When I graduated from college, my enemy was clear:
the man in the grey flannel suit.
The big-business corporate capitalist, fixated on greed, destroying the environment, spreading
consumerism – and all so that he could get the better BMW than the next guy. There was
everything wrong with this guy. He was barely human: fixated on materialism, on feathering his
own anti-spiritual nest. And he didn’t even keep his harm to himself. In his lust for more and
more money, he screwed the poor (this was 1989 – although it’s not much different now in 2001,
is it...) and paved the Earth. If the businessman were harmlessly wasting his life in a closet
somewhere, he would be pitiable – but because he caused so much harm to others, he was
So it was clear when I finished college what I
did not want to be. While many of my
classmates jumped lemming-like into the high capitalist business world, I looked to a path less
traveled. I took a year out, pursued writing, and mysticism, and other ends. And yet, I still ended
up in law school. I had concluded, while still in college, that while the mental masturbation of
grad school had its appeal, I didn’t want to fiddle while Rome burned. I would use my talent,
dammit, to fight the urban-sprawlers and carbon-spewers. I would take up arms against a sea of
troubles and, by opposing, well, hopefully slow them down.
Eventually, I fell off that track, disillusioned
with the careerism of professional
environmentalists and dispirited at my chances of joining them. I concluded that what I really
wanted to do was write, teach, make music, and generally escape The Man in all his insidious
forms. And so, what did I do – I started a business.
Now, there may be a pattern emerging here, but
wait – hear me out. I and a couple of
friends started a technology company in the Spring of 2000, with the dollar signs of the dot-coms
reflecting in our corneas and confidence empowering our strides. We actually had (and have) a
business, supporting a product that people actually purchase – we weren’t selling pet food on the
web. And I, at least, thought that an 18-to-24 month stint in the wilderness of capitalism would,
over the course of a seventy year life, be well worth it. Sure, I would suffer and languish for that
year or two that it would take to build up the company. But I could cash in my chips for enough
money to keep me satisfied for many years. And then I would be able to spend those years doing
what I really wanted to do, whether it was teaching or writing or painting or starting a series of
The cost/benefit analysis was clear, right?
Two years of servitude, fifty of freedom. Why not
This career path is not unique. Many Wall
Street folks have what they call “The Number” –
the amount of money needed to retire for good. Of course, most of these people
continue to work after ‘retirement,’ but the nature of the work changes. You’re no longer
working to make your next car payment or send your kids to college – once you’ve hit The
Number, that’s taken care of. Rather, you’re working for the intrinsic merit of the work itself –
to succeed, to enjoy, to build, whatever. You're doing it for yourself.
Of course, for me, there was little intrinsic
merit in the work itself; it was all instrumental.
My post-'retirement' plans were very different. But my pursuit of The Number was no different
from that of many, many others.
(Some quick calculation: Figure you need around
$250K per child for education, and $1
mil for a place to live. So call that $1.5 mil. If you want a 250K salary for the rest of your life,
you probably need at least $3 mil more in the bank to throw off that kind of income. So your
post-tax number if $4.5 mil. Round that up to five, and you’ve got a pre-tax number of $9
million. Adjust up or downwards as necessary.)
The trouble with working towards The Number is
a concept as old as Marxism:
alienation. If all your value in work is instrumental, you may very well be hating your job,
feeling unfulfilled (in the short term), and selling yourself out on a daily basis. Then again, you
may not. But the possibility exists because the only thing you value about your work is its
instrumental value – i.e., the money that you’re putting in the bank. No one should pity the rich
thirtysomething crying all his way to the bank. But if you are that thirtysomething, working for
instrumental value alone is difficult.
And so you find, inexorably, that you start to
actually care about your job, or in my own
case, the business. You find yourself getting into arguments about issues which can’t possibly
affect your bottom line – but, dammit, there’s a right way and a wrong way! Or, you find
yourself really caring whether you land that client or not, even though in the bigger picture it
scarcely matters to your stock value, or salary, at all. At times of clarity, you say to yourself
“Remember what matters” or “Keep your eye on the prize.” But it’s hard to be clear when there
are so many choices to be made every day, and you develop opinions about all of them. You find
yourself getting... involved.
At least, this is what happened to me. I’d
like to say that I’m strong enough to not care at
all about what I’m doing, except insofar as it affects the amount of money I’ll take home at the
end of the day. But there are a lot of problems with that. First, by not caring, I probably will
decrease my chances of getting rich. But more importantly, how can you not care about what you
do every single day? Eight, ten, twelve hours a day – a majority of your waking time – how can
you not want to be connected to what you’re doing in some way?
In fact, what I’ve learned in my year in business
is that the money is quite irrelevant. More
particularly, the money is relevant, but the instrumental value of the money – what it can
buy you in terms of vacation homes or trips to Bermuda – is irrelevant. The money functions
exactly as points in a sports game. No one plays baseball to score a lot of runs. The runs are
important because that’s how you find out who won. Similarly, in business, most people I’ve
met aren’t in it because the money is so good; they care about the money because that’s how you
tell who's winning and who's not.
Business is like sports in a second way.
Sports are, on their face, ridiculous. Thousands
of human beings train and practice so that they can hit a ball with a stick in a certain way, or put a
ball through a hoop. And thousands more pay money to watch. If you stay focused on the
arbitrariness of the hit or the goal or the basket, you miss what’s truly important about sports: the
individual achievement, the team cohesiveness, the struggles and the stories that make sports so
compelling. As a player, I practice my game not just to improve my game but to improve myself.
As a spectator, I watch not just to find out who wins but to immerse myself in the drama of the
matchup, knowing what I know about the contestants. The runs, the baskets – they are how we
keep score. But they are not why we play.
Likewise, businessmen do not resemble the greedy,
materialistic ogres that Hollywood portrays (not
usually, anyway). More often than not, they aren't interested in feathering their nests so much as
in building something. Businesspeople are involved in creating a project of value -- intrinsic value --
and they want to see it succeed the same way an athlete wants to succeed at scoring
points, even if the actual skills of kicking a ball or balancing a spreadsheet are not particularly
interesting, or important. They're what counts in the Game.
And if you’ve ever seen how strongly athletes
care about getting a hole in one, or winning
a world championship, you can know something about how people in business treat a positive
‘liquidation event.’ Conversely, if you’ve seen someone argue a foul, or lose a game at the last
I entered business for instrumental reasons, and
yet most people around me, at least on
the leadership level, are here for intrinsic ones. I’m like someone who started to play tennis
because by hitting a yellow ball over a net, I improve my hand-eye coordination. I had no idea
that I would start caring about who wins games, measuring my progress as a means of evaluating
my self-worth, or competing so intensely that some arbitrary token of achievement – a little
trophy, a ‘deal toy’ – takes on the talismanic aura of the holy grail.
That’s the trouble with business – that unless
your heart is made of iron, you start to care.
And you start to care at the expense of things which really do matter: living a good life,
experiencing awe and wonder, all of it. Your will and heart and mind become oriented around
something which doesn’t make the world a better place and doesn’t make you a particularly
better person either. It’s just what you care about, because it’s in front of you every day. The
more comfortable I have become in business, the less I resemble the person I set out to be.
June 11, 2001
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