The Benefits of Concrete Love
By Tim Leberecht
I have always tiptoed around it. It’s the most important, most delicate matter. Nothing is more interesting, more essential, but for that very reason there is nothing more trivial.
This is especially true in business, where the use of “love” has become inflationary. From brands as “Lovemarks” to the self-motivational motto “do what you love,” or “love what you do,” love is enlisted to make business sound less transactional. As for Lovemarks, the louder something shouts “love,” the less lovely — or loving — it is. In the same way that Valentine’s Day commodified romance, being expected to “do what you love” has turned capitalism into the emotional labor of today’s knowledge worker. Heartbreak is now a performance issue to be flagged.
And there is also the fact that desire drives capitalist markets. “To increase desires to an unbearable level whilst making the fulfillment of them more and more inaccessible: this was the single principle upon which Western society was based,” the French novelist Michel Houellebecq writes, ever so mercilessly, in The Possibility of an Island.
But desire is not love. Or is it? Six years ago, I published my first book, The Business Romantic. It wasn’t a love story, at least not a purely happy one. To romanticize business never meant to love business to me, and there was a reason I preferred the term romance over love. In my book, the antidote to the data-hungry optimization (and disenchantment) engines of Silicon Valley was romanticism, not love. Romance remained ephemeral, abstract, lofty.
Love, however: not so much. It is both purer and dirtier. And as we rebuild our economies and societies — and for that matter, our lives — in (post-)pandemic times, we will need it. Romance won’t be enough. We need to put ourselves out there, roll up our sleeves, remove the armor, get to the heart of the matter. In 2020, the climate crisis, a myopic sense of human mastery, a society aching for more equity — all situations of which we had been aware for some time — became acute and specific. We took our time to pause, ponder, and plot. What’s needed next is to create new foundations and structures, and to hold others and ourselves accountable.
The key to creating a more beautiful economy, building more beautiful businesses, and leading more beautiful lives is love. The task ahead is to rehabilitate love, remove from it the dust of cliché and commodification, and free it from abstractions. “Authentic love is of one piece,” the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr posits. “How you love anything is how you love everything.” Whatever form it takes, it must become: concrete.
Concrete is the love that grows on you
When we identified “Concrete Love” as the theme of this year’s House of Beautiful Business annual gathering, we were apprehensive at first, and we weren’t the only ones.
My friend Eda, for instance, didn’t like the term all: “Concrete love doesn’t make any sense,” she told me: “What else would you need to say? Love is love! There isn’t such thing as abstract love and concrete love. No binaries please! Love is an act, nothing less.” She had studied philosophy, with a special focus on the concept of truth, and now works as the editor of a well-known publishing imprint. A few days after our Zoom call, Eda sent me an audio clip from the TV series The New Pope, in which the pope warns a group of Vatican priests of the consequences of “concrete love” — it can cause others a lot of pain, he said. The real pope, Francisco, used the term as well:
“True love is not distilled water. It’s the water of everyday, with its problems, its affections, with love and with hate. To love the concrete. Concrete love cannot be concocted in a lab.”
Concrete isn’t flushed cheeks, the rush of sentiment. Concrete is the love that grows on you.
As the writer M. Scott Peck famously put it: “Love is not a feeling…. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action.” What The New Pope’s pope objected to was the danger that love in action can acquire a force and momentum of its own, crushing good intentions once intentions become the thing — the thing that gets you good press, accolades, even the satisfactions of ego, puffed up on one’s own virtue.
So we have some questions to answer.
What exactly makes love concrete in business? For starters, consider the following examples:
Chynna Morgan, CEO and Founder, GIF Out Loud, wrote: “During COVID-19, I have had a lot of free time to connect with others. I have been reaching out and mentoring different college students that have tech startups and that might need help strengthening their business strategy or marketing. I enjoy giving back to the next generation, glad they can use my knowledge and resources to amplify their goals. Hoping they pass it on to others once they get in my position.”
A UPS delivery driver, Anthony Gaskin, went above and beyond his normal duties to deliver 200 packages a day through the lockdown and the flurry of this past year’s holiday season.
Dan Price, the CEO of Seattle-based Gravity Payments, who in 2015 took a $1 million (90 percent) pay cut so that he could introduce a minimum wage of $70,000 for each of his employees. In August 2020, Price reported that the company — defying all critics who scoffed at Price’s “socialism” — was flourishing: “Our business tripled. Staff who own homes grew 10x. 401(k) contributions doubled. 70 percent of employees paid off debt. Staff having kids soared 10x. Turnover dropped in half. 76 percent of staff are engaged at work, 2x the national average.” When the first wave of the pandemic hit and Gravity lost half of its revenue, employees took voluntary pay cuts in return (anonymously writing down the percentage of pay cut they were willing to accept for the coming months), which Price later restored as soon as the company’s situation improved.
