Monday Musings (Society is a Big Company Now)


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Hi friends,

Let's start with a story.

For three days, we covered ourselves with military camouflage and carried Remington rifles under the scorching Texas sun. We weren’t as cool as the Marlboro Man, but we tried. Everything we did, we did together. We relied on every set of hands and eyes. When we shot and killed an antelope, we gutted it in the field and carried it ¾ of a mile back to basecamp, where we quartered it and prepared the backstrap for dinner.

From a material perspective, this Western Texas ranch didn’t give us much. The beds were like concrete and shade was our only air conditioning.

To prepare for the trip, I read Tribe by Sebastian Junger. In one section, he writes about how hardship can feel better than ease. He writes: “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

We only felt the emotional and spiritual emptiness of our urban lives when we returned to work on Monday. Our friends were miles away from us. Nature was something to transcend and no longer played a central role in our lives. Sure, there were benefits. Back home, we didn’t have to hunt for food. We had soft beds, clean clothes, and quality air conditioning. We were comfortable — but only as happy as we were necessary.

— —

The Dinner Party Debate

When I returned home, I started hosting dinner parties to reclaim some of the magic. Calm conversations turned ferocious whenever we spoke about progress. Usually, two factions would emerge.

The pro-progress camp rejects big-picture criticisms of modernity. They’re versed in books like Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and Rosling’s Factfulness, both of which use data to argue that the modern world is superior to anything that came before it. They point to graphs like the decline in violence and child mortality, and the correlation between “happiness” and rising GDP levels. What they miss is the sharp decline in spirit, and the visible effects on our buildings, diets, ambitions, companies, and communities.

The other camp is skeptical of such progress; they use different measures of societal health. Rather than bow to the altar of “progress” they see a society obsessed with materialism. They scratch their heads at the reasoning of the blind optimists, and instead of citing Pinker, they point to people like Robert Putnam who’s book Bowling Alone outlines the decline in social trust in America.

The most interesting argument of the ‘progress skeptics’ centers around society’s decline in spirit.

— —

What Changed?

Society functions like one big company now.

On the surface, big companies are great. They’re safe, reliable, and predictable. They usually have good healthcare benefits and competitive paid-time-off policies. The problem is all the corporate nonsense: mindless paper pushing, work that only crawls forward, the need to always ask for permission, oppressively narrow specialization, slapdash Powerpoints, pointless meetings, and just about everything else you see in a Dilbert comic.

Instead of innovating towards a better future, we’ve downshifted into risk management. Our world is increasingly governed by administrators and bureaucrats who tap, click, and filibuster their way through the world.

You see it in our architecture. The architect Paul Frankl once observed that “Style is an external expression of the inner spirit of the time.” 18th, 19th, and early 20th century architecture have more vitality than just about anything built today. Corporate logos have become sterile too.

The contrast to life at a big company is startup life. Looking at a profit & loss sheet, it’s a wonder anybody wants to work for a small startup. But there’s something special about the early days of a company. Small companies lack the cush and coze of a big company, but they make up for it in fiery passion.

I’m continually surprised how many entrepreneurs I know prefer the rise-and-grind phase. They treasure 15-hour days and the ride-or-die togetherness of a grindset mentality. Most of these entrepreneurs jump ship to start something new once their companies become successful. Fast-growing startups may not pay as much, but they’re driven by a near-religious belief that awakens the spirit. The wealth that comes with growth is usually accompanied by a downshift into nihilism.

Looking at the rise in depression and suicide, I have to ask: Are we destined for the same outcome? Or can material abundance lead to emotional and spiritual progress?

Have a creative week,

David Perell Logo 2x

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