Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On Meaningful Work

Next week, I'm leaving the best company in the country to work for. I didn't quite make it a year. Frankly, though there were plenty of reasons, the simplest reason why is that I wasn't happy at Google. Sure, the food is great, the people are nice and smart, and there are plenty of cool perks. But none of that is sufficient if you don't find the work you're doing engaging, and you think another job can offer that.

In the course of researching this post, I came upon the following anecdote:
Three men are found smashing boulders with iron hammers.  When asked what they are doing, the first man says, "Breaking big rocks into little rocks." The second man says, "Feeding my family." The third man says, "Building a cathedral."
Most of the time, I couldn't shake the feeling I was just smashing rocks at Google, and I tried to feel better by telling myself I was doing it to provide for my loved ones. But I never felt I was building a cathedral here, or even a house. In some ways, Google's cathedral has already been built: their search engine is one of the greatest gifts to the modern world imaginable. And I know the leadership envisions building other ones just as impressive. It is likely that the failing to see past the rocks is mine.

In the same article where I found that story, the author, a psychologist who studies what makes work meaningful, outlines three principles:
First, the work we do must make sense; we must know what's being asked of us and be able to identify the personal or organizational resources we need to do our job.  Second, the work we do must have a point; we must be able to see how the little tasks we engage in build, brick-by-brick if you will, into an important part of the purpose of our company. Finally, the work that we do must benefit some greater good; we must be able to see how our toil helps others, whether that's saving the planet, saving a life, or making our co-workers' jobs easier so that they can go home and really be available for their families and friends.
 A lot of the meaning in work, then, has to come from within. If I can see myself contributing to the welfare of my coworkers, it might matter less that I am bored by the tasks I need to complete during the day. But it would be wise if more companies thought through how they can make a job sensible, purposeful and beneficial. Other researchers have looked at the link between a sense of meaning at work and job performance, and found that productivity rises significantly when employees are engaged in work they find meaningful. And yet most companies look to "sugar high" motivators like perks and bonuses to provide lasting motivation: 
When we asked 669 managers from companies around the world to rank five employee motivators in terms of importance, they ranked “supporting progress” dead last. Fully 95 percent of these managers failed to recognize that progress in meaningful work is the primary motivator, well ahead of traditional incentives like raises and bonuses.
If I worked in HR, I would make it my business to figure out what meaning my best employees found in their work, and try to instill that sense of purpose in as many other people as possible.

So, the last question: why do I think I'll find more meaning in my new role (returning to the advertising agency I left for Google) than I did in this one? Well, I'm going to take my direction from this amazing Clayton Christensen article and use the uncertainty and change in advertising as a chance both to share what I've learned and to learn from others. Here's Christensen's advice:

Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.
I think my life will be judged, by myself and those I care about most, by how I grew as a person, what I built, and who I was able to help. I'm going to a place where I think I can accomplish a lot in all three areas. I can't wait to dive back in.

So my question for you: what do you think makes work (and life) meaningful?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why I Am Leaving Pierce & Pierce

Editor's Note: The Op-Ed resignation of Goldman Sachs' Greg Smith has attracted a lot of attention, and even a few parodies. But a bit of research unearthed that this manner of quitting, while unusual, in not a Wall Street first. In fact, a similarly-worded letter was written over 20 years ago. We present that earlier letter of resignation here in its entirety.

