Business feels a lot like a handwavy cult.
There’s a whole language full of jargon that goes with it. Phrases such as innovation, strategy, market share, profit, customer journey, value-add — have become buzzwords we’re all sick of.
All the glitz and glam of business make it sound fancy. But author Mark Manson is right…
Take comfort: no one actually knows what the hell they’re doing. Everyone is just working off their current best guess — Mark Manson
We pretend we know what business is about when nobody really knows.
We act like business is a formula
I spent a good part of my career working in big, bad businesses.
We’d sit in huge strategy sessions with our pinstripe suits and overpriced iPhones sitting on the board table. There were org charts, GANT charts, butcher’s paper, and whiteboards in every meeting.
Different business leaders would have ideas for new products/services. Actually, often they just directly copied them off our competitors.
“They’ve got a navy blue credit card. We need a navy blue credit card damn it!”
So we’d work well into the night to create them. My colleagues treated the process as if it was a formula. Like you say and do a bunch of business tasks, and Abra Kazam, new profits … followed by red wine.
The formulas rarely worked. When customers got a hold of these crackpot business creations they often stuck their nose up at them.
What seemed logical in months of back-to-back meetings rarely came to fruition. Business is unpredictable. Nobody knows what customers want.
And even if you copy what your competitors are doing, there’s no guarantee it works for your business. Sometimes you’re too late — or too early.
The only formula is humans are unpredictable.
Most business people are actors
All the pretending is an act.
We want people to think we know “how the business works” because it upgrades our food and shelter if people believe. If they don’t, we either stay where we are in the hierarchy or get fired.
There are consequences for bad acting.
To say the truth is to risk your job. The truth always has consequences for the incumbent leaders who’ve enjoyed the fruits of the status quo.
The incentive to call a spade a spade is rarely there. So everyone calls the spade a diamond. They kiss it even though it’s often a turd.
Once you know business is an act, it changes how you participate.
All the Hollywood acting is one reason why the new trend of “Quiet Quitting” is so popular. It’s not that people have zero ambition at work. It’s they’re tired of all the actors.
Speed of change is so fast no one can keep up
It used to be possible to know how business works for a short time.
That was pre-internet. Once you found your lucky pot of business gold at the end of the rainbow, you could ride the wave for a bit and say “see, the internet is the future and I was right.”
Now the speed of change is so fast because of technology, the future trends are near-impossible to predict. And making smart decisions that don’t accidentally embrace old trends is difficult too.
So we pretend for as long as we can.
Data doesn’t tell every story
Data supposedly explains everything in business.
“What does the data say?” has become a popular phrase in business to look smart in front of superiors. But the last few years have shown us the downsides of data.
Economic data is the most flawed.
At the start of March 2020 when the global health crisis struck, it was clear a deep recession was the only logical outcome.
Businesses can’t open. So they’ll be closed and the economy will collapse. Those who were awake during the last few years know that markets went to massive new highs.
It was one of the greatest times in history to make money in business.
That’s because the data is supposed to predict recessions. Unfortunately, recessions & economic collapses are based on human psychology, not data.
Humans are unpredictable therefore it doesn’t matter what the fancy business data says.
If humans are fearful they’ll do the opposite of what’s logical, and that’ll have huge impacts on business whether we like it or not.
The same applies to economics. Trying to accurately predict inflation has been nothing but a clown show run by grandpa central bankers. There are so many factors that describe the economics of a country that no one can accurately measure every single detail.
As a result, economists have become woo-woo fortunetellers.
They pretend GDP, inflation, and the business cycle is predictable. It’s not and none of them are right. For example, none of them predicted the bat virus that closed down the world or the war started by Russia.
What you can do instead of being a business guru
One of the reasons I quit corporate life is because of all the acting.
I was supposed to know how business works. The longer I worked in business the more non-sensical it became. I came to learn business is a form of cult. And the way you join is by pretending you know how it works.
The way to master business isn’t to pretend you know how it works, it’s to do these things:
1. Embrace uncertainty
Expect things to go to hell. Crave the dangers and sudden risks that come out of nowhere. Smile in the face of tough business conditions.
2. Be humble
Ego is why business is so tiring.
When people act like they know what they’re doing their egos grow massive. They start talking down to people and act like dictators.
They think they’re invincible. But none of us is invincible at work.
- If you own a business then a rogue lawsuit can bankrupt you.
- If you’re an employee in a business you can easily get fired.
3. Get good at being agile
Bruce Lee would say be like the water in the office water cooler.
People who think they know how business works have stiff mental models and fixed views on business. An agile mind can move fast and see new opportunities while the rest of the business is focused on the wrong thing.
The #1 way to get exposure to agile thinking is to get in meeting rooms and spend time around people who say “I don’t know Chief” a lot.
Bringing it altogether
The smartest people in business don’t think they know how it works.
They just show up to work each day knowing they have zero idea what will happen, but they’ll tackle any challenge that comes their way and see it as an opportunity for growth, rather than an opportunity to demonstrate MBA-level genius that doesn’t exist.
Keep operating in business off your best guess. That’s all you can do.