The Monk and the Riddle

"There’s nothing wrong with cashing out and making a lot of money – unless those ‘other things’ you intend to get to are what you’d rather be doing all along."

- The Monk and the Riddle, page 48

What is the primary purpose of a business? To provide a profit for its owners? To provide a product to a customer?

What if it were about creating the life you want to live while creating value for others? In a business book for entrepreneurs that reads more like one of Aesop’s Fables, Komisar lays out a compelling vision for what businesses should be. But if we’re to expect more from our businesses, it is up to us to hold ourselves to higher standards.

“The rules of business are like the laws of physics,” writes Komisar, “neither inherently good nor evil, to be applied as you may. You decide whether your business is constructive or destructive.”

Komisar argues convincingly that a business isn’t primarily a financial institution, but a creative one. Business is “more like a canvas than a spreadsheet… Because business is about change”. The extent to which we are willing to put up with the changes in our business is dependent on the energy our business provides us. Little is within our control in business, whether it is shifting customer tastes, increasing competition, or evolving suppliers, the energy running a business requires is significant. This energy increases as we learn to get off The Deferred Life Plan.


The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Get Off the Deferred Life Plan

"The Deferred Life Plan: Step One: Do what you have to do. Then eventually – Step 2. Do what you want to do."
- The Monk and the Riddle, page 65

The majority of us go through life on The Deferred Life Plan. We work because we need to get paid so we can eventually retire and afford to do the things that we want to do. Komisar asks the question, “What would it take for you to be willing to spend the rest of your life on” what you’re currently doing?

What that question asks of us is, if our lives were to end suddenly, would you be able to say that you truly cared about what you’ve been doing?

That powerful question serves as a kick in the pants for those who might be “serving time” in their current position. It encourages us to take control of our business and lives because we do not know what the future holds in store for us, nor how long that future is.  The message is clear: define the type of life you want to live and go create a business or career that allows you to be passionate about your work.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Decide What You Want Your Life and Business to Be

"Rather than working to the exclusion of everything else in order to flood our bank accounts in the hope that we can eventually buy back what we have missed along the way, we need to live fully now with a sense of its fragility."
- The Monk and the Riddle, page xiii

We see it happen far too frequently. Someone starts with a dream, but puts the dream on hold to do something else. They have some success (or not) and they learn of other opportunities, putting their dreams on hold for those opportunities. Though he is speaking largely of Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs, who get swallowed up by the “casino economics” of the valley, Komisar’s lessons apply to everyone: the quickest way off the deferred life plan is to be clear about what we want.

Having a clearly defined mission, or a sense of purpose, allows us to evaluate opportunities as they relate to our mission. Further, having passion for what we do has the added benefit of attracting the support of others, whether it be an investor in our business or an employee who can help us realize our mission: “It’s the romance, not the finance that makes business worth pursuing”.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Unimportance of Failure and the Importance of Passion

"If you’re brilliant, 15 to 20 percent of the risk is removed. If you work twenty-four hours a day, another 15 to 20 percent of the risk is removed. The remaining 60 to 70 percent of business risk will be completely out of your control."
- The Monk and the Riddle, page 152

The fact of the matter is that the success or failure of our business is largely beyond our control. One of the main points that Komisar makes repeatedly throughout the book is that failure largely doesn’t matter if we are working towards something we are passionate about. In fact, passion may insulate us from the damaging effects of failure. “There must be something more, a purpose that will sustain you when things look bleakest. Something worthy of the immense time and energy you will spend on this, even if it fails”.

Purpose, which is largely dependent on how much value we create for others, in our work helps us move beyond any setbacks. It helps us deal with the 60 percent of success that is left to chance. Those of us who wait for things to be perfect before starting our businesses are leaving too much up to chance. Start your business even when things aren’t perfect. Even if you fail, you’ll still gain in the long-run.

“The Valley recognizes that failure is an unavoidable part of the search process,” says Komisar. “Silicon Valley does not punish failure. It punishes stupidity, laziness, and dishonesty. Failure is inevitable if you are trying to invent the future.”

Failure, in many instances, comes with its own set of rewards. If you go out and try to start a business that you’re passionate about, failure brings you a step closer to the correct solution. Don’t be afraid of failure; the market punishes not trying more than it punishes failing.


We’ve all heard the story of the MBA who tries to help the Mexican fisherman expand his fishing business so that, one day, in 20 to 30 years, the Mexican fisherman can afford to do all the things that he loves (and is currently doing now). The Monk and the Riddle encourages us to pursue our passions now.

The major takeaway from Komisar’s book is on how we should live our lives, “Work hard, work passionately, but apply your most precious asset—time—to what is most meaningful to you”. What that is; that is for us to decide.

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William Zahn

ABOUT William Zahn

WHO ARE YOU? I am a marketing professor and scholar who, in addition to education, is interested in writing and consulting. I am married with our first child on the way...
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