Et in Arcadia Ego

So it’s been a pretty good past two years here at Agate Publishing, Inc. We have been fortunate; our business has grown steadily, even as the broader economy has faltered, and we have diversified and expanded the range of publishing work that we do here. Over the past year, in particular, our staff has grown accordingly–we now have 12 full-time staff people, plus one intern, which is almost three times the number of people working here two years ago. About half our staff works in our office on a day-to-day basis, while the rest work from home most days of the week. On Tuesdays, everyone converges on the office for meetings to discuss the various matters that are best dealt with face-to-face. We bought a very large table last winter to accommodate these meetings but we’ve just about exceeded its capacity when we all crowd around it every Tuesday morning at 10. Lately, we have had a lot of good news to share.

I love these meetings. I love to see all of my colleagues assembled this way; I love hearing everyone discuss what they’re doing, advance their ideas, and ask questions of each other. And I love addressing the entire group. I usually have a rough idea of what I want to say to everyone, but I largely wing it, and I am very frequently surprised by what comes out of my mouth. A few weeks ago, for example, I found myself making reference to the French painter Nicolas Poussin.

There are those entrepreneurs known for their compelling charisma and vision and almost tangible will not to fail. I’m not that kind of entrepreneur. I’m in the camp that believes failure, if not inevitable, can only be staved off with constant vigilance and effort, and that maintaining a healthy regard for the lessons dealt by adversity is the only sensible way to function. In terms of my temperament as a business owner (and as a person), I do not incline to optimism. I spent too many years failing repeatedly at my efforts to start my company for that, and I make enough poor decisions and outright mistakes to keep my shortcomings near the forefront of my attention.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe in what I do, and in what Agate does, and in a wholehearted commitment to good work. I am not a pessimist. A few years ago, when things were especially hard at Agate, I talked frequently to our little group about the basic soundness of our business and the brightness of our prospects. But I believe that it’s when times are good that it’s most important to make the necessary preparations–especially the mental and emotional preparations–for those times when things will be less good.

I think this is something most business-owners should keep in mind. I also think it’s important to remind my staff of this, especially the newer people who weren’t working for Agate during the times when we were going through our gravest struggles. Ours is a level-headed group, and most of us have dealt with career challenges of one kind or another over the years. I don’t need to strike this note too hard. Which brought me to Poussin, who painted two different paintings called “Et in Arcadia Ego” in the 17th-century.

 Above is what the first one looks like. I took five years of Latin (which I recommend to everyone), and I love a well-timed classical allusion. “And I too am in Arcadia,” or thereabouts, tells us that even in the most beautiful settings, death still exists. Note the little skull at the top of the stone. Of course, people have been debating the meaning of these paintings for more than 300 years now, but for my purposes, I started telling my staff how the painting serves as a reminder to remain sober and grounded even during the most carefree times.

Above is the second version. It’s the more famous one, but it contains no skull, just the memorial stone. I made particular mention of that skull when I was talking to my staff that morning, though, and joked that I sometimes wished I had one nearby as a prop in the office, to brandish when I was reminding them that even though we are doing well now, we always have to be stalwart and mindful to ensure the company stays strong. To my surprise, our latest intern took this offhand remark to heart (I certainly hadn’t expected to be conjuring skulls, or Arcadia or Poussin for that matter, at this particular staff meeting) and showed up the following morning with a classic head-shop style candle composed of three stacked skulls in dark royal blue wax. This is now displayed on surface behind my spot at the foot of our meeting table. Thank you again, Sophie. As the new books come out, it’s useful to see it beside them on our office shelves.

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