Rethinking business and Oreos. Toward a more human-centric society.
I recently wrote an article in which I argued that the frame or category of “business” like all frames and categories, was invented by humans and can be — should be, actually — reinvented or uninvented. My argument was that when we conjured the idea of “business” we invested in our creation a set of expectations and norms, and that those expectations and norms have caused considerable harm in the world — even as business has been a force for good in many ways.
I’m referring to norms such as: Shareholders are the primary stakeholders and their needs must be served first (this one is being actively challenged but is still the norm in public companies).
Or: We must grow constantly — and growth is measured in revenue and profit.
Or: As long as we operate within the bounds of the law and don’t egregiously violate commonly-accepted community standards, whatever we do is ok.
I argued that by creating this category called “business” we allowed ourselves to treat it as a domain unto itself not entirely subject to the norms and expectations we hold ourselves to in other domains (e.g., in our personal lives).
This is why we have a saying “it’s not personal, it’s business” — a statement which means “we are operating now in the domain of business and the normal human rules of compassion, kindness, or fairness do not apply here”. Even if nobody has ever used that statement to justify a bad action aimed at you, when you hear those words, you understand them immediately and know from whence they come. This is also why “yeah but this is a business” is so often used to justify taking, or not taking, some action. When used to defend an otherwise odious action it means: “I understand why X is unpalatable in our personal lives, but this is a business so it’s ok”. And when used to reject an otherwise virtuous action it means “I know why X is good in our personal lives but this is business so we shouldn’t do it”.
The moment we acknowledge that we’re operating within the frame of “business” we instinctively accept as axioms all manner of norms that are truly nothing more than figments of our collective imagination.
Such, I argued, is the power of the human cognitive system.
Step 1: We invent categories as a way of understanding the complex world around us.
Step 2: We invest those categories with meaning.
Step 3: We take action based on those categories.
Step 4: We use the cumulative weight of those actions as evidence that the categories are timeless laws of nature that must forever be obeyed.
Did you spot the logic bomb?
My article raised quite the hullabaloo. Thousands of people stormed the intergalactic headquarters of Rule No. 1 demanding a retraction. Would you believe…one or two people raised mild objections online? Yes, let’s go with that.
People asked me if I thought business was necessarily evil — even as I had pointed out that business has been a force for good.
So I want to address that question and go deeper.
No, I do not think business is necessarily evil. Which is entirely the point behind my article. I think business has often been a force for good and can be a much greater and more consistent force for good. That’s why I’m writing this. And no, I am not against capitalism. On the contrary, I believe it has been one of the most salutary forces in human history. But I do think we’ve been playing the capitalism game wrong and we must do better.
The impact that work (as defined by our “business” frame) has on workers: Work has been overly reduced to something that generates money. [Again, I’m not saying that money is bad. In fact, I so much don’t believe that money is bad, that if you do, I’m willing to take it off your hands if it will make you feel better.] But work ought not be reduced to “actions that generate financial profit”. Work is also a way we express ourselves, grow and use our talents, make a mark on the world. And so much more. When we overemphasize the financial aspect of work, we often make it harder for people to pursue their passions, to chase that crazy idea that could turn out to be life-changing, to explore, try, and fail.
But, but, but, (said with sputtering indignance) why should people pursue their passions if it doesn’t make money for the business?! This is a business after all! Let them pursue their passions on their own time!
That is exactly my point. Of course a business should make money. Otherwise it’s not a business. But how much money? Does it need to make money on every action every day? Is it not worth leaving some money on the table in order to have workers go home every night feeling fulfilled and energized? What’s the value to society, to the world, of having happier, more energized people come home to their families and communities every night? Might that be worth a few pennies of EPS?
In high-stakes elite organizations today, the pressures of work are causing mental health problems. Think about that. It’s fucking crazy! Pun intended. People in elite professions are working themselves to the point of mental health damage so that wealthy people can become wealthier (themselves included sometimes). How much profit per partner does a professional services firm need to make? Is any amount of that profit worth forgoing in order to preserve the mental health of their teams? And that’s for people with the privilege of working at an elite high-paying organization. Let alone people who are less fortunate.
I shouldn’t have to adduce mental health pathologies to make my point. It should be enough that the silent majority goes home at the end of the day feeling drained. It should be enough that TGIF is a thing and not TGIM. It should be enough that so many people are left unsatisfied and unfulfilled by their work. This is a pandemic! A pandemic of wasted human potential. But the fact that work is also creating clinically-diagnosable mental-health problems should be a treated as an emergency.
