To Be Of Use: The Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work

"Meaning has to do with human relationships and our contribution to progressive purpose and growth in understanding and responsibility. Helping make the world a better place for us all through our work brings meaning to it." – Dave Smith

As a pioneer in the sustainable business movement, Smith & Hawken co-founder Dave Smith is on a mission to inspire people everywhere to reconcile compassionate values with capitalism. His new book, To Be of Use: The Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work (New World Library) is a powerful exploration of doing just that.

To Be of Use shows that business can be a force for radical change and paints a picture of how those driven by simple core values can make the world a better place. He shows how the seven seeds of meaningful work – his interpretation of the seven virtues of Faith, Hope, Justice, Temperance, Courage, Prudence and Love – ultimately result in a positive, cooperative workplace.

Smith has been an executive assistant to Cesar Chavez, co-founder of Briarpatch Natural Foods Co-op in Menlo Park, Calif., and co-founder of gardening company Smith & Hawken. He co-founded Organic Bouquet, the first national organic floral company and is currently part of the team introducing Organic To Go, a chain of restaurants offering organic meals for take-out and delivery.

He spoke with Edge Life from his office in California about values in the workplace.

What effect has the shift from small business to corporate control in this country had on values in the workplace?

Dave Smith: Small businesses are usually a reflection of the virtues and the values of the owners, and they’re privately held. It’s a shop down the street that sells whatever. The values of the owner of that company are expressed through it. Perhaps they are pro-community and good neighbors. Co-ops and credit unions are democratically controlled.

But the large corporation and any publicly traded company is not democratic at all. It’s a top-down, authoritarian company that has only one value, and legally it can do nothing else except live by the value that it has to live by, which is to work for the shareholders and do nothing that will interfere with growth and profit. There are just no other values at all that can be important to the company.

Now, when times are good and the company’s doing well, they can do good things, such as work with the environment and so forth. But the leaders in our business communities, the Peter Druckers and the Friedmans and people like that say that values have nothing to do with business. In fact, if a CEO even hints at some kind of social environmental care at all, they are subject to being fired, because that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there only to make a profit and to grow. Anything that distracts them from that is to the detriment of the company.

It’s unfortunate, but legal. I’ve talked to CEOs who would like to do more, but they’re constrained. They can’t do it. They have to keep their focus on the bottom line.

There are big companies, a few of them, that are privately owned. An example is the Interface company, which is the largest carpet manufacturer. Founder Ray Anderson is a really good guy. If you go on his website [], it’s amazing what they’re doing and how transparent they are in their goals and how they’re going about them.

Unfortunately, for 99 percent of the large corporate businesses, absentee ownership is really the big problem. As an investor, I am investing in a company only for them to grow my investment. I can vote for the board of directors and so forth, but I have no real influence. The company may be on the other side of the world, and it may be doing all kinds of dastardly deeds, but I won’t know about it. I don’t really care about it.

So who’s at fault? Legally, corporations are considered persons so they can have all the Constitutional rights that we, as people, have, even though they don’t breathe, drink the water or do anything like people – yet they’re considered people. That could be the problem. The problem could be investors who only want their investment to grow and don’t care about anything else. There are all kinds of differences between a big corporation and its charter and the small local business and its charter.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that our whole business culture is built upon cheap energy. The light at the end of the tunnel is that energy is getting more and more costly – and that’s going to change everything. When it costs more to bring a piece of clothing from the other side of the world that’s been put together with very cheap labor, but the expenses of transportation get out of hand and you can’t compete any longer with a domestic supplier or a local supplier, that changes the world completely.

The big questions at this fork in the road, where we’re at right now with high energy costs, are many. Are we going to respond to that with just more war and more exploiting of other people’s resources? Are we going to go nuclear and poison the earth and make ourselves even more vulnerable to terrorists? Are we going to go to coal, which is environmentally extremely bad for our health? Or are we going to renewable energy? That’s the crux of the decision right now.

Back in the 1970s when President Carter was in office, we had a chance then to move to renewable energy. From the things I read, it takes 10, 20, even 30 years to make that energy conversion, and we should have done it then. But Reagan came in and he tore Carter’s solar panels off the roof of the White House and basically said, "No more of that!"

That to me is the big change that is needed, and it will force us to localize a lot of our economy. It will force the big box stores to shrink. Maybe they’re dinosaurs. Maybe they’ll go out of business. I don’t know, but it gives us a huge opportunity now to make our work more meaningful. When we have to concentrate on our basic needs – food, water, shelter and clothing – that kind of work is much more meaningful to people. It’s more basic, and then as we’re able to have a direct connection with our customers instead of through the internet or through catalogs, which I’ve done all my life. If we have direct connections, that’s more meaningful to people, too. It’s like buying directly from the small farmers at the farmer’s market. That is all more meaningful to us as people, that human connection.

