwards. A dust cloth is only effective as long as it is regularly cleaned. It is another way of saying, “We must be the change we seek in the world.” Love is not love if it does not work from the inside out.
We now see cleaning as a practice–a practice in love and empathy, a practice in making a difference, cleaning the intangible, shifting paradigms, crossing thresholds and boundaries, facing and cleaning messes, experiencing humility as prerequisite for wisdom and innovation, and a host of other practices. I now see cleaning as a simple and practical model that at least complements the models I studied in MBA class.
We summoned the courage to invite “non-cleaners” into immersive cleaning experiences in order to use cleaning as a model and container for addressing individual, leadership, organizational, societal and global issues. After all, if our models are not moving us forward, what is the harm in trying something different? We started with executives and now introduce cleaning as practice in schools and organizations as a multi-dimensional immersive educational and organizational practice, a leadership development tool and a model for cleaning – changing the intangible.
We had the audacity to come up with this definition, from which we continue to mine:
“Cleaning is the process of removing dirt from any space, surface, object or subject thereby exposing beauty, potential, truth and sacredness.”
This definition is based on the belief that beauty, not dirt, is the reality, and the purpose of cleaning is to allow the beauty to re-surface each time we clean. Love sees beyond the dirt and patiently works to uncover the underlying beauty, while self-interest tends to see only dirt and to get as much as could be gotten as quickly as possible. With both individuals and organizations, we work on the premise that the wisdom and expertise they need is already within. We are only there to uncover the potential that is often not apparent.
True cleaning is synonymous with love.
How can we address our environmental challenges as cleaners? How can we educate as cleaners? How can we manage organizations, institutions, social programs, cities and governments as cleaners? How can we parent, relate, consult or lead as cleaners? I will be talking about this more at the upcoming Social Enterprise Alliance Summit. Hope to see you there!
Tolulope Ilesanmi is the founder of Zenith Cleaners who will be leading a plenary entitled “Building an Economy on Love” at the upcoming Social Enterprise Alliance Summit in Nashville, TN April 13-16.