Unfortunately, people are still human.
~ Overheard in a business meeting today
I wish I shared my colleague’s certainty in this regard. Are people still human? So long as they remain human, they will not be precisely the customers we want them to be. That seems the suggestion. And yet, though we sell an intangible product that has no place in nature, we make a decent living, don’t we?
The wife and children and I live in a small two-bedroom condo. It’s all that we can afford here in the San Francisco Bay Area where things are pricey. We bought at the wrong time, in late 2005, just before the Great Recession. Not that the recession did much to bring down the cost of housing. If you’re very lucky, a half million dollars today will get you an ugly fixer-upper in a distant, soul-killing suburb. Or you can make do, like we do, in a rinky-dink condominium in a downtown neighborhood of the inner suburbs where the library and local bookshop are only two blocks away. I don’t know how anyone affords a detached single-family home here.
I’ve just read Two Years Before the Mast in which Richard Henry Dana – a Boston Brahmin turned common sailor – recounts his time spent aboard a merchant vessel working the coast of the then-Mexican province of Alta California in 1834-35. It’s amazing to me that the state could have been so sparsely populated so recently. Monterey, the capitol at the time, seems to have had no more than a few hundred residents. Anchoring in San Francisco Bay (which he calls Francis Drake’s Bay – actually a little farther north), Dana admires the perfection of the climate and the wooded hills framing the water. “If California ever becomes a prosperous country,” he prophesies, “this bay will be the center of its prosperity.”
Elsewhere Dana observes that “the beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the common-place, and the solemn with the ludicrous.” This is true, I suppose, of most everything that man gets his mitts on, but it feels specially true of my corner of California. It is beautiful in spring when the hills are green and the sun shines most days and the birds are everywhere. Hiking with the kids a week ago we identified over twenty species, from kestrels and turkeys to mockingbirds and wrens. A few miles away, however, by the bay shore, my office is built atop a toxic dump created by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who cheerily poured their waste chemicals into old orchard plots forty years ago.
All things are apparently convertible to dollars. This is proof, perhaps, that something went horribly wrong. Or maybe it was ever thus. Profit is only another name for virtue here in the best of all possible worlds. I may resent the universe for seeming to require of me the things it seems to require. I may sincerely hope to vomit if I hear another colleague use the terms “KPI” (key performance indicator) or “B-HAG” (big hairy audacious goal). I may drive the freeways worshiping the wild hills and despising the tract homes and the filthy strip malls. I may repeat to myself again and again that only man is vile. But I try to remember that I’m a man too.
Improve alignment, accountability, and resources against key priorities.
~ Bullet point from an executive presentation
The head nodders nod their heads. There is a general grunt of affirmation. The fact that his words mean next to nothing is precisely what makes them so appropriate. An oracle that made sense would be no oracle at all.
If peradventure, Reader, it has been thy lot to waste the golden years of thy life – thy shining youth – in an office…
~ Charles Lamb, ‘The Superannuated Man’
Business is the death of the soul. I recognize that I’m one of those persons inclined to be discontent with my lot so long as necessity has any claims on me whatsoever. But the pursuit of market share and media hits and the perpetually ascending conversion yield puts me in constant thought of my own mortality. Perhaps the value of business is precisely that it forces me to grapple with vanity and finitude. But I wonder if it doesn’t sharpen the death-wish too. Later in the same essay Lamb writes that ‘a man can never have too much time to himself, nor too little to do,’ which seems an apt description of death. I light up a phone switch in place of a candle and whisper supplications to St Bartleby Scrivener.