There’s a cost to placing all of our time, energy, and efforts exclusively in one place.
I can’t think of a more fitting book of the Bible to address this struggle than Ecclesiastes. The majority of Ecclesiastes is written by Solomon, a man with incalculable wealth, world-renowned wisdom, unmatched power, and a list of accomplishments to put anyone to shame. And yet Solomon explained that even with all that, life often felt like hevel—a Hebrew word that means “vapor” or “smoke.”
Four Ways Entrepreneurship Disappoints
Solomon identifies four areas of life that disappoint us, not despite our successes but because of them. Every entrepreneur today needs to keep a close eye on each of these four areas, lest our well-intended entrepreneurship becomes hevel, an impressive-looking cloud, full of nothing.
1. Pleasure ultimately disappoints.
Solomon writes, “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure” (Eccles. 2:10). Everything in Solomon’s house was made of gold. He feasted on the richest and most exotic foods from around the world.
But Solomon wasn’t just a rich guy who happened to have a ton of money. He was also preternaturally talented. He was so well read that kings and queens from other nations marveled at his knowledge. He could write bestselling books on every subject imaginable. He even wrote songs that have endured for millennia.
Having done all this, what was Solomon’s verdict? “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Eccles. 2:11).
In other words, “I tried to have it all. I succeeded. And it was completely, utterly empty.”
2. Even the best business wisdom sometimes fails.
Here’s Solomon again: “I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Eccles. 9:11).
Every entrepreneur knows that by and large wise business practices win out over foolish ones. But that general principle isn’t an ironclad law. Sometimes life just feels, well, unlucky. And when that happens—when your wise business practices don’t automatically lead to success—your whole life doesn’t have to crumble. Instead, you can understand that God’s wisdom and plan are better than anything we could come up with.
When your wise business practices don’t automatically lead to success your whole life doesn’t have to crumble.
3. In the same way, worldly justice systems eventually fail us.
As Solomon notes, “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless” (Eccles. 8:14).
We’ve all wrestled with this painful reality at some point. Sometimes on this earth good goes unrewarded and evil goes unpunished. Even worse, there are times when evil not only goes unpunished but seems to be rewarded as a path to success.
Should we hold people accountable for injustices in business? Absolutely. Insofar as it lies within our power, we should not only model integrity but also insist on integrity all around us. But we also have to acknowledge what Solomon knew: corruption often wins. And if our entire worth is built on our entrepreneurship, that reality threatens everything.
4. The fruit of our labor crumbles.
Solomon writes, “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless” (Eccles. 2:18–19).
We may think through succession plans. We may codify our values in our institutions so that they outlast us. We may raise up leaders to carry on what we’ve built. But there are no guarantees. One day, like it or not, we will have to take our hands off our enterprises.
Four Truths for Entrepreneurs
So, if nothing we do lasts, and if justice can fail us, then why care about doing the right thing? Why not just live it up and leave the mess for someone else to clean up?
Solomon encourages us to see a bigger picture—one in which we gladly realize that entrepreneurship can’t deliver satisfaction, meaning, or significance, because we already have those things in Christ.
Here are Solomon’s four truths to help you avoid the dangers of entrepreneurial hevel.
1. Realize that you were created for God!
Satisfaction, meaning, and significance are not found in success. They are found only in our identity as God’s children. When we root ourselves in that identity, the vicissitudes of life can only push us around so much. Success will still feel great; failure will still feel terrible. But with a firm anchor in Christ, success cannot intoxicate us, nor can failure devastate us.
Ecclesiastes ends with Solomon realizing that the only thing left for us to do, in light of all that is meaningless, is to fear God and keep his commandments. Our relationship with God, and our life that flows from it, matter above everything else.
2. Arrange your life around the certainty of judgment.
Death and the judgment of God are two of the only absolute realities in your life. That judgment could come for you this afternoon; it could come in 70 years. But come it will.
This reality shouldn’t terrify us. For believers, we know what lies on the other side of death. But it should sober us and moderate our expectations in life. We have only a short time on this earth. And only a fool would live as if he were going to live forever. So, as Solomon says, know how to count your days, and then make your days count.
We have only a short time on this earth. And only a fool would live as if he were going to live forever.
3. Decide what God wants from you and pursue it.
Solomon acknowledges that there is nothing in life that guarantees success—not great skill, careful planning, or even righteous living. You have to embrace that truth and still work with wisdom and planning. Solomon writes just a few verses later, “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that” (Eccles. 11:6). In other words, don’t let the uncertainty of life and the possibility of failure paralyze you.
If we as entrepreneurs want an ironclad divine promise of success, we’re just not guaranteed that in life. But that’s not supposed to discourage us from taking wise, well-calculated risks.
4. Seek happiness in the present, not the future.
Solomon explains that we have a real temptation to always try to find happiness “out there.” But happiness is not around the next corner. It’s a gift from God for the present. You should look for it now, not later. If you’re not happy, Solomon says it’s not primarily a problem with your circumstances but your relationship with God.
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (Eccles. 12:13). That’s it. After everything that Solomon talked about, his conclusion is that we are to look to God, to fear him and obey him in the time we have.
Pascal, in his Pensées, said that the tragedy of many successful people is they never actually learn to enjoy life because they are always living to enjoy it later. He writes:
We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.
For the believer, that need not be true. God has good things in store for his children—not only in the future, but today.