Breaking Down the Categories

I began the call by discussing a Zoom session I’d had earlier with the Institute for Evolutionary Leadership—it was a process developed by Nora Bateson, called “People Need People”. In it we asked, “what is essential”, in various contexts: FAMILY, ECONOMY, TECHNOLOGY… ECOLOGY, EDUCATION, MEDIA… IDENTITY, EDUCATION, HISTORY. It was a very interesting process, and I brought my new thinking into the call I had with Kathyn.

The big issue in society, in a lot of ways, is the categories we’ve put things into—categories that don’t make sense anymore. The way we us/them doesn’t make sense in a global world. How we end up pitting the present against the future. Or end up pitting self-interest against the needs of the whole; economic sustainability against joy and human connection.

We need to create a new way of looking at things—a mass re-categorization, a re-prioritization. It is no longer viable to pit family against future; we can’t wait any longer to start finding those places where the competing interests meet. We have for too long stuck ourselves in a quandary between making a living and building the future we want; between making a living and making a life. In the old days when the young complained about having to give their lives to things they hated, they were told “that’s why they call it work”. But the old days were not so long ago, and the old story of suffering now to earn a living, still forces us into these quandaries.

And the irony is that much of the time, we are doing so inefficiently: we are generating value in ways that are highly inefficient, for the very things we purport to be solving for. Even if we claim to be solving for income, we are not optimizing our work or economy to meet those needs efficiently.

But more importantly, when you optimize solely for income, you miss out on the world (as we will see below). How do we create an economics that serves us, instead of the other way around.

A Granular Approach to Societal, Economic, and Personal System Balancing

So at the same time that Essential 3 is tackling practical daily problems for an average small business owner, we are also working on the bigger picture—because they are connected. Sure, we are practical. And we practically want to ask: how do you encourage an economics of plenty, that encourages a healthy, community-based entrepreneurship; that creates an aggregate of greater good in the world?

Many people look at this through a lens of policy (nonprofit and public sector), but I have always been interested in the power of small business. The work we are doing is to explore how to empower small businesses to be their own more powerful engine of satisfaction and multi-level prosperity.

We approach the process from an individual, creative standpoint: how can we help small businesses to thrive better, and help their communities thrive more as well? We are developing the processes and frameworks to do this.

We wanted to ask: How can we make survival something that doesn’t happen at the expense of the future?

…at the expense of animals? At the expense of the environment? At the expense of your own health?

Towards an Economics of Thriving

We have not designed an economics of thriving; we have designed an economics of surviving. When one gains far more than he or she needs, virtually all the mechanisms encouarage even greater consumption, rather than some form of balancing. Virtually all processes are weighted towards wealth accumulation, and not balancing. We are not interested in telling anyone that they should not want anything; but we are intrested to help people clarify what they really do want.

We’ve been developing a model of five dimensions of success, to help people evaluate against, rather than a one-dimensional metric of profit. The aha came out of a conversation we had a few weeks ago: if we helped a businessperson double their profit—but that meant they began working 100 hours a week instead of 40 hours; and if that meant they never saw their family, or their partner; and their relationships suffered, their happiness suffered—would that really be a measure of success? Would we have helped them?

It seems like an obvious “no”. Of course it would not have helped them, and would even be unethical. That’s why we’ve been developing multi-dimensional criteria, and the idea that you want to grow things in harmony—things like profit, impact, and various forms of satisfaction for your team and customers. Then we can feel we are helping people create a genuine form of success. (And they get to decide what it looks like for them!)

When you look at this from the view of a small business owner, there are humans at the core of the business, who are connected in some way to their team, their customers, and their environment. There are humans all the way through the system—in this way, human satisfaction can be addressed in a holistic way through this process.

(When you are talking about a corporation, on the other hand, it’s a little problematic: now, the driving force of the business is not humans; it’s some fiduciary responsibility mechanism make the greatest profit, and so on. So, non-human (man-made) mechanisms like this can contort the business, so that it’s much harder to drive towards this kind of transformational type of prosperity.)

Economics still emphasizes growth, in spite of the realities of living on a finite planet. [Indeed, that economics puts so much emphasis on money, where non-monetary value is just as important, is also important.]

While economics is set on growth, we live on an ecosystem that thrives through homeostasis (dynamic balance), and our bodies, families, and cultures do so as well. This is far closer to our idea of multi-dimensional success, where the “goods” want to attain optimal levels, in a balanced way with each other.

