The risk-averse career path
The career choices of the leaders of tomorrow in a world of collapsing socialist economies and acute capitalist wealth gaps
Uncertainty is the master key that gave rise to life from the ashes of death, and to humanity in the wild. When we were cavemen and savages, each of us did things at his or her own risk. By definition, we were all entrepreneurs.
But that same uncertainty that caused life, challenged it, with selective death. So human beings developed adaptive characteristics: Tribal and communal behavior, sharing, specialization, and trade. Along that path, some of us evolved to trade off parts of our wild, free and uncertain daily struggle for the domesticated, constrained and stable year-round service to a larger collective.
Tribes, farms, states and kingdoms were born in the quest for certainty. Empires rose up and became ever more powerful. But as they converted masses to a life of domesticated and stable servitude, they failed to match uncertainty, the mother of life, in its assurances of fair and equitable wealth distribution.
When fair men became kings, their devoted ministers accrued and concentrated power. When industrialism compounded productivity, the early manager who rose up in the ranks accrued the wealth created by workers who had traded it for stability. And when capitalism created financial efficiency, hedging against derivatives of uncertainty accumulated wealth at the top tiers of the human population. Labor became a commodity, and The Great Depression ensued.
Suddenly the certainty of a steady demand in labor didn't seem attractive, once paired with unfair wealth distribution. The satisfaction of seeking justice through chaos won hearts and minds. So unions were formed to protest for their share of wealth, and entire countries organized their socialist idealism around the idea of a marriage between certainty and fairness. Local unions and international communist states were born. An apocalyptic “World War II” burned all the bridges; and its ensuing “Cold War” filled the grand valley between the extremes of certified equality and unregulated inequality.
Certainty and Fairness, however, proved to be an odd couple. It all started when a man didn't bother to do his job as well as his friend, because his fair share depended on his humanity more than his performance. So both he and his friend began competing on who could do less and get away with it; and before a century was over, the centralized power in the empire of certified equality was toppled by the independence bids of its own starving citizens. The unregulated and unequal world, thenceforth, went into full swing.
Globalization acted first: Coca Cola and McDonald’s dominated all corners of every island in Greece. Turkish Kebobs ruled a Berlin without the Berlin Wall. Sushi and Pho became American meals celebrating its former enemies. And Trade Agreements like NAFTA ensured that jobs could travel without borders.
Then came Technology. The semiconductor put a computer on every desk, then on every lap, and finally in every pocket. Uncertainty came to accounting jobs with Intuit, and to chauffeur jobs with Uber. Double income families still embracing the certainty of the "good job” dipped into the equity of their homes, and a housing bubble collapse created even more uncertainty. And eventually, exponential productivity traded for the certainty of a day job once again put all the wealth under the control of the highest tiers of power distribution.
We are left today with the way it all began: the desire to get our free and fair share in a world of uncertainty, while we still hunger for stability. The human character has swung too far to one side of the stability pendulum. It seems viciously cyclical, doesn’t it?
It’s actually not.
Your first act of leadership out of social turmoils is to stop thinking in terms of politically specious and fundamentally false dilemmas. When you’re stuck in a large crowd between two terrible black and white choices, you’re often looking at the largest opportunity of a lifetime: to walk away. That’s always the third choice.
For the first time in centuries, we have the tools once again, this time in the digital age, to venture out and hunt for ourselves. We neither need to divide the world equally nor stand for the unfair wage-fixing and tax exploitations of the bigger brother. The risk-averse man knows one thing for certain: the risk of a fixed game between two bad choices. Dropping out works surprisingly well; just ask educated immigrants. And its price is, you guessed it, uncertainty.
We're at the cusp of a new era, when the re-emerged human character, in its quest for fairness, can abandon certainty under human-made wealthy empires to seek his fair share from that mother of all, uncertainty. And while we may not all embrace that new entrepreneurial character together today, each of us must remember it as a birth home that we can return to tomorrow. After all, we've all been there together, and we've survived it as a species.
To know the ending of our story, look at our beginning.
- I wrote this essay long before publishing it. In fact I forgot all about it, until I opened Reid Hoffman’s “The Startup of You” on its first page, and found my opening words repeated almost identically by someone much more concerned about humanity: "All human beings are entrepreneurs. When we were in the caves, we were all self-employed ... finding our food, feeding ourselves. That’s where human history began. As civilization came, we suppressed it. We became ‘labor' because they stamped us, 'You are labor.' We forgot that we are entrepreneurs.” - Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and micro finance pioneer
- The New Deal was a series of domestic programs enacted in the United States between 1933 and 1938, and a few that came later. They included both laws passed by Congress as well as presidential executive orders during the first term (1933–37) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The programs were in response to the Great Depression, and focused on what historians call the "3 Rs": Relief, Recovery, and Reform. That is Relief for the unemployed and poor; Recovery of the economy to normal levels; and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression. (Wikipedia) The tax on millionaires was 79% under the new deal. Some credit it for preserving democracy in the United States at a time when democracy failed in most of the world.
Amin Ariana is a software entrepreneur in San Francisco.
Readers shared their thoughts on this essay:
Fascinating, and a great perspective. We as people seem to want - no expect - life to be fair. Amin, do you see the jobs (really I mean functions) as vocational? Do you think our way of thinking would change if both managers and employees treated 'jobs' (more frequently) as vocations?
Thanks Jonathan. I can speculate on that, though it wouldn't sound as smart as Bertrand Russell's essay, "In Praise of Idleness". I'm much more of a storyteller than a speculator. That said, intelligent robotics will soon drive us to take sides practically rather than muse about these questions theoretically. We are living the first act of a three act story spanning the next decade.
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