“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

John Muir


“But every once in a while, pure chance intercedes to remind us that whatever structures of control we may put into place, however much we may mistake the illusion of choice for the fact of choice, randomness is the reigning monarch of the universe.”

Maria Popova


People often ask me about purpose, meaning, contribution, ethics, well, a bunch of things which aren’t the ‘productivity’ word. I usually begin by suggesting in talking about them we ARE talking about productivity. Now. To be clear. I have bludgeoned the Purpose people, the ‘shared values’ people and the oft naïve ethics people. The truth is that if you are to speak of any of these topics in a business context, they are all hitched to productivity. The other truth is that talking about these things do no harm and actually have the likelihood to contribute to a better world. Suffice it to say I would rather be talking about them than not.

The reality is everything is hitched to everything. It is true that business cannot have a moral revolution until we actually attend to our ideological captivity to, and of, productivity. The reality is that the connection between the worker, the leadership and the institution IS productivity. It is the one commonality which allows all the powers to wrestle with each other. Any effort in social, or societal, regeneration will be smothered by disappointment and frustration if everyone doesn’t accept this as a reality. While we need to take into account how everyone operates in relation to one another as humans, in business it is a means to an end. That said. One cannot thrive without the other. Regenerating the moral compass – including meaning, purpose and contribution – is doomed without productivity and optimizing/maximizing productivity is doomed without regenerating the moral compass. By neglecting to see they are hitched to each other is to refuse to see either the needs of people or the needs of the business. That is absurdly stupid and non-productive and, yet, we continue to have the same conversation over and over again.

“Institutions exist for the sake of their own expansion and self-perpetuation; they are not subject to human control, but are autonomous entities vis-à-vis all human agency. Human beings often believe ‘that they control the institution; whereas, in truth, the principality claims them as slaves’.”

William Stringfellow

Well. I included the above Stringfellow quote not because I agree, but because he has a point. Businesses do take on a life of their own and they do have their own self interest at heart and they do find ways, methods and incentives/gamification to get you to buy into what it is they need you to do to, well, produce. It does have a slavish tinge to it but I know of few businesses who would embrace this type of thinking in its totality. What business tends to overlook about the whole meaning/purpose discussion is that most people love feeling wanted and business almost always rationally rewards the ‘wanting’ desire instead of triggering a deeper moral sensitivity of belonging and contributing. And, if we are honest, business takes advantage of this. They, frankly, do a bunch of shit that isn’t necessarily good for a person <beyond a salary>. If we are additionally honest, we would admit this all basically rewires our brains in some fairly unhealthy ways <for us and for society>. As business ties us into servitude to the business institution it isn’t that easy to turn off that ‘wiring’ when you leave the business day. What the business values you for starts seeping into what you see as how you should be valued in certain things outside the business world. “Certain things” can span from the occasional to the many, from individual actions to parental/relational actions <you actually start transmitting your beliefs of what is important and valued to your children and family>, but the amount matters less than the fact business has affected how you start valuing things. That ‘value’ equation then seeps into how well you like yourself, should be liked, and, well, its not that assholes or ‘morally challenged’ become successful, its success that makes you morally challenged. That’s what happens as business gets hitched to everything else in the universe.

“Our corporations have built a global production system that is so complex, and geared so tightly and leveraged so finely, that a breakdown anywhere increasingly means a breakdown everywhere.”

Barry Lynn, 2005, “The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation”

This ‘hitchedness’ creates an odd contradiction of resilience and fragility. Because people are so tightly intertwined into the business, i.e., the business has leveraged them finely, they create some resilience when fragile systems, already stretched, breakdown. Of course the exception is when the breakdown is everywhere, but, that’s a topic for another day.

That said. This “hitchedness” also spans moral, production/productivity and consumption and this span is so complex that talking about one, and not the other, is relatively useless. While it was John Kenneth Galbraith who told us the link between wealth and intelligence is specious at best, the thought is the same between moral worthiness and acquisition or consumption. The most obvious example of that is significant donations to your local church does not absolve you from reprehensible amoral behavior or less-than-ethical means of acquiring your wealth.

Business and society and humans are in a weird place at the moment.

In the world we live in today, being poverty stricken offers up some sense of lack of virtue (either accountability or work or ethic or something lesser than). Uhm. And having wealth earns you evidence of some virtue (no matter how dubious that virtue may be). At the center of this entire philosophical rambling is a person’s relationship with business or productivity.

Produce and the world thinks you are worthy in some form or fashion and do-not-produce and you are not worthy in some form or fashion <and all the dimensions in-between>. Once again, it is all hitched together. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this slightly circular logic also encourages us to consume beyond our means as a way of showing, in some way, that we have contributed (in some way). The doom loop of things hitched together begin crafting a flawed universe in which things gets produced, but meaning and purpose aren’t produced. In other words, the system is not optimized. In fact, I could argue the wealthier, or more affluent you become, the higher the likelihood you are simply a new version of poverty.

Anyway. With everything hitched to each other the truth of the matter is everything is stuck in the past, until it isn’t. The only way to get out of the ‘past trap’ is to have ideas, which, typically, will span a spectrum of oldish to newish, smash into each other in debate and spread out like a contagion throughout the universe. That said. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that, inevitably, all social revolution or social regeneration is local. What I mean by that is while an idea can float in the ‘cloud’ inevitably it will take a number of people sitting around <maybe several times> sharing ideas and ideas about those ideas to make any meaningful idea come to life in any meaningful way. Once again, webs of interdependence often shrink when it comes crunch time because that is the time when productivity is honed. And, yes, in this case I am actually even suggesting producing ideas on how to make contribution seen as important, and more important. The truth is any moral revolution or social regeneration <which is actually what all this purpose and meaning discussion is really about> will not happen unless we can all hitch ourselves to some common sense of agreement and then, well, do something. If you doubt this can happen I would refer back to the opening Popova quote. Often we find that randomness is the monarch of the universe and if we randomly, but smartly, place something within the universe, well, remember, everything is hitched to the universe.

In the end. Ideas are hitched to everything else in the universe, including productivity, and ,when hitched well, humans find meaning and purpose. I’ll end there because that is the formula to improve business and, inevitably, the universe.

Written by Bruce