Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Zero sum or infinite sum?

kw: business, creativity, competition, philosophy, quotes

About twenty years ago, when I was working at a major oil company, the executives began an exercise to "zero-base" the corporation's workforce. Effectively, they declared that upon a certain date, everyone should consider himself or herself laid off, unless "claimed" by one of the new organizations that would be designed over the following several months. Then we all were set to the task of designing those organizations. The claim was made that this would improve our competitive position.

I called it "downsourcing management". What do we pay them their huge salaries for? I prepared a banner and hung it above my office door:
Creators do not need to Compete
Things went along well enough for a while. A number of us revolted against designing new organizations that did not include provision for the work we were doing, and effectively forced top management to actually manage, to make some decisions. They were still carping about "competition" and staying abreast thereof. I made a second banner, to hang below the first:
When running, if you look over your shoulder, you are sure to stumble.
Strangely, I found that not many of my colleagues had a creative mind-set. Having built my career on a continuing struggle for excellence, I found myself surrounded by many whose focus was short-term and excessively profit-oriented. Sometimes, it is necessary to forgo immediate profits in favor of greater success a little later. Many people cannot comprehend that.

I can illustrate this with the matter of investing for retirement. The company had a very generous matching plan to go with the 401-K, fully matching the first 6% that we saved. I jumped on that bandwagon the day it became available! With each raise thereafter, I increased my contribution, until I reached the maximum, at the time, of 15% of my compensation. 15+6=21%, and that, well invested, led towards my getting, if not rich, at least comfortable. (At another company now—with 9% matching!—, I could have retired a few years back, but work because I enjoy it.)

One of my colleagues was also an early adopter of the 401-K, but did things in a different way. He contributed only 6%, to get the match, and then withdrew his money each year. He just used the matching plan as a way to get extra compensation from the company, and lived well. When he retired a few years ago, his 401-K contained only the company contributions, which were substantial enough, but he'd have had twice the money if he'd kept his own money in the plan. Meanwhile, by contributing 21% to his 6% I had more than three times the accumulated value.

This illustrates a maxim by Kant, and here I must paraphrase:
It is a universal fault in man during fair weather to make no provision for the tempest.
Further, the great attention to competition, at the expense of creation, is well expressed by Napoleon Hill:
There are two world views a person can hold: a world view of competition or a world view of creation. Most people have a competitive world view.
I think it safe to say creative effort is responsible for nearly all value creation. The competitive efforts that follow the success of something newly created add little value, except insomuch as they engender further creation. Thus, while I hate to give her last billing, I am compelled to quote Ayn Rand:
A creative (wo)man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.
Throughout my career, when I have found myself doing work that others could do as well or better, I have turned my attention to finding work that I could do better than my fellows, or what is better, work that I alone could perform because I had created it entire. This has led to a much better course of my life than if I'd stuck to my former occupation as a fair-to-middling laboratory technician and engineer. There are those who take the hand life dealt them, and attempt to gather extra Aces. With a modicum of different thinking, one can create new Aces as needed.

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