Why I Am Leaving Pierce & Pierce

By Patrick Bateman

TODAY is my last day at Pierce & Pierce. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Harvard, then in New York for 10 years, and now in an undisclosed location far from the reach of the law — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as healthy and morally upright as I have ever seen it.
To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be elevated in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. Pierce & Pierces is one of the world’s largest and most important investment banks and it is too integral to global finance to continue to act this way. The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.
It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but lack of culture was always a vital part of Pierce & Pierce’s success. It revolved around self-interest, venality, narcissism, and creatively screwing over our clients. The superior intelligence and ruthlessness was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to rob our clients blind and have them thank us for it. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with ego and belief that you are the only person that matters.
But this was not always the case. For more than a decade I recruited and mentored candidates through our grueling interview process. In 1986 I managed the summer intern program in sales and trading in New York for the 80 college students who made the cut, out of the thousands who applied. Sixty-three survived to join the firm. I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them I was about to decapitate them.
When the history books are written about Pierce & Pierce, they may reflect that the current CEO, Paul Owen, and the president, David Van Patten, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s body count, and the consequent lack of leadership, is a serious threat to its long-run survival.
Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of destroying otherwise viable businesses in the United States, screwing over innumerable clients in the Middle East and Asia, and slaughtering countess prostitutes and homeless people. My clients had a total asset base of more than a trillion dollars before I went to work on them. I have always taken a lot of pride in convincing my clients to do what I believe will benefit me, even if it means less money for them, or the gruesome death of their loved ones. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Pierce & Pierce, and among the police who have been pursuing me. Another sign that it was time to leave.
How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about charisma, never admitting you are wrong, and committing unspeakable acts of violence to stifle the voices in your head long enough to complete your next deal. Today, if you make money for the firm the “right way” (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.
What are three quick ways to become a leader? a) Execute on the firm’s “axes,” which is Pierce-speak, ironically, for not executing your clients with axes. b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: preserve your clients’ money—and their lives—by finding big opportunities for asset growth. Call me old-fashioned, but I preferred it when “hunting elephants” meant chasing down a fat man at your secluded estate in the Hamptons and butchering him. c) Avoid prosecution for both securities fraud and homicide.
Today, many of these leaders display a Pierce & Pierce culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can bamboozle or massacre our clients better. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was our exclusive focus.
It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: It is only worth getting clients to trust you if the end goal is to take their money or their life. Otherwise, why be bankers in the first place?
These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about mergers is, “How’s the client feeling?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about “ethics,” “responsible stewardship” and “doing it right” doesn’t exactly turn into the next American psycho.
When I was a first-year analyst I didn’t know where the bathroom was, or how to kill a prostitute with a nail gun. I was taught to be concerned with learning the ropes, listening to Whitney Houston albums, understanding designer suits, getting to know our clients and what their blood tastes like when they’re afraid, learning how they defined success and how we could use that vision to scam them.
My proudest moments in life — graduating from Harvard Business School, getting the best table at Dorsia without a reservation, murdering dozens of people from all walks of life without ever being caught — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. Pierce & Pierce today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement. It just doesn’t feel right to me anymore.
I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make money and mutilation the focal point of your business again. Weed out the morally upright people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. People who care about anything other than making money will not sustain this firm — or the high mortality rate of its clients — for very much longer.
Patrick Bateman is resigning today as Pierce & Pierce’s director of murders and executions mergers and acquisitions. He is now going to work in a similar role at Goldman Sachs.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Cynic's Progress or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love #stopkony

Joseph Kony is now famous: if you haven't heard of him, then you and I clearly don't travel in the same circles. And I'm not sure what circles you hang in, actually, since the half-hour YouTube video that made him famous now has over 76,000,000 views since it was posted on March 5th. (By comparison, an American Idol episode this season gets about 18 million views.)

I actually was introduced to the phenomenon in a work capacity: at Google, a group of us catalogue some of the trending videos on YouTube as part of a weekly summary email, and Invisible' Children's video shot straight to the top. A bunch of people in the office were buzzing about it, and of course saying how awful the situation in Uganda was and how they had already ordered their awareness kits.

I don't know what awful thing this says about me, but every neuron in my brain started firing the same message, "BULLSHIT!" So I watched (ok, skimmed) the video, and saw that the big plan was to plaster a bunch of posters all over the country ("70% of these things are going to be hung in Williamsburg", my terrible brain whispered to me) and, by bringing awareness to the issue, help finally track down Kony in 2012.

