Issue 131: Finding A New Way To Work
A question of whether to remain at odds with the process or step outside it and create a new one
Yesterday I was on to something, but then I lost it. It happens like that; an idea lands, and it writes itself in my head as I brush my teeth or make dinner. If I don’t get it down on paper, I lose it. It disappears back from wherever it appeared like the flame on a dying match. No problem though, there’s always another. That’s what happens when we’ve been doing something for a long time; it produces itself, and we’re merely there to facilitate it. Sunday Letters is on the go since 2015, and before that, I had been using writing as a marketing tool for my work. After over ten years of writing, it has become something more than a means to get what I want. It is a conversation with myself, an attempt to understand what’s going on, to understand myself. I had to learn the hard way how this process works, however. I used to think we could make it happen, you know, success or whatever you want to call it. The material reflection needed to follow. Otherwise, what I was doing wouldn’t work and, therefore, not worth the effort. That’s the measure of it you see. But in that frame of mind, we miss way too much, and we can get lost.
In another location here on Substack, I’ve been writing about leadership as it applies mostly to business, but it’s also applicable to other areas. In particular, I’ve been writing on the essence of the personality type associated with success, with material success. Thus far, I have figured out that if we’re not tuned to the mode of being necessary for success, then we fail. Because, sticking with the business arena for a moment, that world is by its nature highly competitive. That’s the nature of the beast, and if we’re going to enter it, we’ve got to be willing to kill or be killed. In that process, we must take advantage wherever we can get it, and if that means manipulation, deceit, coercion and so on, then so be it. The only thing stopping us is the voice of our own integrity whispering in our ear. But then again, if you listen to that, you’ll likely be eaten.
It seems we’ve got to ride two psychological horses, so to speak. We can be ourselves (whatever that means), but we’ve got to be someone else too. Try to uphold your ethical and moral principles while operating an ongoing commercial concern and see how far it gets you. Instead, if you’re going to enter the business world, you must arm yourself with a healthy dose of ruthlessness. Others are lying in wait to take advantage; staff, suppliers, customers, fellow directors, contemporaries, and so on, so don’t kid yourself. You may hold to your ethical and moral principles for some time, but on the occasion you're under threat, and you will, you need to fight back. You can’t be a shining light of moral evangelism in the business world. It’s like walking onto the battlefield without armour. It’s simply naive.
A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing
Ethics is a hot topic for business leaders and academics, but I wonder if that is merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The conversation about meeting the needs of shareholders while also meeting the social need is ongoing, but is it all just paying lip service to the problem? In 2009, two hundred CEOs from the world’s largest corporations gathered at the Business Roundtable chaired by JP Morgan in an effort to change the public’s perception of the corporation. They aimed to convince us that their interests extend to all stakeholders and not just their shareholders. They tell us they have changed from entities that rape and pillage to ones that are caring and conscientious. They put on a good show with slick marketing and clever public statements and initiatives. However, the truth is that nothing has really changed.
Joel Bakan, Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia, wrote on this topic back in 2004 with his book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit & Power1. Here he stated that a corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue its own self-interest relentlessly. As such, he argues, the corporation is a pathological institution. Bakan returned to the question in 2020 with The New Corporation: How "good" Corporations Are Bad for Democracy2 and told us that despite the best efforts of the corporate elite, their intent is the same. They might try to convince us of their benevolence but warns us against dropping our guard.
We might insist that our small business is different; we wouldn’t dream of taking unfair or unethical advantage, but the truth is that all private or publicly held businesses abide by the same legal structures. That is, it must be profitable; otherwise, it ceases to be viable. This is the nature of the game, and as Richard Buckminster Fuller wrote in Critical Path3, I found myself wholly incompatible with it. Today, albeit from my tiny corner of the internet and with my even tinier audience, I decided to be a counter-voice to the dominant narrative around work. Currently, our choices seem small; we either enter business for ourselves, taking on all that goes with that, or we become a minor cog in the machine. That is, we choose direct employment. There may be other options available, but by and large, these are our options.
A New Way To Work
But maybe there’s another way, a better model for living and working. It’s not easy, but if we find either of the above options unpalatable, then we’ve got little choice. The route I’ve been channelling out is that of a business of one, but not a business as we would typically understand it. It’s familiar territory in many ways, but it also looks very different. Direct employment served my needs for a while, and although the thought of working under the command of others depresses me on one level, I may do that if the ends justify the means. That is to say, if I want to learn something new, then I’ve got to accept I need to be apprenticed. If I am to make a social contribution, then I need to learn how the system works. But in all of this, and I may not be explaining it very well, there needs to be a shift in how we view ourselves and the world in which we live. It is that which cannot go backwards.
Bad bastards exist, they are everywhere, and we must accept that. When we do, something changes in us (or is it that the acceptance comes after, that it is a consequence rather than a cause of the change? I’m not sure). Sometimes the bad bastards do a good job convincing us they care and that our best interests are important to them. But their true intent is rarely hidden for long. This is the role of marketing; to convince us of something when the truth of the matter would make us act otherwise. The business world is out for profit first and foremost, and your wellbeing comes second regardless of whether you are a customer, supplier or employee. Get your head around that! Accept it. It’s not going to change anytime soon. And from there, we’ve got to make that choice.
And here’s where we circle back to the start of this conversation; the process exists, and we are either completely absorbed by and at odds with it, or we see it for what it is and step outside. Finding a new way to work, to realise fulfilment and happiness, requires us to step outside it. The alternative is to remain buffered by and at odds with the process.
Bakan, J. (2012). The corporation: The pathological pursuit of profit and power. Hachette UK
Bakan, J. (2020). The New Corporation: How" good" Corporations are Bad for Democracy. Vintage.
Fuller, R. B., & Kuromiya, K. (1981). Critical path. Macmillan.