The elegance of endurance: what centuries-old enterprises can teach modern culture.

For 879 years, the oldest Sake brewery in Japan has thrived and survived through massive social, technological and economic change. Most recently it has weathered the threat of radioactive contamination from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, with its products remaining pure to their original recipes. Founded in 1141 and run by the 55th generation of the Sudo family, Sudo Honke Is an icon.

Sudo Honke’s president, Mr. Gen-uemon Sudo, is conscious of the solidity and strength of their family’s commitment.

“Fashion changes all the time, but it does not last. For us, we will continue to make our traditional products which have appealed to many throughout these years.”

Sudo Honke have created something that is deeply rooted in their own culture, their local produce and their identity; and in doing so, they have developed a product that is loved and celebrated throughout the world. They have stayed true to who they are and what they do, eschewing the growth, scale and commoditization that has destroyed many young startups. There is a lesson here about the lasting opportunities of companies that are not designed to burn bright and burn out overnight. Storied companies that hold a long, rich past at their core and remain true to their original values and traditions are remarkable, not only for their ability to remain in business over staggering periods of time, but also for their ability to adapt and change while remaining true to themselves and their purpose.

When we talk about successful founders now, we’re rarely talking about the people who have built long term businesses, and made the successful transition from being a startup, to being an established, healthy and thriving company. For the most part, we’re talking about pump and dump high growth, media and VC darlings. The ideal is no longer the driven creator, whose dedication to her craft enabled her to design and sell a product. It’s the founder as a personality who has sold their product, their company, and ultimately themselves.

We have developed a “growth as a good” mentality. There is nothing, in our modern viewpoint, that is noble, beautiful or memorable about things that are built to stand the test of time; if they’re found to be in the way of constant growth, they should be destroyed, whether they’re traditions, values or heritage sites. It’s a way of thinking that is both ancient and entirely new. Paul Jarvis puts it quite succinctly;

“From an evolutionary point of view it is explainable why we wanted to gather more and more: with more food, more water, more protection against predators, we may be less likely to die. But today, growth feeds our ego and social standing.”

Growth, where it no longer serves a purpose beyond the accumulation of more growth — in the form of investors’ returns, company coffers and the personal wealth of founders — is worshipped. And the cost is astronomical. The endless growth goals of fossil fuel companies has for all intents and purposes doomed our entire planet. The endless growth of software and platform giants like Google and Facebook has destroyed lives and damaged democracy itself. On a smaller scale, growth as a god-value has turned promising founders into burned out shells, chasing impossible goals and sacrificing their time and their lives and their health in the process.

Jurgen Appelo is the author of Managing for Happiness. His view is that growth unchecked becomes destructive.

“Why do many business leaders want bigger organizations? If the purpose of a company is merely growth, it is similar to cancer. Your business should try to be the best, not the biggest.”

There is a world outside of this paradigm. It is possible to build a million dollar company with just a handful of people, or even one single founder. There are companies with growth scale and exits are not the measures of success. They’re companies with the founders’ passion, values and ideas are kept at the heart of every decision, and every action.

I’m reminded of this quote from Karma Ura, the director of the Center for Bhutan Studies, in the New York Times.

“Growth is not a goal by itself, everyone would agree. The real goal is happiness and well-being and all those things that they represent like vitality and health, socially empathetic relations, pure and vibrant nature, and meaning and freedom. There is no necessary causal or correlational link between growth and most of these goals. So it is surprising that growth as a topic has had such a hold on leaders all around the world. The “short-termism” of growth neither encourages us to look beyond our lifetimes to the distant future generations nor to pay our respect to the tremendous works of past generations on whose inheritance we live.”

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