The famed coach of Football Club Liverpool, Juergen Klopp, who replied to an 11-year-old school kid sharing his fears over going back to school after COVID lockdown with a personal letter admitting his own nervousness before and during games.
Or the unusual marketing campaign by bestselling author Paul Greenberg, acclaimed writer on the climate crisis, the ocean, and our eating habits. For his new book, Goodbye Phone, Hello World, he skipped the usual mass email blast, and in keeping with the message of his book, applied a more human touch. He sent out 1,500 personal emails to his network; in other words, he wrote 1,500 emails! In an age of Customer Relationship Management systems and Mailchimp, that’s a revolutionary (and concrete) thing to do.
The beauty of things that don’t scale
Greenberg’s labor of love reminds me of what I wrote years ago in an essay about The Beauty of Things That Don’t Scale and have kept repeating, mantra-like, in my talks ever since: “We don’t want personalized experiences, we want personal experiences.” The Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi and the technique of Kintsugi, the repair of pottery, both highlighting the cracks in broken objects, have known this all along: a handwritten, illegible note, a peek into the messy studio of an artist at work, a gaffe in a presentation — imperfection makes a person lovable, and the same holds true for a product or brand or business.
We want an intimate relationship to the people and objects that make up our world. When you scale things, the problems begin. “You need to make things one by one. If you start making things just because of the money, just because of business imperatives, they will lose their beauty.” Said Takahiro Yagi, sixth-generation head of tea-caddy maker Kaikado and a Japanese craftsman, a so-called Shokunin, in a Zoom conversation with Gianfranco Chicco, the creator of The Craftsman Newsletter.
Does our love scale? Likely not. (No one has enough time.) How about concrete love?
You could say the mass production of millions of COVID vaccines is a great example of love made concrete in and through business. And how would other large-scale manufacturers respond to Yagi’s statement? Does the love Steve Jobs demanded when he insisted on designing the motherboards of Apple’s computers with the same care and rigor as the exterior translate to the factory floor of Foxconn in Taipei or Shenzhen? Can it? And aside from the soul of products, wouldn’t it be a much more imminent expression of concrete love for contract manufacturers to care about their workers’ physical and mental wellbeing in the face of oft-cited inhumane performance pressures, automation, and most recently coronavirus shutdowns and lay-offs?
Is it possible to scale whilst maintaining the soul of both product and worker?
Walter Benjamin wrote in his seminal essay on The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction that “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” It loosens its dependence on tradition and “cult value.” The reproduction — in other words, the scaling of a product or business to appeal to a mass market — actualizes its “aura” and thereby devalues it.
When you actualize love, you can experience wondrous forms of bonding, care, and tenderness, transforming everyone involved. Or you get a commodified form of love.
One example of quantified love, or rather, sex, of course, is prostitution. The French writer Emma Becker worked in a brothel in Berlin for two years, as research for her book, La Maison, in which she investigates the many shades of desire and the power dynamics between prostitute and customer. The book received wide acclaim, but was controversial, too, with Becker accused of omitting the reality of forced sexual labor. Her experience suggests a new perspective on sex workers, offering a cinema-verité alternative to the narrative of victimization. Hers is an unglorified, unromantic account that gives sex workers more agency.
“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole,” the poet Derek Walcott said. If we want concrete love, we have to bridge false dualities — to call out stark realities and power differentials while tenderly tending to the disappointed, the bruised, even the hardened cynics.
Sensuous knowledge and the possibility of an erotic economy
Minna Salami, a Finnish Nigerian writer, who runs the award-winning MsAfropolitan blog, writes about the suppression of Black women and women of color. Her approach is deeply personal and inclusive. In Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone, her latest book, she takes aim at the narrow concept of knowledge propagated by the Enlightenment — a male, Eurocentric view of the world that frames knowledge as power, as something to acquire in order to exert control. Against this view she pits her concept of Sensuous Knowledge, which is inspired, among others, by the Romantic philosophers and artists — namely, the painter Caspar David Friedrich and his views on interiority — and their insisting on the truth of the imprecise, namely poetry and art.
It may seem a bit far-fetched to draw a direct line from the Romantics (who like their Enlightenment counterparts were mostly white European males) to black feminists (or, actually, maybe not, since Eva Beatrice Dykes, the first Black American woman to fulfill the requirements for a doctoral degree and the third to be awarded one, co-wrote a paper on The Negro in English Romantic Thought: Or a Study in Sympathy for the Oppressed), but they appear to share a similar sensibility:
“Ultimately, we cannot become free unless we are subjects,” Salami writes — and the Romantics would agree with that sentence more than the part that follows: “And we cannot become subjects using Eurocentric, masculinist approaches to epistemology.”