How does the average worker in a corporation that does not emphasize values-based culture affect change? Is that possible at all? Or perhaps they have to leave that environment if they can’t stand it any longer.

Smith: We can’t really point to a person and say, "Oh, they don’t do very meaningful work." It’s such a personal thing that has a lot to do with our own personal values, our virtues. It’s easy to point to somebody who works for Monsanto, which is a company that I just detest, because of the poisoning of the world that they’ve been engaged in for all these years. But, there may be somebody working in there who could be a whistle-blower – and that would be meaningful work.

You can’t judge other people, but I think the answer is that we get so tied up in high income and security and all the things that corporations offer and have for many years, and now it’s becoming more and more apparent that they don’t care about people. You’re a person on a chessboard. If they can save some money and make a bigger profit by getting rid of you, they’ll do that in a second. There’s no more security from these big corporations. And now they’re going bankrupt, and General Motors is getting rid of their pension system – and for all these people who worked so hard for so many years for their security, all of a sudden, poof, it’s gone.

I think the answer is to not be so tied into our materialistic side and having a high income and having the latest new car. It’s more about looking for meaning. That may mean less income. You’ve got to make a living, you have to have a decent income, but once you’ve got that need met, then meaning becomes more and more crucial.

I think we need then to look around and say, "Can I work closer to my home? Can I work out of my home?" Working out of the home, even for big corporations, is now a huge part of business, because of traffic and so forth. So the questions are: "Can I do something more independently? Can I do something locally? Can I help out in ways that I haven’t really looked at before?" And, that matches up with personal values and mission: "What am I here to do? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Did I come here for a purpose? What is it? And how can I match that up with what’s needed in my community?"

You use a phrase with regard to business, "the triple bottom line." Will you describe what that is and why it’s not commonly used in business?

Smith: I’m referring to the profit motive, environmental sustainability and social responsibility. Those are the three bottom lines that we hope companies would be able to take advantage of more. Smaller companies do, private held companies do, local businesses do, because it’s good for their business. It’s good that the public knows what they care about. Unfortunately, especially for the bigger transnational corporations, it’s just greenwash, it’s sort of pointing to things that they’re doing and making them look much better than they actually are. British Petroleum ran an advertising campaign a while back that pointed out all of their initiatives in solar energy, but it was just a minute fraction of what they were spending their dollars on.

Even the Peter Druckers of the world and the other business gurus say that the only real thing that you need to do in terms of social responsibility is to pretend that you’re socially responsible. That’s good for business. That’s good for your bottom line. But anything else, anything that’s real, don’t do it, because that’s hurting the company; that’s hurting the investors. And if a big company sniffs out that you could be making more profit for your investors than you are, that’s what’s called takeover.

They’ll go to your investors and say, "Look. Here’s what they’re doing for the environment. Instead of making you money, they’re putting money into helping the environment, helping the community and being socially responsible. If you sell the company to me, I’ll make sure that the company grows and makes a bigger profit for you and won’t get involved in these other things, which really don’t help you at all. It just helps the local community."

And they’ll be taken over – and the CEO will be fired. That’s what CEOs constantly face. I’ve talked to CEOs who have said, "You know, I just wish there was a level playing field, where the law said that we had to be socially responsible, that we had to be environmentally responsible. Then I could be on a level competitive playing field with my competitors, but they’re just going for the jugular. They’re just going for the profit, and I have to do it, too. I don’t want to, but that’s what I have to do."

You write about incorporating meaningful democratic values into the daily, working lives of management and employees. Why is this an urgent responsibility?

Smith: We care about democracy. We’re in a democracy. We care about the democratic values, and yet our whole economy and the business that dominates our culture is not democratic. It’s a military, top-down model.

Small companies will do this just naturally. People who were part of the Briar Patch Network, a group of businesses that supported each other, which I was part of back in the 70s, gave each other emotional support, traded resources, brought in expertise and had what we called "open books." I call it "radical open books."

Jack Stack and others have written about opening the books in a regular corporation. That is a process of opening your books to your employees, training them how to read the financial statements and operation numbers, so they’ll be more involved in the process of making decisions. That is really a good step, and not many companies even do that.

Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog started this by putting his financial statements in every Whole Earth catalog that went out. Each reader could see what the non-profit organization was doing, if it was making money, losing money, and so forth. But Briar Patch went beyond that, saying that anybody in the community – businesses, neighbors, customers – can come in and say, "You know, I’d like to look at the books. When can we make an appointment and sit down and go through your books and see what your advertising expenses are, what your margins are, who makes how much money?"

The whole idea was to be totally and completely transparent to the community so there wasn’t any secrecy or any suspicion of you making more money than other people in the neighborhood. That’s about as democratic as you can get, other than companies that are cooperatives, credit unions or unions that operate democratically and by majority vote. In a democratically run organization that’s set up that way, like a cooperative, it’s one member, one vote, just like the rest of our democracy. But in a corporation, it is one dollar, one vote. It’s all about money -not about values and not about democracy.

I think it’s important to have democracy in our companies, whether you allow employees to have much more say-so over their own jobs or you put an employee or employees on your board of directors. I think it’s urgent that we do that because otherwise, large corporations are growing without any kind of limits, and we’re in a world that has limits. We’re limited.

There are only so many resources. There’s only so much water, and there’s only so much fuel and energy – except renewable energy, which is unlimited. We’re just gobbling up those non-renewable resources. Renewable resources are the way to go, and having more Democracy in whatever way we can is going to make life more meaningful for anybody who works in the company.

In your bio, you are described as a "sustainable business pioneer." What does it take to make a business sustainable?

Smith: I’ve been mainly involved in organic food and organic farming, and organic itself – if it’s done right – is sustainable. Regular farming is totally dependent on non-renewable resources – oil and chemicals and transportation. Food prices are going to go up even more dramatically as energy becomes more expensive.

For an organic farmer, on the other hand, his whole method of growing food is to make the soil healthy, to bring in compost, to create compost and to renew the soil with compost, and to build the soil. If you build the soil and improve the soil, then the plants that you grow will be healthier. The best example of this kind of farming is called biodynamic farming, which goes even beyond organic farming. It’s a closed system, where you use animal manure and you use what’s left over from your farming, like the stalks of corn. You compost all that and you keep recycling that within your farm – and you don’t have to import materials from the outside. That’s the most stable farming that you can do.

When you do regular organic farming, you bring in some materials from outside the farm, but what you’re doing is building the soil and making the soil better and not depleting the soil. That’s a long-term, sustainable way of growing food. When you do that, you make your plants healthier, you don’t need poisons to fight off the pests because the plants can protect themselves. It’s just like our bodies. If we are healthy, if we eat healthy food and we exercise, our bodies can fight off disease. We don’t need to take drugs. Drugs are what is used in regular agriculture to fight off the poisons.

That is a sustainable way of farming, a sustainable way of eating and being healthier, and the sooner we can get to that place, the better it’s going to be for all of us.

Overall, though, to create that type of sustainable business, you need to have those values within yourself.

Smith: Absolutely. I think the best models for me, as I say in my book, are creative action heroes who have great internal virtues. The good model is organic farming and its importance to a local community.

You write about the counter culture – or parallel culture – that was created in the 70s by people who were moved to reinvent the way things were. Do you see such a movement being demonstrated today?

Smith: Yes, and for a lot of the same reasons. We’re at war again like we were back in Vietnam, which changed me and changed a lot of people in my generation. We went through an energy crisis in the early 70s and faced high energy prices. We had much more unemployment than we do now, but that’s bound to come.

The biggest thing about the Vietnam war was that we were being drafted. We had no choice. It wasn’t a volunteer choice to join because we needed money or a college education. When I looked at the Christian values that I was raised with – which told us, "Thou shall not kill," and the Sermon on the Mount, which asks us to take care of the poor, and the values of loving your neighbor as yourself, and doing unto others – that didn’t jive with what was going on in our culture where we were attacking this foreign country. It forced us to look at what was really going on and made us look inside ourselves and say, "What are my values and do they measure up to what I’m seeing around me?" A lot of us said, "No."

So what do we did about it? We went out and we protested, we picketed, we did whatever we needed to do. Some of us decided, "Well, we’re going to not only protest about it, we’re going to create a parallel culture, create a new way of doing business and surviving." And out of that came the Briar Patch Network and Small Business, Simple Living. That went along with all the protesting and all the reaction that came against us.

I think it’s very much like what’s happening right now. And we’ve had that experience and we now know what to do, which is to hunker down and to create small businesses again. I’m really promoting this whole Briar Patch Network way of approaching this in my own community. We started an organization several years ago called Mendocino Organic Network. That organization was responsible for kicking Monsanto out of our county and not allowing genetically modified organisms to be planted in our county. We’re the only county in California where there’s no roadside pesticide spraying, because of one of the co-founders with me, Els Cooperrider, went on a campaign to outlaw that.

