What we've been reading: Competition, capitalism and merit

What we've been reading
Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
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In his beautiful commencement speech at Kenyon College, the great American author David Foster Wallace told a joke about two young fish.

As they swim along, the two youngsters cross paths with an older fish swimming in the opposite direction.

The older fish, Wallace said, “nods at them and says; ‘morning, boys, how's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes; ‘what the hell is water?’”

Wallace’s point was that we rarely think about the environment’s we operate and live in, to the point where we forget about it.

For a business, competition is a lot like that water. But do we think about it enough? And do we perhaps forget the nuances of competition?

And going on that theme, here’s this week’s What we’ve been reading.

Dear Microsoft,

Microsoft doesn’t try to compete as much as kill its competitors. The Redmond-based software giant has a reputation for ruthlessness - just ask Netscape Navigator or Sony.

It’s latest target: the office chat tool Slack. Microsoft has just announced Microsoft Teams, it’s own office group chat software.

Far from being intimidated, Slack did not let Microsoft enter quietly into the arena. In a full page advert in the New York Times - reposted on its own website - Slack penned a welcome letter to Microsoft.

You will struggle to find a nicer, smarter (and more zen) takedown than this one. 

“First, and most importantly, it’s not the features that matter,” says Slack’s missive. “You’re not going to create something people really love by making a big list of Slack’s features and simply checking those boxes. The revolution that has led to millions of people flocking to Slack has been, and continues to be, driven by something much deeper.

“Building a product that allows for significant improvements in how people communicate requires a degree of thoughtfulness and craftsmanship that is not common in the development of enterprise software. How far you go in helping companies truly transform to take advantage of this shift in working is even more important than the individual software features you are duplicating.”

How Sociopathic Capitalism Came to Rule the World

Renegade capitalism is having a moment.

A man who delights in hoodwinking his competitors, cutting corners and ‘grabbing’ people is a whisper away from the American presidency.

And, what’s more, it’s this ‘business pedigree’ that attracts many of his voters. But when, asks this essay by John Paul Rollert, did capitalism lose its mind? Right around the 60s and 70s through the efforts of economists like Milton Friedman, he argues.

Friedman and his ilk “recast the very nature of capitalism in the popular mind, transforming it from an essentially cooperative activity to a renegade endeavor, one that flourished in disruption and favored those more inclined to gleefully thumb their nose at convention than graciously find common ground.

“The rise of renegade capitalism—a spirit that ripened in the 60s and 70s before flowering in the greed-is-good decade that followed—breached an uneasy truce that individuals like Adam Smith had struggled to preserve between competition and cooperation, the two forces that sustained, as a moral and practical matter, a dynamic economy.”

Living in an extreme meritocracy is exhausting

“I want to make Britain the great meritocracy of the world.”

That was one of Theresa May’s standout quotes thus far. But what the hell is a meritocracy exactly? And just how do we measure merit and who deserves what? The only scientific way is through data.

“And,” writes David Frum, “as the metrics have become more precise in their detail, their focus has shifted beyond the tasks themselves and onto the workers doing those tasks, evaluating a broad range of their qualities (including their personality traits) and tying corporate carrots and sticks—hires, promotions, terminations—to those ratings.”

Some - probably the strongest among us - would thrive under this system - but May’s vision comes with inherent risks. “[People] also believe—or at least they like to teach their children—that life is not merely a competition.

“From the days of the Puritans, they have found ways to temper their zeal for meritocracy, self-reliance, and success with values of equality, civic-mindedness, and grace, a surprising harmony of principles that the country’s earliest observers lauded as distinctly American.

“When society fetishizes measurement and idolizes individual merit at the expense of other things, however, it reinforces a go-it-alone mentality that is ultimately harmful to those egalitarian ideals.”

An empire of her own

Okay, I’ll stop badgering you with high-minded philosophising. Here, have this fascinating feature on Tory Burch, one of the hottest names in American entrepreneurship right now.

It’s a story of a socialite that has built a titanic brand, her crumbling social life, the competitors that would love to see her fail,  and the frequent loneliness of runaway success.

It’s a long read, but worth your time.

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