Unsettled. That’s the best word I have to describe the many clients and friends who have reached out over the last several weeks. This combination of business and market uncertainty, political turmoil and increasing pandemic fatigue is creating plenty of angst for CEOs, managers, entrepreneurs.
We are, most all of us, fraught with anxiety about the roiling economic, and cultural changes here at home and how we might find a steady and stable place for our businesses and ourselves within them. Yet, as you reach for another handful of Tums, a yoga mat, and a smooth jazz playlist — all of which are helpful to maintain proper balance — I would offer the following simple advice: This is part of being a person in the world, especially now, and often we find our own way forward only after taking the time for careful research and thoughtful reflection. As the late and wonderful Mary Oliver once said: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
With that in mind, I have a few recent and significant books for you to consider. Given the recent election, Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s latest work, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, just might be the most consequential book of 2020. Sandel takes on our business and media culture of crowning “winners and losers” and offers a new and compelling way of thinking about success, moving away from the all-too-familiar and often misleading “rhetoric of rising” that holds “anyone can make it if they really try,” which he argues is not only untrue for so many, but also erodes community and demoralizes millions left behind by globalization.
Sandel persuasively cites Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II to say we need to connect economic policy and respect for all jobs, at every level, to the common good. With only a third of people in the U.S. (and declining) holding a college degree, this contentious debate around the future of work and the dignity and importance of alternative pathways to success is very much worth having. You should read this book and be part of the debate.
Of course, none of this is new, and Harvard historian Jill Lepore might tell you that innovation and change always give rise to collective anxiety and debate. Her latest book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, tells a story that could inform how we can manage that tension in our politics, at our businesses, and in our daily lives. The Simulmatics Corporation, launched in 1959 during the Cold War by a colorful and brilliant group of social scientists, pioneered the focus on using data analytics to predict and target human behavior, from the impact of political speech on voters to monitoring the “mood” of war protests. Lepore mined a trove of archived documents at MIT for the book and the tale of the company’s rapid rise and calamitous fall is an engaging and cautionary one. I loved the background on how JFK’s campaign navigated the use of these then “cutting-edge” social-science-driven technologies knowing full well the negative and misleading press coverage around these innovations that would follow.
Technological change can be unsettling, and early media coverage around its economic and societal impact often can be shallow, sensational and off the mark, especially in hindsight. We need to dig into the issues ourselves, push past the unease, and do our best to ensure that new advancements play a positive role in our lives.
For some, including many of the potential change-makers I encounter every day in my practice, that “endless and proper work” means embracing the uncertain and taking on a new role as creator, maker, founder and entrepreneur. I’m recommending two new books for them: first, The Entrepreneur’s Journey by entrepreneur/angel investors Hambleton Lord, Christopher Mirabile and Joseph Mandato, a terrific, straightforward and direct narrative on how to launch something new while balancing doubt, anxiety, and overall business fundamentals. And second, Good Company by Home Depot Co-founder and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank: a thoughtful and personal memoir of a life in business that is full of hard-learned wisdom and actionable advice, with an overall directive that making a living and making a life should reflect an overall value of putting other people first.
Without a doubt, these are unprecedented and unsettling times and as humans, we are used to stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Let’s use this time to be reflective and intentional as we adjust to this unfolding history together. After all, life is not about always knowing, and none of us is on our own.
Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival. Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.