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Becoming an entrepreneur with otium’s helping hand

How the Aristotelian ideal of purpose-free self-reflection can help in starting a business

Freiburg, May 11, 2018

Becoming an entrepreneur with otium’s helping hand

Photo: Orlando Florin Rosu/Fotolia

According to Dr. Michael Vollstädt, leisure and project work are not contradictory, but can be successfully combined in an entrepreneurial manner. In his seminars, the project coordinator for “Zugänge zum Gründen” (Access to Start-Ups) that seeks to anchor entrepreneurship at the University of Freiburg conveys a present-day view of an ancient principle. Verena Adt spoke about it with the theologian, who completed his doctorate in the Collaborative Research Center 1015 Otium at the University of Freiburg.

According to Michael Vollstädt, terms like “creativity” or “innovation” have been heavily overused. Otium, on the other hand, offers more opportunity for critical consideration.
Photo: Orlando Florin Rosu/Fotolia

Mr. Vollstädt, people often speak of the “society of leisure”. Why don’t more people speak of the “society of otium?”

Michael Vollstädt: Leisure is associated with mass consumerism. The business world adopted the notion, using it as a contrast with the notion of work. The concept of otium (leisure with dignity) is less accessible.

How do you define the ideal of leisure?

Aristotle came up with the idea. It is about establishing a self-reflective way of life. In that sense, it is an elitist notion because it is based, for instance, on financial independence. Otium should not be used as a means to achieve a goal. It is a pure end in itself and oriented towards a contemplative-theoretical life.

“When people see their work as self-actualization, they work longer and better,” says Michael Vollstädt.
Photo: Thomas Kunz

This is far from efficiency, optimization, profitability and business numbers. How do you associate it with entrepreneurship?

These phenomena are connected with the development of capitalism. Today, management needs emotional competence. It's all about self-realization and authenticity, and at the same time about efficiency and effectiveness. When people see their work as self-actualization, they work longer and better.

How does that actually work, seeing as otium is without commercial interest?

We have started noticing a real blurring of the lines between work, business and culture. We can safely assume that people see no contradiction in contributing to good business numbers if they see the sense in what they are doing. Entrepreneurship is often combined with the notions of a sustainable and resource-efficient economy.

But otium in the sense of purpose-free self-reflection does not occur in work life.

That is correct. Realistically speaking, otium can no longer be a way of life, but rather something that arises in certain phases of life. If I have a start-up idea, I have a long process of development and optimization ahead of me. That is a relatively free space. Here I am self-reflective because it is about my own idea and it is a product I want to finance myself so it’s about self-preservation and self-realization. Whenever I deal with the central strategy - where do I want to go, what do I want to achieve with it, how do I want to get involved in society? - I can see in it an active reflexive space, which I can describe as otium.

How do you teach that to the students?

It varies. We discuss the topic respectively with faculty-specific nuances. During this semester, for instance, I have a seminar together with the Christian social studies on the topic of “Social Entrepreneurship.” Another seminar will be held in cultural anthropology and European ethnology - there are questions of self-optimization in our culture. Another track is the courses for profession-oriented skills at the Center for Key Qualifications, for example, currently “Personal Foundations for the Career Option Self-employment.” It’s about motivating you to be creative and self-reliant. What is important is that entrepreneurship lives from the fact that you do not engage in exclusion, but inclusion. It’s about working together as a team and with people.

Isn’t otium then just another word for creativity?

Otium has more critical potential. Creativity, innovation and similar terms have been so widespread and overused that it is hard to apply them now. Otium, on the other hand, offers more opportunity for critical consideration. Even though we have a different world than Aristotle, otium is the better term, precisely because it is relatively cumbersome and so traditional.

What is an example of successful interaction between leisure and entrepreneurship?

One starting point is the brainstorming and development process, if someone consistently works on a product idea until it is marketable. For me this is a phase of otium that brings together otium and entrepreneurship. The economist Günter Faltin, for example, explicitly points to leisure in his bestselling books on entrepreneurship. He has demonstrated his model for starting a business with a new idea for the sustainable marketing of tea. Created as a university exercise about the market economy, the company is now Darjeeling's largest importer in the world.


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