The action is going to be in the local communities – in creating a new culture that’s based on renewable energy – and small local businesses and small farming built around an agrarian approach to life.

What comes to mind with regard to meaningful work when I mention each of the seven seeds to meaningful work that you describe in your book – beginning with Faith?

Smith: Faith is not just faith in our Creator, but faith in each other, faith in our community, faith in our neighbors that we can work together cooperatively to make a better world.


Smith: Hope is like anybody’s hope that we can stop the war, that we can have a better world, that our kids can grow in a better world, that they won’t face huge taxes in the future because of what we’re doing now in deficit spending. Hope that we will continue to evolve as human beings to a more cooperative and loving way of living and working.


Smith: You can’t have faith and hope without everybody being involved. Justice has to do with people in our community who, for various reasons, can’t live up to what the rest of us can. They may have physical handicaps, they may have a different color skin, but, for some reason, they’re not able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, their education or their personalities like the rest of us can. That’s an injustice within our society. Attacking another country who has not threatened us in any way is unjust. We need to stop the war. That’s the biggest injustice that’s occurring in the world right now.


Smith: Temperance is knowing when enough is enough. It is to be moderate and living within limits.


Smith: Prudence is a little bit different. It’s wisdom and sensibleness in practical matters like business. It’s being cautious, it’s being moderate, it’s having sound judgment.


Smith: Courage used to be the action hero. The Lone Ranger was my hero when I was growing up. He was one man against the world, making justice happen. Now I think it’s courageous to stand up as a person in the community, to take creative action, to make the world a better place, rather than just me by myself going out with my guns and my weapons and trying to make things better. It’s courageous in a way that Gandhi was courageous. Instead of seeking justice by overcoming evil with weaponry, it’s saying, "Okay, I want non-violent justice and I’m willing to take the abuse. I’m willing to be the person who is sacrificed if that’s what it takes." It’s not picking up a weapon. It’s willing to be at the other end of it so that our values and our courage can be expressed in ways that are more meaningful – and grow a much more cooperative and meaningful world.


Smith: Love starts with our family. It starts with our self love and loving ourselves enough to have the courage to be temperate, to be prudent, to work for justice, to be hopeful for the future, and have faith in each other. And it’s all summed up with the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And loving your neighbor as yourself.

The actual values that are similar throughout the religions of the world, like the Golden Rule, are not the values that I see our leaders expressing.

Smith: No, there’s a split. And in almost all churches, there’s a split between those who are conservative and those who are liberal. My wife plays the piano in a local church and they’re going through a horrendous battle. In the Quakers, there’s a conservative Quaker group and there’s a liberal Quaker group. The same in Presbyterian churches. And in Methodist churches, which my wife is involved with.

There’s a liberal view of life that I think is what Jesus was all about. And then there’s the conservative view, which is more institutional, imore protective and more reactionary. And that’s what I see in our government, which is supposedly controlled by the fringe right wing. It’s that kind of reactionary way of looking at life that has nothing to do with the person who Christianity was built around. Jesus just hated all of that.

What did you learn about yourself or about business during the process of writing this book?

Smith: My father was a fundamentalist minister, and I grew up and rejected all of that. My reactionary, rebellious way of dealing with my dad was very confrontative, like a lot of us were. In writing this book, I became more appreciative of my father just as a person, trying to understand why he would believe the way he does.

A lot of our parents went through the Depression. Being secure in a belief system, being secure in your home, is a big deal when you go through that. Later generations, on the other hand, grew up with everything being given to us, and so we didn’t have those kinds of constrictions. In writing this book, I was trying to understand him and appreciate him, because he was actually a great guy. He had a good sense of humor, and he joked around. He wasn’t real straight-laced, but yet he had this belief system which I just could not accept.

I found that growing up in a small church was very emotional. When I got into big corporate life early in my career, there was none of that – no emotion, everything concealed, very secretive. That just was very eye-opening to me. So the small, emotional church actually influenced me to be involved in small, local business. That’s where I found my comfort level and my meaning. The best thing about church is community – not the belief system, but the people who are there. They’re supporting each other.

I tried to find that when I left the church, and I created that in community business and in networking and helping each other out. What I learned the most is to be appreciative of my parents and of the church I grew up in.

For more information on Dave Smith and his new book, To Be of Use, visit



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