Excerpt from Critical Thinking? Introduction to navigating the irrational
Business proves to be rather hypocritical when it comes to ethics, absurd when it comes to anything that has anything to do with people and in most areas sells wishful thinking as facts.
Here are a few of the most common examples: it expects loyalty from employees but fires them in droves when its mistakes have accumulated to a tipping point; it wants people to be innovative but forces them to serve processes; it calls people resources, assets, capital (notice the accounting terminology?) or just employees while masquerading as champions of human rights and faking respect toward them; it acts irrationally but expects critical thinking from its “leaders”; it hires and “develops” compliant bureaucrats and gives them power; it demands frugality but flies in private jets; it either works with margins or volumes or both in such proportions that it insults intelligence (not to be confused with smarts), our sense of justice and good taste; it is an environment where everybody’s lying habitually, even when they are not breaking the law or lobbying to enact one, etc.
Such an environment has birthed three types of players:
The majority which breaks down to three further types:
The surprised, comprising the mass. Intellectually they are 100% passive, situationally they are absolutely clueless. They keep on getting surprised by whatever happens to them. Some of these – to their biggest surprise – make decent careers sustaining the hope of their peers.
The disappointed: on the one hand they typically expect some kind of superiority from their superiors, on the other hand they have reservations about dedicating their life to coding apps, managing logistics, projects, P&L1 and similar business functions, but they are not aware of or can’t come up with any alternatives, so they take a number and get in line.
The cynical. There are two types of cynics. One is unable to grasp higher principles and deals with this incapacity with hostility toward everybody who does. The other type simply doesn’t believe in business; they don’t expect much, but they see a sea of idiots around them and they wonder how come the system doesn’t just break. Some of these start to play and become players; most don’t.
It’s very important to note that the cynics never become disappointed: this would be evidence that the organization is developing. The disappointed ones, however, often become cynics proving that the organization is in crisis.
The career driven
These people were literally invented, bred or created by business; it speaks volumes about the lower end of the spectrum the human spirit is capable of that they actually manage to make themselves believe that their destiny is to help their companies grow and they fully dedicate themselves to meeting KPIs (key performance indicators). This is especially true to people who are older than 40.
Career people religiously follow the trends and adjust, read best practices and top 10 lists of what successful people do, and faithfully comply; the only goal is to get ahead and get rewarded by positions, which gives them the only sense of identity. Some of them do, most of them don’t and they end up forming the ever fattening mid-management layer, practically running around looking busy.
They lead a humiliating existence which they are completely oblivious to; most feel the sting only when they get fired, not at all when they get promoted or when they go about their daily business.
The majority of players understand that business is not about self-improvement or professional development; they simply figure out the system and play it, although unavoidably they become part of it themselves and they always get played, too. Some of the players may develop from the clueless majority, others may be psychopaths who find ideal conditions in the business world.
Both the clueless majority and the career driven dream about reaching the “top”. This productive dream hasn’t changed since the beginning of the 20th century, but the methods to maintain it certainly have. Nowadays the advice for becoming a player is to “follow your passion”. This drives the cynics crazy, but certainly motivates the hell out of everybody else, feverishly searching for their passion; this criteria has even made it to the list of values at most companies, right next to critical thinking and performance.
We can find all three types of players on all hierarchical or seniority levels of business organizations. A junior analyst or a receptionist may be a player reporting to a cynic or to one of the clueless majority and so on.
The above description mostly applies to the so called corporate environment: multinationals, international corporations, mid-sized businesses.
When business reaches a particular size the fact that it plays a zero sum game becomes more evident: when the company is prospering it hurts the community or entire communities, including the people it employs; and the same happens when it struggles.
Many of the disappointed majority or the player types perceive entrepreneurship, including startups as an alternative. While we can see small business as a viable alternative for the current business climate, we can’t help being critical about startups.
There are many definitions for startups, some quite philosophical; we chose the following: startups are businesses that are financed by specialized investors to achieve the biggest scale in the shortest time possible. Startups are conventional businesses in many respects, the most important one being the career aspect. Although the conventional concept of a career is being challenged especially in the Silicon Valley,2 the fundamentals haven’t changed, so there are more similarities than differences.
A startup is visibly different from a global food and beverage company, for example, since it’s setup to accommodate almost exclusively kids (and with time kids with kids), and they may be more efficient at “shipping stuff”, at least until they reach a certain size, otherwise the differences are quantitative only. The deal is still to deliver on KPIs in exchange for a paycheck and perks.
Even being a founder has become a career; it’s interesting to observe that founders, similarly to other career people, tend to view the world the same way and with time even their behavior seems to be less and less differentiated, exhibiting strong cult-think – something we’ll talk about a little later.
Both startups and global corporations need to grow to satisfy shareholders whose only interest is their interest. While global corporations simply resort to throwing money on the growth problem (marketing, M&A, geographical expansions), startups, to ease this pressure, set out to “solve problems” (e.g. Airbnb) or to find “problems” (e.g. facebook) or “improve people’s lives” (all of them claim to do so) which in the majority of cases works like pills producing more side effects than the symptoms they wanted to patch up – and we are not referring to the cat or food pictures on facebook although they too are symptoms of serious social problems.3 “Improving people’s lives” that drives among other things google’s acquisitions4 is the most ingenious one that, while it’s so absurd, it’s beyond funny.
1 For those who are not familiar: P&L stands for profit and loss statement. It’s mostly an Excel sheet that is the de facto tool of “initiation” into being a manager. Some managers from all three types of corporate players identify with their corporate role to such a degree that they have their spouses run a P&L sheet at home or report to their spouse with it.
2 See The Alliance by Reid Hoffman.
3 There are of course startups that set out to solve pressing environmental, energy, health, and other problems, as well; whether or not these problems are technical in nature is another question which we’ll address later.