February 15, 2005

Who Moved My Cheese? and the Meaning of Life

By: Peter J. Hansen

The business of business books is to sell a dream of success and fulfillment. But scratch the surface and something other than hope and joy appears. Beneath, for example, the famously sunny exterior of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, first published in 1937 and remaining in print ever since, one finds a peculiarly American nihilism.

Carnegie counsels relentless friendliness, but essentially as a means of manipulating others. One must be friendly to everybody precisely because one has no real friends, nobody to really count on. Carnegie’s implicit motto is not Judge not lest ye be judged, but rather, Judge not for one gains nothing by judging. Holding negative opinions of people might undermine one’s efforts to achieve success. And nothing is worth sacrificing success, not God or love or virtue or knowledge.

Such darkness is a little more obvious in Carnegie’s book than in today’s business books, but that may simply be because Carnegie is more self-aware than today’s business book authors. Unlike Carnegie, they promise meaning, even transcendence, in career and success. (This is reflected in their grandiose titles, as compared with Carnegie’s relatively straightforward one.) While Carnegie took a dim view of lofty aims and sought a more solid basis for life, the current purveyors consider success itself the lofty aim, and seem unaware that anybody might feel something is lacking.

Perhaps they are right; perhaps there are few Americans today who (consciously) demand more from life. Business books constitute one of the few areas where American publishers consistently make money, which suggests these authors know their audience.

One author who apparently knows his audience is Spencer Johnson, whose book Who Moved My Cheese? has been a bestseller since it first appeared in 1998. This very short work boils down to one clever fable, the implications of which are not hard to interpret but which Johnson nonetheless underlines with a thoroughness to suit the meanest capacities. Put simply, people resemble mice who must always be prepared to find a new source of “cheese.” Johnson skillfully depicts the discomfort and denial of people who have recently lost their “cheese,” but his presentation of how one goes about finding new cheese is a bit trite.

The testimonials praising Johnson’s little book are together almost as long as the book itself. They come from prominent people at prominent companies, including BellSouth, Eastman Kodak, NBC, and Xerox. But these are not exactly the most successful companies in the world today. Alas, business books, as these testimonials inadvertently suggest, bear an ambiguous relation to business success. People who merely dream of being big winners in the rat race are the ones actually reading these books; the real winners, the successful entrepreneurs and executives, can’t have time for such distractions. Besides, any lessons one might learn from a business bestseller are probably already understood by those who are really good at “finding cheese.”

Nonetheless, such books might help the rest of us. In Now, Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton argue that it is generally more important to develop one’s strengths or talents than to overcome one’s weaknesses. “Without underlying talent, learning a skill is a survival technique, not a path to glory.” The authors maintain that most people mistakenly believe they should take the opposite tack, trying to overcome their weaknesses in order to become “well-rounded.” They favorably quote W.C. Fields: “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then quit. There is no point making a fool of yourself.”

The authors make these points effectively, but they say little about why people tend to think that compensating for weaknesses is more important than developing existing strengths or talents. My own suspicion is that many people feel it is safer to become more similar to others than to strike out on one’s own path. In other words, a certain timidity or herd mentality is at work. The authors show some curiosity about what makes people tick (they offer a surprisingly detailed description of early brain development), but they seem to lack the instinct or taste for psychologically revealing questions.

This lack of real engagement with people may partly explain their surprising certainty that concentrating on strengths rather than weaknesses can resolve any work-related dissatisfactions. The book begins with Gallup’s finding that only 20 percent of people working in large organizations “feel that their strengths are in play every day,” and asks “why eight out of ten employees feel somewhat miscast in their role.” The authors apparently assume it is possible for large organizations to offer a majority of their employees the opportunity to use what they consider their strengths every day.

This seems unrealistic. Small organizations (including families) can experiment with giving their members a high level of autonomy; but this is much more difficult for large organizations. It is critical that the workers in an assembly line or on a nuclear submarine do what is expected of them. Subordination and drudgery are inevitably part of the job.

The problem isn’t merely that the authors are looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. One subtle effect of books like this is to redefine human strengths as the ones that productive organizations in fact need. The authors encourage us to discover our strengths so that we can put them to use in our careers. Thus empathy makes one suited for sales (rather than, say, friendship or raising children); imagination makes one suited for formulating business strategy (rather than art or, if allied with other abilities, philosophy or science); and so forth. There is no suggestion that our strengths or virtues point to anything higher than our careers. The book implies, or at least encourages the reader to feel, that one should either redirect or neglect those strengths that have no economic application.

The apparent absence of the thought that there is something higher than being an effective cog in the economic wheel is striking given the intelligence with which Now, Discover Your Strengths is written. The book is refreshingly free of exaggerated, unqualified claims. At times it seems a bit too smart for the business book genre. However, it finally does deserve such company, because of its assumption that the right career is the core of a good life.

