Don’t Read This If You’re A Pessimist

This post is a book review, but it starts with a story from my past.

Way, way back, before San Francisco begat hip startups with nonsensical names, I found myself on the second floor of a near-abandoned warehouse on South Park, now one of the priciest areas of SF, but then, one of the cheapest. I surveyed the place: well lit in the front, but a shithole in the back. Detritus from years of shifting usage littered the ground — abandoned construction materials lurked in the poorly lit rear recesses, toward the front, where a wall of dusty industrial windows overlooked Second Street, a couch faced outward, and it was in this space I first met Louis Rossetto, founder of Wired and for all I could surmise, Willy Wonka’s twin brother from another mother.

The floorspace around the couch was tidy and inviting, and soon Louis and I were joined by Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor — Yoda without the articulated ears. We bonded that day, and so began an extraordinary journey for me, all of 26 years old: A chance to work, play, and most importantly, engage deeply with all manners of extraordinary characters, all of whom were drawn by Wired’s early message of digital revolution.

One of the most luminescent of these was Steven Overman, who joined Wired as Louis’ right hand. Steven brought a patina of order to our merry enterprise, but in those early days, as with so many of the band mates we called colleagues, I had no idea how fortunate we were to work with him.

Steven is now the President of the Consumer and Film Division and CMO of Kodak, responsible for guiding a brand that once enjoyed near-infinite permissions on the difficult journey back to its birthright. Prior to Kodak, Steven held senior roles at Nokia, first during its remarkable ascendance, and then through its capitulation and ultimate defeat through combination with Microsoft. But in between, Steven’s also been a company creator — in the 20 or so years since we worked together, he’s launched multiple consulting, social impact, and services businesses — all focused on the core DNA that bound us together at Wired: The transformation of our world through a potent brew of business, technology, and culture.

In 2014, Steven wrote a book that I now recommend to you all: The Conscience Economy: How a Mass Movement for Good is Great for Business. That I initially missed the book’s publication, with its clear resonance with the work we’re doing at NewCo, is both a personal misgiving and a joyful revelation. That Louis wrote the foreword, in full and impossibly messianic voice, was pitch perfect — what a joy it was to once again hear his distinct tone, and then to experience Steven’s energy in the pages that followed.

So yes, this “review” is flawed in its subjectivity, and if you’ve no patience for deep and abiding optimism, you best stop reading now. Because Steven hits the optimism pipe hard. He argues for nothing less than a global awakening to a more spiritual and conscious approach to business — a movement based on the arguably careworn idea of “doing well by doing good.”

This idea is not new — in fact, I’d argue the phrase has already run its initial course through business culture and been canonized — and therefore defanged — as “CSR” in Fortune 500 parlance. But Steven readily skewers mainstream approaches to “corporate social responsibility” as toothless bolt-ons to a dying business culture. CSR isn’t a sideshow, he argues, it’s the whole show. And I believe sweeping trends in society — many of which Steven details in his book — will prove him right.

First and foremost is technology. Yes, cue the eye roll, but stay with me: As I’ve said for 15 years, technology is no longer a vertical industry, it’s a horizontal force enabling all manner of new value creation. Second is demographics: the two largest generations in our workforce are in legacy assessment phase: The purpose-driven, entrepreneurial millennials now dominate our economy, and the wealthy “joiners” we call Boomers are retiring, facing mortality, and wondering if they’ve left the world a better place. Third is social geography: in three generations, two thirds of humanity has moved into cities, now the engines of our global culture and economy. And fourth — and most importantly — is the simple fact that all of humanity is now on a shot clock of our own creation: Climate change is the animating force uniting every person on this planet.

These four forces are the heart of what I call the NewCo narrative, and they inform Steven’s book from start to finish. “The global wave of young entrepreneurship is an indicator not only of an increase in personal self-belief and empowerment,” he writes. “The once quaintly idealistic motivation to make a positive impact on the world has thrown off its unbleached, woven-hemp cloak of hippie self-righteousness.”

Overman reminds us that it takes forty years for a Big Idea to move from the fringes to the mainstream, and argues that the core values of the Boomers in their youth are being embraced by their descendants, the millennials. Over those forty years, the rise of technology and the quickening of our global sustainability crisis have forged a new consciousness around how we do business. “An emergent global conscience is merely a practical prerogative for human continuity in a world facing the consequences of unchecked population growth and limited natural resources,” he writes. “We’ve reached a moment full of evidence from which we can’t turn away any longer.”

If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that a fair portion of it offers advice to corporate executives interested in applying Overman’s ideas to practical, day to day work. While I understand the intent, it takes away from the work’s mainfesto-like qualities. Then again, I’m clearly not the core audience, and if you are laboring away in the marketing department of a large corporation, you’ll most likely find his suggestions and check lists quite useful.

I’ll leave you with a few more quotes that I found particularly resonant, and encourage you all to read Steven’s book. It’s a keeper.

“Businesses that engender a deeply felt sense of shared mission will be poised to attract and keep the most talented and committed employees.”

‘“Responsible” is patronizing and out of sync with the new culture. The next generation wasn’t introduced to environmentalism as a fringe movement; they grew up with it as a given.”

“In this era, business innovation begins with a mission of social impact that’s as mission-critical to the enterprise as profit is today.”

“Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is no longer invisible. It has revealed itself. The invisible hand is us, the connected citizens of the world, held out metaphorically and digitally — thumbs up, thumbs down. We like, or we don’t like, and we let everyone else know. We vote for the outcomes in which we most believe, not only with our voices but with our wallets.”

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Originally published at medium.com on December 31, 2015.

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