Newer initiatives has corporations look beyond the idea of growth. In the 90’s, the idea of prosperity without growth was a very “fringe” idea, but has gotten more into the conversation now. For what it’s worth, last year The Business Roundtable changed their definition of corporate purpose to go beyond the value for the shareholder. Models such as B-Corp, do explicitly spell out sets of responsibilities beyond profit, such as sustainability and other forms of impact.

We were evolved very effectively, millions of years ago, to deal with the types of situations that were around then. Immediate threats, etc. So, there is nothing wrong with us, that we are having such a trouble now: our nervous systems were not evolved to deal with the types of abstract crises that our brains were able to create for us—hence the crisis. Situations like climate change are very hard for us to deal with: hard to see, vast, and in the future.

What a disconnect now—between the types of situations we evolved for, and the types of situations we are now facing.

How do you balance the various measures of business success, to create healthy homeostasis, in a balanced way? A very different way of looking at things than the “profit is everything” approach.

So many people in the economic profession are still locked into the fixed idea of growth. Kathryn’s UC economics professor—just 10 years ago—could not get beyond it. Chris remembers an Intro to Genetics class much longer ago (at the dawn of the GMO era). He didn’t even have language to call it a “systems view”, but he intuited that they should probably be far more careful about the novel forms of life they were about to start introducing into the ecosystem. How could you really test all the combinations and interactions, between this new form of life, and the other ones in the system? The professor didn’t even seem to have the capacity to think like this. Combinations of unforeseen interactions seemed out of his scope. This is what it is to be breaking old paradigms, and moving into new ones.

What Is the Economy For?

What is the economy for?

Is the economy for making more money?


My idea about multiple dimensions of success came from years of thinking, about what real happiness consists of. One of the design principles that can help us, as a society, is to become more conscious of what we’re actually optimizing for. Lots and lots and lots of people have a hidden assumption, that more money is going to solve all their problems. And that’s too simplistic.

So for example, I’ve noted for a long time that Silicon Valley is creating this wonderful culture of innovation—but then by and large, it seems like the people creating the startups are aggrandizing wealth, as though it were the be-all-and-end-all win of the world. That a $100 Million IPO will be this ultimate goal, somehow, and prove their worth. I say, it’s a 21st Century culture of innovation, and a 19th Century mindset about why you want the innovation. It’s like they want to become new robber barons, or something. Heads down, building stuff—but not nearly as much innovation and new thought, around the economics systems within which they are building their cool new stuff.

They’re not driving towards a conscious set of objectives.

Out of fear, perhaps. What do you do once you have enough for food, shelter, and other basic needs? Do you let survival needs drive your life, even long after you have satisfied them?

Kathryn went to a conference with Kevin O’Leary of Shark Tank. His whole message was to make as much money as possible. Wasn’t driven out of creativity, or possibility. A lot of times, seems wanting money (though fun), can be a stand-in for an emotional loss of control (a fear of vulnerability). Money becomes a stand-in for things we really want.

Small businesses is a set of relationships, making something useful, providing value. Embedded in many sets of relationships. We are empowering this idea—to look at success as a set of qualities, and seeing the business embedded in sets of communities, and relationships.

Inquiry Leads to Optimization

Kathryn pointed out the value of questions (as in the Evolutionary Leadership sessions). Learning how to ask better questions is important; different from just asking “what is the right answer?” We see the value in helping to develop wisdom, or deeper understanding. It is efficient to know what you want (working hard, while not really knowing what you want, leads to lots of wasted effort). So, while it often may seem to someone as if they don’t have time for a real inquiry, the consequence of not doing so, at critical points, is often more of that wasted effort.

A big part of our job is to know how to ask the right kinds of questions with our clients, and help them find answers that are clearer for them; less generic; more just right for them. Part of my passion in helping these small businesses, is to help them to optimize more carefully for the things they really want in the world. It’s not just that it will help their bottom lines; not just to help their satisfaction, nor even to help build better experiences for their clients—but in the aggregate, it contributes to a more enriched, satisfied, and resilient culture.

Optimization Reduces Wasted Life

I believe satisfied people will waste less. Less of their lives; less of their time; less of the earth. They will be more given to generosity, and have more time to enrich each other, and the world.

Our work, in helping people become more clear of what they want, also includes helping them to let go of things they might be doing automatically, but don’t really serve them. We help them become more who they really want to be, and in that process, they will actually stand out more, as well. No more business on default. No more assuming there’s one “expert” who has all the answers, and not trusting yourself.

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October 17, 2020 - Chris Burbridge + Anita Edge
Re-Nourishing the World through the Richness of Personal Business - With Kathryn Gorges