The impact that work (as defined by our “business” frame) has on society. It strikes me as obvious that sending people home feeling unsatisfied is not a good thing for families and communities. How many children don’t get the full benefit of a loving family because one or both of their parents are bringing work stress into the home? Or are bringing actual work home. How many family dinners, birthdays, anniversaries, and the like are made less precious because people are on their phones checking work emails? How many divorces has this caused? Is it worth it?
And this is all when business allows people to keep their jobs. But too often for the sake of meeting quarterly guidance, companies decide that people are extraneous and layoffs are the way to go. I’m not saying layoffs should never happen. I am saying that “business” is far too cavalier about separating people from their work and their income. This has massive impact on people, their families, and communities. What if we relaxed the EBITDA targets and raised the national happiness targets?
In case, with sputtering indignance, you’re about to tell me “But, but, but, this is business, and we have to make money”, please stop reading and go back to the beginning of the article — this time paying full attention.
And consider the products and services that businesses create. Are we getting the best of human ingenuity? There are entire sectors of our economy whose primary contribution to society is akin to another flavor of Oreo. Is that what we need? Instead of a 20 pack of Band Aids, now we’ll get a 36 pack! Yay. Is that the innovation that matters?
And where we do create amazing innovation — I’m looking at you Silicon Valley — is it helping us or harming us? Is it maybe worth leaving a few eyeballs unreached in order for social media platforms to not add to the steaming cesspool of rancor and polarization that societies have become? Could VC partners maybe do with one less bauble so that the pressures of rapid scaling could be eased to allow enough time to ensure that technology products don’t destroy the world?
Let’s come back to Oreos for a moment. There are entire industries devoted to making products that aren’t good for us. Food that destroys our bodies. Media that destroys our minds and souls. Now don’t get me wrong. One look at me and you’ll know I don’t treat my body as a temple. I’m glad people can have a cookie or four when they want to and watch a brainless Netflix show. But these products are contributing to serious harm. Obesity and its various comorbidities. The damage to self-esteem caused by Instagram and TikTok. Not to mention the widespread inability of people to mentally process anything more complex than a tweet.
Can you imagine the brand manager for Oreos telling his or her boss “Next year we won’t grow the business. People are eating enough cookies.” I can promise you that won’t happen. Not in today’s business environment — because, back to the concept of a frame, our current frame of “business” tells us we must grow, grow, grow!
What if we grew the bottom line (and our waistline) a little less and enriched our minds and souls a little more?
The problem goes way beyond specific harms caused by certain product categories. Our economy is designed to make us all over-consume mass-produced shitty products. Big soulless companies produce crap at the lowest cost and develop marketing plans with the objective of getting you to buy and consume more and more. Much more than you need. Can’t afford it? No problem. You’re not far from a predatory financing offer.
The encouragement of excessive consumerism along with low-cost and low-quality manufacturing causes a lot of damage. It has trampled on craftsmanship and artisanship (though both are fighting back of late). It has manipulated people into buying too much of what they need—and far too much of what they don’t. And think about how corporations are able to manufacture products so cheaply. Cheap manufacturing rests on shockingly low wages in developing countries.
But, but, but, people in those countries are better off in many ways since multinational corporate behemoths set up manufacturing facilities there.
Maybe so. For the sake of argument let’s say that’s true. But is that good enough? Are our moral standards so easily satisfied? Is it truly acceptable to us that our economy is built to stimulate a lust for mass-produced crap and then satisfy that lust by paying people in the developing world a poverty wage to make products for us that they will never enjoy?
Is this the apotheosis of Western Civilization?! This is what so many fought and died for? For quintuple-stuffed Oreos?!
Note: I haven’t ventured yet to discuss the impact of social media on freedom and democracy. But yeah, there’s that.
The impact “business” has on the environment. Do I really have to explain this one?
But Adam, you seem to be saying business is evil.
Nope. That’s not the case. But I am saying business does cause quite a bit of harm. And it doesn’t have to.
I’m drawing a distinction between business — the many acts of many millions of people at work — and “business” — the mental category we conjured up and invested with meaning. It’s the category I’m challenging. The norms and expectations it claims are true. And, therefore, the acts of commission and omission we undertake guided by these norms and expectations.
We have built an edifice called “business”. And it’s not just a psychological category or schema; we’ve built social institutions, universities to teach business, we’ve established societal norms and expectations about work, even going so far as to enshrine into law some of these expectations — e.g., the fiduciary responsibilities of company officers.
We’ve built an edifice. And I think we have to ask ourselves whether it is good. Whether it ennobles humanity or degrades us. Whether it enriches us or just makes (some of) us rich. Whether it serves as a force for the moral growth of society or merely generates pecuniary growth.