So, cynical bastard that I am, I went looking for evidence that this campaign was, in fact, some poorly thought out hipster crap. And it wasn't hard to find. There's even an entire blog that popped up to criticize the campaign. As the writer puts it:
Still, the bulk of Invisible Children’s spending isn’t on supporting African militias, but on awareness and filmmaking. Which can be great, except that Foreign Affairs has claimed that Invisible Children (among others) “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.” He’s certainly evil, but exaggeration and manipulation to capture the public eye is unproductive, unprofessional and dishonest.
They've even caught some flack for posing with the guns of one of the groups fighting Kony, and in general behaving like wealthy white people parachuting in to solve Africa's problems. (As a random aside, if I'm doing humanitarian work that brings me in contact with a militia, and they'll let me pose with their RPG, I'm taking that picture every time. You're telling me you're not? I call shenanigans.)

Before I go on, because I feel myself getting into the weeds here, and I have about twenty other links I could share, let me refocus myself by saying this post is not, primarily, about whether Invisible Children are a good and noble organization. What it is about, primarily, is why I would react the way I did, and why some people are so willing to embrace a cause like this uncynically while others are so quick to point out the flaws and potential downsides.

My short answer is that some of us embrace (and are often crippled by) complexity. We want to think things through, look at all the angles and - most importantly - not get caught up in the crowd. But what we end up doing is identifying with the fellow "sophisticates" who also see through the simplistic story that our peers are so passionate about. Let's be honest, this is more about our identity than the rightness or wrongness of the cause in question. For example, check out this post: it all but screams, "I'm informed, I don't just go along with the crowd, respect my intellect!"

I was doing the same damned thing, I realized. And I realized that it was OK not to love everything about what Invisible Children was doing and still have respect for their passion and their skill in bringing needed attention to an obscure cause. I was inspired by Chris Blattman, who was hating on Invisible Children before it was cool, with this post three years ago:
The new IC film clip feels much the same, laced with more macho bravado. The movie feels like it’s about the filmmakers, and not the cause. There might be something to the argument that American teenagers are more likely to relate to an issue through the eyes of a peer. That’s the argument that was made after the first film. It’s not entirely convincing, especially given the distinctly non-teenage political influence IC now has. The cavalier first film did the trick. Maybe now it’s time to start acting like grownups.
This post, cited by many of Invisible Children's present-day critics, combines an aesthetic critique (do they really have to express their cause through t-shirts?) and a worry about the unintended consequences of unleashing poorly informed activism on the world. Well, now that the commentariat has picked up on this complaint, Blattman seems to have had a qualified change of heart:
To give credit where it is due, scratch beneath the surface, and Invisible Children take a more nuanced view than they get credit for (or showcase). Their self-defense is here, and it’s a reasonable one. Also, my (admittedly limited) experience with their programs on the ground is that they are better than the average non-profit in northern Uganda. The bracelets are silly, but you could do worse than to support their field programs.
So, as my parents would say when I screwed up, what can we learn from this? Well, first, that we shouldn't let our predispositions or our aesthetic judgments cloud our view of what a person or group is trying to accomplish when they're out there advocating for a cause. We should judge whether their cause is just and whether they are pursuing it in a supportable way. In this case, I think the words of Michael Gerson are wise:
The criticism is sometimes made of advocacy groups – on Darfur, or conflict minerals, or the LRA – that they oversimplify complex issues. This charge is often leveled by foreign policy experts who multiply complexity for a living. One gets the impression they would rather ignore meddling idealists and write their white papers in peace. But experts and advocates both have important roles. The views of experts should inform the policies of public officials. But advocates help to push officials toward decision and action.  
Second, that what we think of as sophistication is often so much intellectual preening. What good are the Invisible Children critics doing at this point? They aren't putting the #stopkony genie back in its bottle. Unless Invisible Children is misusing funds (a charge that is hinted at but not actually leveled or supported), anything they do to help bring Joseph Kony to justice is a good thing. And while you can argue that there are more worthy causes or better ways to help the people affected by Kony's LRA, it is unfair to expect Invisible Children to care about the cause you care about or do things the way you would do them.

Third, this campaign laid out a blueprint for how to engage a groundswell of support for a cause that a lot of people can learn from. They told a simple, powerful story and gave their viewers some simple actions they could take after hearing the story to lend their support and feel like they did something. Now, I know a lot of people think the Invisible Children's version of the Kony story is too simple, but that's a really unfair criticism. The simplifications they made in telling their story are not lies, they are simplifications made in the interest of telling a clear and compelling story. If you want to inspire people, that's critical.