The prevalence of this assumption, I think, reflects a certain narrowing of the souls of college-educated Americans over the past few generations. As late as the 1950s, most men saw their jobs primarily as a means of supporting their families, the most important thing in their lives. As the success of books like Now, Discover Your Strengths attests, many men and women now look to their careers to provide the central satisfaction or meaning in their lives. Thus they are eager to read that they can escape the drudgery and subordination that have been an essential part of all the jobs they have actually held.

Perhaps we were bound to move in this direction in an age of no-fault divorce, an age in which natural differences between men and women are officially denied. Since it no longer seems prudent or politically correct to put romantic or family attachments at the center of our lives, we try to fill the void with our careers. Books like Now, Discover Your Strengths help the process along by glamorizing what it means to have a job. In doing so they unwittingly purvey a form of false consciousness (to use the Marxist lingo), a way of viewing the world that helps us accept the atomized, fast-paced, individualistic ethos of modern capitalist democracy.

There are, however, some business books that do not glamorize career; instead they exaggerate the ease with which one can leave it behind. If there is one vice that characterizes the genre, it is an inability to confront hard facts of life.

The most successful recent book of this type is Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki (with Sharon Lechter). The core of this book is its striking contrast between Kiyosaki’s real father, a prominent teacher and administrator who nonetheless faced financial difficulties, and his “rich dad,” the father of a boyhood friend who in many ways taught Kiyosaki how to look at the world. His rich dad never attended high school, but he was a shrewd, independent, and highly enterprising man.

The portraits of the two dads are quite interesting, although it is a bit off-putting that Kiyosaki so readily exploits his father’s difficulties to formulate financial advice. As far as the advice goes, Kiyosaki is at his best in discussing how rich people, or those on their way to becoming rich, look at money. “The rich don’t work for money…The rich have money work for them.” In other words: The rich pursue assets or ownership. They seek income from assets, not from a salary.

To a greater extent than you might think, the superiority of owning assets to receiving a salary has to do with taxes. Kiyosaki shows that owning a business enables one to avoid a great deal of taxation. In touting the advantages of owning property through a corporation, he sometimes seems to forget that corporate property should be used for corporate purposes; but even if one is scrupulous on this score, there are still many advantages to owning a corporation.

Kiyosaki is not a natural writer, and he has a regrettable penchant for simplistic formulae. Moreover, his formulae imply that anybody can become wealthy by following his advice. The need for superior ability or luck somehow falls away. Endemic to the business book genre is the temptation to exaggerate the value of one’s wares, and Kiyosaki succumbs enthusiastically.

Nonetheless, Rich Dad, Poor Dad does offer a way of thinking about how to escape the rat race, and the book might be useful to some resourceful readers. And, refreshingly, Kiyosaki does not present the rat race as the culmination of human life. However, when it comes to what the genuine culmination of human life might be, he has little to offer beyond wealth and freedom-valuable things, to be sure, but obviously means rather than ends. Kiyosaki conveys no sense of a purpose to life beyond a certain lazy, tepid hedonism. Perhaps that’s not a defect in a business book; but the other books under discussion here actually convey more of a sense that the authors have grappled with the question of how to live, however inadequately.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins examines eleven “great” companies selected on the basis of long-term performance criteria, and compares them to not-so-great companies in the same industries. One of his findings is that bringing in a well-known CEO from outside the company is negatively correlated with subsequent performance. It’s better to pick someone less glamorous who already knows the ropes.

Collins finds no predictive significance to variations in how executives are paid, except that executives at the best companies “received slightly less total cash compensation…than their counterparts at the still-mediocre comparison companies.” This undermines the claim that companies must offer stunningly large salaries in order to attract talented executives. And it suggests the dramatic rise in executive compensation over the past generation is due to the fact that the foxes have been guarding the chicken coop.

Collins’s central finding, though it doesn’t come as a big surprise, is that successful companies identify and focus on one thing which they do very well. Another significant finding is that successful companies pay more attention to hiring and keeping excellent people than to figuring out exactly what to do with them. Good people find a way to contribute to the company they work for, often in ways that could not have been imagined in advance. (I can attest that this has proven true in my own small business.)

Good to Great does have flaws characteristic of its genre. Collins states that if you follow the rules he outlines, “you will eventually reach breakthrough” and form a great company. “It will happen.” But that is obviously preposterous (and elsewhere he sounds a more tentative note). Luck plays a larger role in human affairs than Collins concedes. His methodology tends to conceal the role of luck, as he begins by selecting highly successful companies, rather than beginning with all companies that followed the strategy he outlines.

Collins is convincing when arguing that effective executives focus like a laser on the question of what they can do very well, what particular niche their company can fill better than anybody else. But there is no guarantee that they will find such a niche. He argues that great companies need not be in great industries (he discusses Nucor in the steel industry and the Kroger supermarket chain). However, to take a couple of extreme examples, it is hard to see how any executive could have sustained a large company in the horseshoe industry in the days when cars were becoming widespread, or in the asbestos industry after its carcinogenic properties were discovered.

