Friday, December 30, 2005

Built to Flip

Reading an article in FastCompany called "Built to Flip" about how the new economy is also about making a quick buck instead of creating sustainable value. The article was written in March 2000, just before the dot com bust, but it's still true today.

I feel its tug within myself, not so much for money but for significance to the company and recognition. Do I want to fight the hard battle and work on the project that I love dearly and think could change the world but that is risky with naysayers, or should I work on the obvious things that everyone knows should be done and are central to the company's current model and have little risk of failing?

When it emerged in the early 1980s, the new-economy culture rested on three primary tenets: freedom and self-direction in your work; purpose and contribution through your work; and wealth creation by your work. Central to that culture was the belief that work is our primary activity and that through work we can achieve the sense of meaning that we are looking for in life. Driving the new economy were immensely talented, highly energetic people who sought a practical answer to a fundamental question: How can I create work that I'm passionate about, that makes a contribution, and that makes money? By fostering a culture of entitlement, Built to Flip debases the very concept of meaningful work. And, as is always the case with any form of entitlement, it ultimately debases the person who feels entitled.

Even for those with exceptional talent and drive, money seems to have become the central point of it all. The poster children of the new new economy are people like Jim Clark, the founding genius of Netscape, who is vividly portrayed in Michael Lewis's riveting book "The New New Thing" (W.W. Norton, 1999). Despite his impressive résumé, Clark comes across as a man who is stuck on a monetary treadmill: He seems addicted to running after more and more, and then more still, without ever stopping to ask why. Late in the book, Lewis describes a scene in which he presses Clark on this very issue. Earlier, Clark had said that he would retire after he became "a real after-tax billionaire." Now he was worth $3 billion. What about his plans for retiring? "I just want to have more money than Larry Ellison," he says. "I don't know why. But once I have more money than Larry Ellison, I'll be satisfied."

But Lewis pressed further. In about six months, Clark would surpass Ellison in terms of net worth. Then what? Did Clark want more money than, say, Bill Gates? Lewis writes, " 'Oh, no,' Clark said, waving my question to the side of the room where the ridiculous ideas gather to commiserate with each other. 'That'll never happen.' A few minutes later, after the conversation had turned to other matters, he came clean. 'You know,' he said, 'just for one moment, I would kind of like to have the most. Just for one tiny moment.' " In the biggest flip of all, by running aimlessly on the new-wealth treadmill, we have come to resemble previous generations. In the old economy, our parents got jobs not because of the work itself but because of the pay. In the new economy, we got jobs not just for the pay but also for the chance to do meaningful work. In the new new economy, we've come full circle. This time, though, the drive for money is not about putting bread on the table (in other words, achieving comfort and security); it's about getting a bigger table. It's about keeping up with the Ellisons.

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