To look at this edifice we’ve built, we have to take a close look at the bricks and mortar we’ve used to build it.
Those bricks and mortar are human. They are our souls. Our passions. Our instincts. The story — or at least one story — of human history is the struggle to elevate our noble instincts. To reach for greater truth, greater knowledge, greater justice, greater compassion, greater unity, and, yes, better material living conditions.
It’s great that so many people have air conditioners and that we have 100 kinds of breakfast cereal on the shelves of our local supermarket.
Well, maybe it’s not so great. But it’s certainly nice that creature comforts have advanced over the years, decades, centuries, and millennia.
But the noble human struggle to build a better world has not and never can reach its apex through ever more investment in Oreo R&D.
We have to ask ourselves how proud we are of the lives we live, the institutions and societies we’ve built. Are we even still reaching for our noblest best selves? And are we truly engaging in the constant hard work of setting our institutions on the path not just of becoming more big but becoming more good?
So as we consider the role of business in society we have to step back and think about what we’ve built it from. The human bricks and mortar that comprise business.
Each of us is a mashup of noble and base instincts. Each of us has a myriad of paths in front of us. Some of those journeys give more space to baser instincts. They take us on a path of lust for greed, power, and newer Oreo flavors. And others elevate our nobler instincts. Those journeys move toward integrity, justice, knowledge.
We, as humans, can choose either of those paths. And many in between. But that choice can be — and is — shaped by society and culture. That choice is shaped by the institutions we build.
Every human instinct can be elevated, amplified, or shut down by how we come together in its pursuit. Society and culture can shape our instincts and bring out the best or the worst in us.
So institution building is critically important. Because institutions not only give voice to our human yearnings, they, in turn, shape those yearnings. Institutions can bring out the best in us. Or they can give us cover to be our worst selves.
When we take an honest look at business, do we believe it has sufficiently been a force for human nobility? Is it bringing out the best in us?
Let’s hold on that for a moment.
Consider some of our other institutions and how we have been showing up as humans. Kids’ sports. Politics. Religion.
If you’re paying attention, I think you have to conclude that humanity is not having our finest moment.
People are showing up at their kid’s baseball game, verbally abusing the kids for not playing hard enough and cursing out the umpires in front of small children! Yes, this is actually a thing.
People are verbally and physically assaulting hospitality and retail workers for enforcing, or not enforcing, mask mandates.
Politics has become not much more than an arena for the worst people to exercise their worst instincts — and to foment all manner of hatred against all manner of people simply so they can accrue fame and power.
We’ve politicized science. We’ve politicized medicine. Heck, we’ve politicized the fucking weather!
And how is religion faring? Are the world’s religions taking us on a path toward greater self-awareness and self-control? Are they opening our eyes to universal truths? Are they cultivating a greater appreciation of the divine? Too often I think they are reinforcing our egos, stoking tribal hatred, and inciting violence.
So it’s not surprising that business does not always behave in an exemplary manner. Business is made of people. And we seem to have lost our way. It’s time we got it back.
For too long, business has been bringing out if not our worst, then certainly not our best.
Yes, business — and specifically capitalist business — has lifted a great many people out of poverty. Business has no doubt been a force for good.
But like individuals, it also has a dark side.
For many years, business has catered to some of the darker human instincts. The desire to amass ever more wealth. The desire for power. The desire for status. And each time we give primacy to those instincts, we take a step forward on the wrong path. But worse, we make it harder for our future selves and the generations to come to make their contribution to the great human journey.
So no, I am not anti-business or anti-capitalist. On the contrary, I fully support them.
But I am arguing that we need to take a hard look at what human instincts we are elevating as we exercise our freedoms in a mostly capitalist free-market economy.
Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.
I think it’s time we explored the ‘should’ much more. I think it’s time that we prioritized our moral growth as individuals and as a society above our financial growth. I think it’s time that we reinvented (or, if necessary, uninvented) the category “business” — setting new norms and expectations.
Well Adam, what should those norms and expectations be?
OMG. Thank you, imaginary person, for asking me this question!
I think we have to take down the mental boundaries we place around business. Or at least make them more porous. We have to stop looking at business as a walled-off domain of human activity in which almost anything goes so long as it doesn’t break the law. We have to see business as but one part of human endeavor — subject to all the norms and expectations we have for any domain of human endeavor.
We have to always keep the big picture front and center. And the big picture is making human life better. Not just human comfort — and especially not just the comfort of the few. But our souls as well. When financial growth serves that higher purpose, great. And when it doesn’t, then we have to ignore the hypnotic call for more so that we can attend to the more important need to be better.