I just read Dan Lyons' new book Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Startup Bubble. The first half of the book had me laughing out loud, again and again. The second half had me worrying about current dangers to rational business culture, and our overall economy.
Dan was a senior tech editor and writer at Newsweek, following a stint at Forbes. He had interviewed and met many of the main players in the tech world over the years, and pretty much thought he had a good feel for what was going on in the realm of tech startups. Young people were creating companies with sometimes crazy ideas, making serious money in the early funding stages, and finally real fortunes in taking those companies public, whether they ever made a profit or not. When Dan's job was terminated at Newsweek, he decided to enter into this world where big money could be made. He was hired by a Boston company called HubSpot. And the book is about his surprising time there.
When I first read the great novel Don Quixote, I remember thinking that some people would see the title character as the paradigm of a creative visionary, seeing things that others could never even dream or imagine. They would become Sancho Panzas of the Don, excited loyal followers hoping to get their own little island of fantasy rewards from faithfully following along on the journey. Others, of course, would view Senior Quixote right away as an unhinged madman, a delusional character who will easily ruin the life of anyone crazy or gullible enough to follow him.
Lyons' new book raises some interesting questions about the errant knight-founders of the current technology world. Who is a true visionary and who's just a madman? And, oh yeah, who might be simply an ordinary charlatan, but now with extraordinary tools of deceit? No one is riding an old horse or a small donkey, and "tilting at windmills." They're all riding the wave of the future, and many are getting crazy rich off the gullibility, hopes, and ambitions of others.
What struck me about Lyons' experiences is that he was exposed to grandiosity, silliness, incompetence, petty nastiness, cluelessness, craziness, well disguised cynicism, and even perhaps a real depth of psychopathic and sociopathic evil in the workplace. And it all, rolled together, makes some people rich.
We live in an unusual time, where magical thinking, new age superstition, hyperbole, and good old fashioned cheer-leading mixed in with a cultural expectation on the part of many younger people that everything should be entertaining and fun, all conspire together to allow our current Don Quixotes to become Pied Pipers on a massive scale. And of course, we see the Dons in contemporary politics as well as business, on every level.
The current snake oil salesmen don't work out of the backs of wagons or old trucks preaching the virtues of their elixirs to rubes on the street. They start companies, find VC funding, and create fun places to work where all their carefully selected Sancho Panzas can toil in hopes of "changing the world," or enriching themselves along the way.
I've been writing about the opposite way of running a business since the mid-nineties, in books such as True Success, If Aristotle Ran General Motors and If Harry Potter Ran General Electric. And I happen to like fun, even silly fun every now and then. But I like even more business cultures that are built on the ancient transcendent ideals of Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity - not as slogans, but as realities of day to day work. I believe in the Aristotelian virtues, the deepest elements of the Tao, and the Christian core concept, nearly lost today, of the power in humility.
I believe in real wisdom. And I see the slick criminals and grandiose madmen of our time as using faux wisdom, the counterfeits of real insights, and a deceptive rhetoric wrapped around genuine human needs to forward their own agendas and line their own pockets. As a philosopher who has been fighting for the right approaches for decades now, I urge younger thinkers to join me in providing the true knowledge and authentic insight that's needed by modern business, as we swim a sea now of not only sharks, but poisonous conceptual pollution as well.
Dan Lyons' book is an entertaining and eye-opening wake up call to anyone who cares about the deeply positive role that good business can play in the modern world. When you run into a modern Don Quixote recruiting your work, or soliciting your investment, or appealing for your business with sky-high rhetoric, you would be best off running in the opposite direction. Don't be misled.