“Again and again, black feminists have argued that because the reigning system is a soulless one, the remedy is a way of knowing that incorporates poetry and art, the language of love,” Salami writes. In this vein, Salami suggests that “If we applied Sensuous Knowledge to the economy, it would produce an ‘erotic economy’ of sorts, in which reciprocity and sustenance rather than surplus and scarcity would thrive.”
Compatibility is an achievement of love, not its precondition
And what of reciprocity and sustenance in the form of longtime companionship? Is comfort the death of erotic spark, as some argue? Or are we just thinking about it the wrong way?
Any relationship is the desperate attempt to reproduce the thrill of falling in love, and the comfort of undivided attention as both parties struggle to be more interesting than the other person’s smartphone, as Swiss-British philosopher and author Alain de Botton puts it.
How can we make things concrete without killing their magic?
The Australian-American writer Shirley Hazzard, in her short story The Party, zeroes in on that ominous moment in relationships when every party that a couple attends becomes a crisis to be managed, every return home a defeat. “One can’t ask to be left alone,” one of her female characters ruminates, “or not to be touched, even once in a great while, without creating a scene — without changing everything.” And so we stay in our relationships because “leaving would require too much effort.” Indeed:
“Starting over in love is such a journey — like needing a holiday but not wanting to be bothered with packing bags and making a reservation. So much trouble — being artful and charmful, finding ways to pretend more affection that one feels, and in the end not succeeding, because one doesn’t really profit from experience; one merely learns to predict the next mistake.”
De Botton thinks that you always marry the wrong person, not because you are blinded by romance or settle on a compromise candidate who guarantees you security after your desires for adventure turned out to be too dangerous for you; no, there simply isn’t a right person. Every match is a mismatch, and love grows between those who can accept it, gently, and forgive each other for it:
“Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the ‘not overly wrong’ person.”
De Botton’s conclusion is true for romantic relationships and business teams alike: “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.” Keep that in mind the next time you hire!
The eros of impact
If all this sounds too heavy, then rest assured: when love becomes concrete, we can get hurt — but it’s also when the fun begins.
Concrete Love entails the artifacts of idealism, the joyful sculptures of artists and amateurs (“lovers of something”) at Burning Man or any communal arts festival, where the ephemeral manifestations of a faux reality are dreamed up as precursors to an actual new reality.
Concrete Love looks to a new hedonism after all the austerity, perhaps a more conscious hedonism but still driven by the aching desire to be irresponsible again (ok, the COVIDiots who denied and failed to comply with social protocols are exempt), to be individuals again, not citizens. Is that ethically questionable? You bet. But concrete risks transgression, too.
Concrete Love takes the risk of impact. It is erotic, poetic, material and immaterial, exterior and interior, political, feminist, and specific; it is expressive, but not necessarily explicit.
What will we have learned after our Concrete Love festival? On one of my many pandemic walks through Berlin, a friend asked me the other day, “After you’ve become familiar with all the definitions and workings of love, are you not afraid to find out something about love that might just disillusion you?”
Perhaps dealing with love so intensely is a recipe for disillusionment. The thrill might be gone, and in the end the bottom line might be negative.
And still it will have been worth it. My hope is that, as part of Concrete Love, we will have launched several initiatives with material and immaterial impact. We will have opened a physical, permanent home for the House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, grown a global community of “Residents,” forged new connections, and planted the seeds for more individual and collective action to follow.
Most importantly, we will have talked about love. That matters, for every conversation about love is love.
- Emma Becker, La Maison (Flammarion, original French edition, 2019)
- Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Penguin Great Ideas, paperback edition, 2008; originally published in 1935)
- Gianfranco Chicco, The Craftsman Newsletter
- Alain de Botton, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person (The New York Times, 2016)
- Paul Greenberg, Goodbye Phone, Hello World: 60 Ways to Disconnect from Tech and Reconnect to Joy (Chronicle Books, 2020)
- Shirley Hazzzard, Collected Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)
- House of Beautiful Business, The Future of Experiences (2020)
- Michel Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island (Penguin Radom House, paperback edition, 2007)
- Tim Leberecht, The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, And Create Something Greater Than Yourself (HarperCollins, 2015)
- Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (Kore Press, 2000, originally published in 1978)
- Richard Rohr, Essential Teachings on Love (Orbis Books, 2018)
- Minna Salami, Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone (HarperCollins, 2020)
- Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (Yale University Press, paperback edition, 2009)
- Miya Tokumitsu, Do What You Love And Other Lies About Success and Happiness (Simon & Schuster, 2015)
Tim Leberecht is the co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business, a global platform and community for making humans more human and business more beautiful.