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« Elsewhere | Main | More on Gal Performers, Exploitation, Etc. »

March 21, 2008

The Uncomfortable Position of Civilians in Wartime

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I came across a very interesting blog posting, "You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss" (courtesy of Yves Smith at Naked Capital). It’s by Paul Graham, who is an essayist, programmer, programming language designer and a venture capitalist:

A few days ago I was sitting in a cafe in Palo Alto and a group of programmers came in on some kind of scavenger hunt. It was obviously one of those corporate "team-building" exercises.

They looked familiar. I spend nearly all my time working with programmers in their twenties and early thirties. But something seemed wrong about these. There was something missing…

I think...that there's something missing in the lives of employees. I think [entrepreneurs who start companies,] though statistically outliers, are actually living in a way that's more natural for humans.

I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I'd only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They're like different animals. And seeing those guys on their scavenger hunt was like seeing lions in a zoo after spending several years watching them in the wild.

[…]

Watching employees get transformed into [entrepreneurs] makes it clear that the difference between the two is due mostly to environment -- and in particular that the environment in big companies is toxic to programmers. In the first couple weeks of working on their own startup they seem to come to life, because finally they're working the way people are meant to.

As a small business owner, this is pretty much exactly my point of view on the world. Or, as I’ve put it occasionally, talking to other business owners:

Capitalism is war. Employees are civilians. Being a civilian in a war zone ain't too comfortable.

Cheers,

Friedrich von Blowhard

posted by Friedrich at March 21, 2008




Comments

Everybody can't be a solo operator. There are too many complicated tasks to be done for everybody to be competing against each other all the time. That's just life.

In fact, the lion analogy is good for this one, as they hunt in packs--same for wolves. There's a leader of the pack, for sure, but a pack all the same. Or, stepping down the chain a lot, the ant colony or the beehive (not too glamorous, I know, but apt).

As far as really living goes, maybe some chose to do it outside of work. Or not. But its hard to evaluate somebody based solely on their work behavior.

Besides, humans aren't merely animals, and I find myself uncomfortable with such analogies, for a variety of reasons I won't go into.

Anyway, I think that entrepreneurs tend to romanticize themselves a bit, as being those who are somehow out on the ledge--and to an extent they are. But they are bound to their clients wishes, and not really as dashing and in-control as they would like to believe.

The competition for the profits of an enterprise is what sets an entrepreneur (and investor) apart from the average employee. But all too often it also leads to a mentality of "us and them". The zoo analogy is also apt here-they are your fellow men, not merely animals to be observed, and I think that's an important point to make. Besides, looking at people as merely animals is far more boring than the alternative of seeing them as people like yourself.

I always think that cooperation is far more powerful than competiton. Just walk outside your house and look around. Almost everything you see is a result of people working together, not competing. Man operates on a far higher plane of cooperation than animals (not just with other men, but also with a Creator). So to me, competition is really an illusion fostered to get people to cooperate (how about that one!).

The psychological sharpies and elites who really run everything would love for you to think like a solo operator, and play to your sense of status. It keeps people atomized and powerless. But its a lie. Resist the temptation.

Posted by: df on March 21, 2008 12:45 PM



Yes.

I'm in year 4 of a start up that was bought for big change late last year, and it's just no fun anymore. It's not just the transition to the corporate culture, though having to sit through a lecture on the new sexual harassment policy was pretty jarring. It's that there are more and more layers of decision making. A few years ago we could change direction in no time, now we're 8 months into a major project and there still haven't been decisions made on major aspects.

Time to look for another start up I think. But then I think "hell I've got it made here, 5 weeks vacation, don't have to work too hard..." I never thought of it as being like a zoo animal, but there's something to that.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on March 21, 2008 12:53 PM



I'll bet the serum testosterone levels of entrepreneurs are significantly higher than those of your average cube schmo. What would be interesting to see if T levels increased in those who make the move from wage-slave to boss man. I suspect they would.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 21, 2008 3:23 PM



df:

I'm a small business owner. I have 25 employees. I have nothing against cooperation; I'm busy cooperating with all sorts of people every day, and my business couldn't exist without hundreds of I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine relationships. I'm not trying to tear anybody's heart out and eat it; it wouldn't be good for business.

But, as I keep trying to convince my staff, I could pay them better with less risk to myself if they would think more like businessmen and less like, um, civilians. In other words, we'd all do better (and they would do MUCH better) plus I'd sleep better at night. But so far no takers.

Also, while being an entrepreneur is not by any means the height of enlightenment, I would say that it's a step (or can be one) in that direction. There is something to be said, morally and spiritually, for being forced to clean up your own messes and having your own nose rubbed repeatedly in the fact that you are the source of most of your problems.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 21, 2008 5:56 PM



FWIW, The Wilson Quarterly's current issue is on the theme of competition, trust, cooperation, etc.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 21, 2008 8:20 PM






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