Thriving Amid the Human Circus

Tom Peters

Logic? Rationality? Cause and effect? Can’t live without ’em And I suppose you’ll also tell me the naming of America was a just reward for a bold explorer.

Jack Hitt, writing in the March issue of The Washington Monthly (“Original Spin: How Lurid Sex Fantasies Gave Us ‘America'”), claims Amerigo Vespucci was “a dweeb”; his immortality stems from letters “laced with wild adventures, bizarre events and lewd encounters” sent home from a voyage to South America. One of the racy missives, which were widely circulated as pamphlets, made it to Martin Waldseemueller, a cartographer who was updating “the most respected geography text of the day.” When the time came to name the area we call home, Vespucci’s titillating reports happened to be close at hand. We know the rest of the story.

“How difficult it is to accept that behind the facade of our tidy narratives rages the aimless human circus,” Hitt concludes—which makes a mockery of our obsession with planning and, for that matter, the notion of controlling one’s destiny.

“Abolishing its planning department might be the best thing company could do for its shareholders,” the Economist deadpans in “The Planned and the Damned,” a February 1989 article summarizing research on big British companies. In March 1993 the magazine observed, “The consultants and theorists jostling to advise business cannot even agree on the most basic of all questions: What, precisely, is a corporate strategy?”

So the wobbly tale goes, from Vespucci’s time to ours. But surely our miraculous new knowledge-processing tools will lead us, finally, out of the bramble of incomprehension. Ha.

Take the Rodney King video, product of the ubiquitous home video camera. Truth incarnate? A prosecutor’s dream come true? Hardly. (After all, it took two trials to get a conviction.) Writing in the New York Times, Patricia Greenfield and Paul Kibbey assess one reason for the differing interpretations of the video: “Slow motion minimizes the violence. In the real world, a faster blow is a harder blow; a slower blow is softer.” In fact, the authors write, one observer viewing the tape in slow motion claimed, “It looks like a ballet.”

Modern market analysis is fraught with similar perils. Now that we can instantly procure a ton of information on any topic, we’re more at sea than ever. Juxtapose a few databases, and U.S. population of 250 million explodes into 250 million distinct markets. Then what?

Economist and Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek understood the limits of rationality. Economic progress, he explained, is a game of chance discoveries, the byproduct of millions of trials and errors. Unintended consequences dominate, almost nothing works as planned, and victory usually eludes the most “deserving” participants. The only route forward is getting enough stuff going to up the odds of something panning out.

There are no better examples of Hayek’s thesis than Hollywood and Silicon Valley, infernos of unbalanced zealots harboring irrational beliefs in zany, untested ideas. The mess is the message!

Given the continuing triumph of absurdity, are there any “strategies” to help individuals or corporations?

1. Just do it. In a recent column, I reported the “Ready, Fire, Aim” predilections of successful execs such as Ross Perot, Pepsico chief Wayne Calloway, and Quad/Graphics founder Harry Quadracci. Want a strategy? Throw enough spaghetti at the wall and some just might stick.

2. Loose the crazies. For sizable corporations, decentralization that mimics Johnson & Johnson’s lightly linked structure is about the only answer. Caution: Liberated units must be captained by self-assured leaders who rejoice in thumbing their noses at their bosses.

3. Embrace naivete. The late Richard Feynman mused about the inordinate contribution of young researchers to high-energy physics. “They don’t know enough,” he said, “because when you know enough, it’s obvious that every idea that you have is no good.” Writing about the recent resuscitation of the New Republic under 28-year-old editor Andrew Sullivan, reporter Michael Lewis said, “The younger people are much more irresponsible and more willing to do things on the edge.”

4. Read Chekhov. “You ask me what life is?” Chekhov wrote to a friend. “It is like asking what a carrot is. A carrot is a carrot, and nothing more is known.” The great novelists understand what management gurus dare not admit: There are no rules. (For what it’s worth, the Chekhov quote hangs above my writing desk.)

A carrot is a carrot, bawdy letters brought us America, and the kooky human circus continues. If we could learn to appreciate and revel in its yeastiness, lighten our attachment to logic, and back off our obsession with control, then perhaps we could concoct moderately useful strategies for business and life. If not, at least we’d have more fun.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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