Here's a tiny question. When you boil it down, what's the human purpose of enterprise? Of industry and ingenuity, effort and toil? When it comes to life, what's the point of work — and when it comes to work, what's the point of life? What's the point of "business", anyways? Is there one?
You might answer, having spent years in combat on the war-torn front lines of commerce, countless hours ensnared in soul-sucking conference calls, endless days enticed by corner offices and promotions, something like: "Making megabucks, by the most efficient route possible. Hey, dude — got an iPhone7?". And you'd be perfectly right: the purpose of enterprise is chasing megabucks. If, that is, the outer limits of your ambition screech to a grinding halt at spending your days fine-tuning the just-tedious into the shinily banal. But no one's going to look back on their deathbed and wistfully remember "Man, I was the person responsible for the lime-flavored energy drink!"
While it's arguable whether humans have immortal souls, deep down, we all know: to thrive at the art of living, at some point each of us has to take a deep breath, step outside the rusting prison or gilded cage, plant our feet in the soil and reach towards the sky. Life feels actively, furiously lived when we love, trust, wonder, care, believe, dream, think, feel, do, count, matter.
Sure, you can argue that the right, true, and best purpose of enterprise is selling more stuff, at a greater profit, to benefit the already privileged more, through pure financial gain — and the human consequences are merely an incidental, almost irrelevant afterthought; nice-to-have, but as disposable as a plastic razor. But it's a weak argument — and it's getting weaker by the second. Roger Martin has elegantly and brilliantly argued why maximizing shareholder value's a destructive goal; Jack Welch has called the single-minded pursuit of shareholder value the "dumbest idea in the world;" Teresa Amabile has cogently chronicled why higher purpose leads to better performance; Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Tom Peters have both found time and again that the organizations that thrive amidst turbulence are those that aim higher; Gary Hamel has devoted now two must-read books to examining why management's hit a human wall, and what to do about it; Richard Florida has untangled the pulsing link between creativity and prosperity; and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have pointed to institutions that extract value from people, notably middle classes, as the prime mover of the collapse of societies. And that's just the very short list of my intellectual heroes and their findings.
Here's what we already know. If it's the greatest gifts you want to receive — whether from the people that work for you, invest in you, or buy from you — then you're going to have to come up with a more meaningful answer to the great existential question of enterprise than "another million units of toothpaste — but this time, with heart-shaped light-up tutti frutti polka dots!!" Hence, any variant of the answer to the question "Why are you here?" that goes thus: "selling more stuff to people they don't really need to buy with money they don't have for reasons that don't count to live lives that don't matter" is about as relevant to humans as a pair of ultra-luxe designer sneakers is to a goldfish.
I'd put it like this: at its best, the purpose of enterprise is to evoke the highest human potential. The instrumental, calculative, deterministic view of enterprise, of human effort, of the role work plays in life, is in its twilight. Not just because it's been debunked, but because it just doesn't square with the most basic, shared essentials of a human experience. Allow to me say it kindly for a moment: Unless, you truly and deeply believe that the majority of us should spend the majority of our days during the majority of the best years of our lives being emotionally and intellectually waterboarded in order to satisfy the whims of narcissistic Machiavellian sociopaths, because since they're meaner and nastier than the rest of us, we owe them the moral debt of our McFutures — enterprise, and by that I mean your very hard work and ideas, your talents and gifts, your capacities and skills, the raw stuff of your fragile human potential, has got to be employed with a higher purpose: one that speaks to what it means to be human.
So here's my advice: overthrow yourself. I'd like you to develop a view of enterprise that's not merely instrumental, calculative, and deterministic ("Work, money, stuff, power, status, rinse, repeat") — but humanistic, constructive, and nuanced. And to get there, it just might be time to square up to your own paucity of ambition, take a deep breath, and admit that while the point of what you're probably doing might be good enough for obsessive-compulsive sociopaths seemingly stuck below the emotional development of a second-grader hell-bent on beating his bffs at an endless game of Monopoly forever, it's nowhere near good enough for humanity — as in both "the people inhabiting the earth" and "the set of built-in emotional and logical wetware that elevates us above the feudal, militaristic, and bestial."
Consider, for a moment, the uselessness of the corporate "vision statement." If it's a difference you want to make, try crafting an ambition instead. A vision statement is egocentric: it's about an enterprise's vision for itself ("our vision is to provide the world's best customer service at the lowest cos—" SNOOZZZZE). An ambition, in contrast, isn't a picture of the enterprise you see in the future, but a portrait of the human consequences that your enterprise (not just your "company", but your ideas, effort, time, ingenuity) creates. How do you want the world to differ — how do you want life to be meaningfully wholer, richer, better? A vision is meaningless in human terms, but an ambition is only meaningful in human terms. A vision might be about "the cleanest restaurants", or "the most fashionable sneakers". But an ambition is about "the healthiest lives", or "the fittest runners". (I give some real-world examples of ambitions in Betterness.)
Argue with me if you like, throw your gilt-edged copy of the collected works of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ronald McDonald at me if you must, but I'd say: when it comes to the role of work in life, and the role of life in work, there's something akin to a grand ladder of purpose, stretching from the deepest subterranean depths inhabited by the lowest common denominator's immediate gratification up to the snowy peaks of making a lasting, positive, perhaps radical difference in the world. It's at the top of that ladder where the act of enterprise reaches its apex; finds its possibility; becomes its highest self; because it's there that human potential fulminates and culminates in what matters. That's where it becomes possible to earn not just money, but the stuff money can't readily, easily, imperiously buy, because it's not a beige, interchangeable commodity: trust, self-respect, adoration, fidelity, passion, dedication, maybe even a tiny bit of love, fulfillment, and, at the outer limits, a searing sense of meaning.
I'd suggest: it's time to begin firmly scaling that ladder — or get ready to be overtaken by those who can, will, and already are. If your answer to the question "what's the purpose of business" is as sweetly, tenderly naïve as "selling out and cashing in by pushing more disposable plastic junk, odds are, your days are already numbered with a clock counting down to the nanoseconds to zero hour — you just don't know it yet.
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