Collins notes that executives of highly successful companies attribute their success largely to luck. He cites this as proof of their lack of egotism or boastfulness. Which it surely is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Just because these executives are humble doesn’t mean they have no reason to be or that luck didn’t play a big role in their success.

The question of luck or fortune also looms in the background when Collins discusses what he calls the Stockdale paradox, named after the attitude that helped sustain Admiral James Stockdale through eight years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. As Collins put it, “You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end and you must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”

Collins’s discussion of Admiral Stockdale is fascinating and Stockdale’s example is indeed the kind of thing that gives the heart courage. But isn’t Stockdale’s attitude manifestly self-contradictory? Wasn’t the single most “brutal fact” of Stockdale’s situation that he had absolutely no way of knowing he would “prevail in the end”? To be sure, Stockdale did prevail; but many other prisoners of war, probably including some armed with the same indomitable attitude, were not so lucky.

Collins stops pursuing his own line of thought just where it becomes really interesting. Are the bravest among us precisely those who are nurtured by an illusory certainty that they will prevail? Or is there another type of courage, based on a more realistic appraisal of one’s vulnerability? Can this rational courage produce the same firmness as the more illusory form?

These are questions Collins does not ask. However, he does demonstrate, with unintended humor, that some business executives share Admiral Stockdale’s belief that they will ultimately prevail. Collins quotes (and italicizes) a Kroger executive saying, “There was a certain Churchillian character to what we were doing. We had a very strong will to live, the sense that we are Kroger, Kroger was here before and will be here long after we are gone, and, by god, we are going to win this thing. It might take us a hundred years, but we will persist for a hundred years, if that’s what it takes.

If Admiral Stockdale brings us to eternal questions about the relation between virtue and wisdom, the Kroger executive brings us to less lofty questions about the denaturing effects of capitalism. An executive with this attitude is likely to work hard for his company. This attitude is therefore one that our political and economic system tends to foster. But is it really what we want people to feel? Doesn’t this sort of devotion to Kroger suggest that deeper, more natural attachments have been replaced or somehow confused? Isn’t this Kroger executive a comic figure, one whose natural inclination to devote himself to something larger than himself has been disfigured by compromise with the smaller aspects of the world in which he lives?

Such questions become all the more urgent as Collins discusses the need to be passionate about the company one works for. “People who aren’t passionate about Gillette,” he points out, “need not apply.” One Kimberly-Clark executive discusses “the charisma of a diaper.” Are these models to imitate, or signs of degradation? Perhaps all regimes are denaturing in some way; but a sensible observer resists his own regime’s defects, rather than celebrating them.

One recent business book does present career, and life generally, more sensibly. Moneyball by Michael Lewis is written for people who are interested in actually learning about business, rather than exalting it to fill a void in their lives.

A simple but intriguing question sets Moneyball in motion: How does one of lowest budgets in professional baseball consistently produce one of the best teams? The answer, and the central figure in Moneyball, is the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, a man named Billy Beane.

Beane’s involvement with professional baseball began when he was in high school, and was identified by professional scouts as a tremendous prospect. He decided to play ball rather than attend Stanford, but he did not live up to the scouts’ hopes. What now sets him apart as a general manager is his peculiar desire to bring a more rational approach to identifying and paying for baseball talent. His unique success is, Lewis suggests, the fruit of a life gone awry, and now only partly salvaged.

Moneyball is vivid, fun, and true to life. In telling the story of Billy Beane, it also tells a story about the difference between following conventional wisdom and seeing with own one’s eyes wide open. It’s also about how statistics illuminate life, and about inefficient markets and the sometimes glacial processes that improve them. The baseball part is just a bonus for fans: I haven’t paid attention to the game since I was a boy, but I had trouble getting enough sleep while reading Moneyball.

Michael Lewis is an observer, not an exhorter. He is distinctly agnostic about the value of business success and its contribution to a good life. He is attuned to, rather than simply captured by, human folly and the many forms it takes. He understands that there is more to learn from concrete examples than from sweeping generalizations (including this one). He appreciates capitalism without being a creature of it. He is not perfect (he could have skipped his bitter Postscript, and, more important, he does not demonstrate quite the same distance from democracy that he does from capitalism), but America is lucky to have him.

I cannot say the same for the other books I have discussed, which, even while making some worthwhile observations, end up encouraging one of our more baleful vices. In general, the business book genre reflects and reinforces our desire to make careers fill a place in our souls that they cannot truly fill. As human beings we want more out of life than jobs can provide-and thank God for that-but many or most of us don’t know where else to turn. The business book genre as we know it is born of that emptiness; and it issues in emptiness as well. The lonely hunger of atomized individuals invites the empty promises of (mostly unwitting) false prophets. Whatever faults Americans had in the generations before we acquired a taste for these books (and no doubt we had many), we do not seem to have gained in self-understanding or happiness.

Peter Hansen lives with his family in Manassas, Virginia, where he is the president of Hansen Capital Management, Inc. He is also working on a doctoral dissertation with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.