In the end, I will remember Joseph Kony's name for a long time. If writing a letter to my congressman can help keep the pressure on to bring him to justice, I'll do that. Millions of people have gotten that message on YouTube, instead of watching another cat video. I'm still a cynic, still a bit of a snob, but I nevertheless salute Invisible Children for their creativity and dedication. Let's hope they succeed, and 2012 is the last year the world has to worry about Joseph Kony.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Politics of Abundance

I was kicking around some ideas about optimism and pessimism when these questions occurred to me: how can we be, in every way that matters, richer than ever, and yet be going broke (both individually and as a nation)? How is it that our demands for more keep exceeding the rapid increase in standard of living we've seen in the last century? And why is it so hard to make political agreements about what we should be spending on when we have so much more than we used to, and so many things (food, energy, technology) are much cheaper than they ever were, historically speaking? 

My short answer: our minds are very poorly equipped for a world of abundance. People have been theorizing about this in the realm of food and diet for some time: if we evolved as a species in an environment when food is scarce, the theory goes, we may have genes that would help us survive in that world, but that might prove harmful if our environment changes and lots of calories are readily available. What if the same thing is true in the way we think about 'goods' more generally? Our minds evolved to help us survive when most of us would only have access to a small amount of clothing, shelter, health care, and luxury items. We would therefore  jealously guard any of those things we could get. But we also would know that (with the possible exception of the odd king or queen) that no one else had much more. 

Fast forward to the late 1800's. It was only then that shopping as we know it was really invented. In the decades that followed, modern medicine was made possible by the development of penicillin, the first malls were developed, the now "conservative" 30 year mortgage was introduced to make home buying much more practical, and the first real suburbs sprang up, enabled by the new Interstate Highway System, which also jumpstarted the tradition of the family vacation

So the features of modern life that all seem so entrenched and traditional really only emerged in the decades after World War II. Before that time, very few people would grow up with the expectation of comfortable, modern homes, clothing that expressed their personal style, medicine that could actually cure diseases and extend life in meaningful ways, and myriad leisure activities.

Experiencing all this from a young age, and seeing everyone around you experiencing it, is now the norm for most Americans. (Even in the poorest households in the country, two-thirds have cable TV, and 80% have air conditioning.) So when we struggle to get all these things, for example when our prescriptions become overwhelmingly expensive or when we can't buy a house where we want to live, we don't view it as normal, we think of it as the world screwing us over. And we want someone to DO SOMETHING about it, damn it, which is when we turn to the government for nationalized healthcare or loan programs that help us get our dream house.

David Brooks, in his recent appreciation of James Q. Wilson, stated his belief that Americans have lost the moral sense that helped us make good political decisions. He writes: 

During the 1960s and ’70s, [Wilson] noticed that the nation’s problems could not be understood by looking at incentives. Schools were expanding, but James Coleman found that the key to education success was the relationships at home and in the neighborhood. Income transfers to the poor increased, but poor neighborhoods did not improve; instead families disintegrated. 
The economy boomed and factory jobs opened up, but crime rates skyrocketed. Every generation has an incentive to spend on itself, but none ran up huge deficits until the current one. Some sort of moral norms prevented them.
I would suggest that the moral norms were largely the residue of living in an age of scarcity. In the time before modern pharmacology, consumer finance and government-supported home ownership, the only chance of eventually acquiring the trappings of the good life was decades of frugality. That is no longer the case: even if the consequences of debt destroy many lives, it is hard to think about that when someone will give you the money to get what you really want or need right now. Despite what Republicans like to think about Americans' desire for balanced budgets, our government debt is a true reflection of how most of us, as individuals, choose to live.

When I Googled "The Politics of Abundance", the few results I got talked about how government could encourage more abundance in our society. That'd be nice, but I think the real political challenge is to balance the desire of nearly everyone to take part in the abundant health, wealth and comfort of our modern society with the need for people to work hard and earn these goods for themselves over a lifetime.

Maybe our politics are so screwed up because this is basically impossible.