by Umair Haque
If only it were that easy. In our messy muggle world, there are no magic formulas. So, while many of you have been asking me for a roadmap to prosperity — and I’ve tried to offer a blueprint of a better kind of business — it might be that, despite what late-night infomercials and endless banner ads suggest, there’s probably no framework you can pick up off the shelf, pay a few bucks for, do a little dance around, and (voila!) prosper. The plain fact is that great achievement, deep fulfillment, lasting relationships, or any other aspects of an unquenchably, relentlessly well lived life aren’t formulaically executable or neatly quantifiable. First and foremost, they’re searingly, and deeply personally, meaningful. The inconvenient truth is: you’ll probably have to not just blaze your own trail — you’ll also probably have to plot your own map for own journey.
So while I can’t offer a roadmap, I can try and give you a pen and protractor instead to help you begin to create your own:
Put what, why, and who you love ahead of what, why, and who you don’t, and your roadmap will begin to write itself.
Now, my little principle might cause those with hand-made suits and beancounterly tendencies to leap out of their chairs and hit me with the tarantallegra jinx. But even the cynics might be willing to admit: given a mysteriously non-recovering “recovery” for a global economy perpetually poised on the brink of perma-crisis, the status quo’s out of ideas, out of options, and running out of time.
In an economy dedicated to the pursuit of more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier, the greatest hidden cost and unintended consequence is that something vital, enduring, resonant, and animating has gone missing from our lives — and it might just be the biggest thing: meaning in what we do, and why we’re here.
More, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier has built an economy that might just be in furious pursuit of mediocrity. Five hundred channels and nothing on, corporations whose behavior plunges past merely unethical, or criminal, to sociopathic, big box stores larger than an airplane hangars, billions of dreary, me-too, not-so-great “goods” that fail to inspire, not enough McJobs to go around, financial markets that are more deft at blowing up scarce resources than at allocating them.
So what went wrong with our path to prosperity? I’d suggest: our economy might be in pursuit of mediocrity because too many of us put what, why, and who makes us want to go into a fetal crouch, plug our ears, and bang our foreheads against our knees above, beyond, and before what, why, and who we love.
There’s no magic formula for a life well lived, but my humble suggestion is that the above is probably the polar opposite: a surefire recipe for a life poorly lived, for intellectual, relational, social, ethical, and creative stagnation. Hence, what’s stagnating not just our economy — but our human potential. Too many of us (and some have argued, the best and brightest among us) are trained from birth to be — and rewarded with each bonus to remain — what economists call “rent-seekers,” experts at squabbling over (and winning) the last stale morsels of yesterday’s fading industrial age harvests, the mere mechanics and advocates of wealth extraction, instead of value creators, the architects and master builders, dreamers and doers, theorists and practitioners of the art of great human accomplishment.
Hence, I’d suggest: my tiny principle might not just a disposable epigram, but a diagnosis for dysfunction — and a challenge to all of you. The pursuit of more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier too often seems to demand putting what, why, and who we love at the end of the list, the underworld of the inbox, the bottom of the heap. That’s a recipe for stagnation, whether for people, communities, cities, countries, or the globe. But the converse might just hold, too: if nations and corporations want to punch past the glass ceiling of mere opulence, to what I calleudaimonic prosperity — lives that are meaningfully well lived — well, then people might just have to begin by making if not radically, then at least marginally more meaningful choices themselves.
Here’s what my little principle doesn’t mean: immediate, lowest-common-denominator self-gratification. That, for example, since you “love” Jersey Shore, you should spend all day, every day GTLing harder than the last. Sorry,lotus eaters. Instead, what it suggests is that if you “love” GTL that much, then, well, your roadmap might be clear. Whatever the method to your madness, whether inventing a better tanning bed, perfecting a better workout, or devising less water-intensive laundry, the authenticity principle says: don’t just mutely “consume” it — live it. Better it, reimagine it, blow the doors off it, and don’t stop until you’re within shouting distance of the point that it matters to the future of humanity.
The roadmap you need to follow is deeply, resonantly, profoundly, and irrevocably your own — the one that calls to you in every dreary meeting, every missed birthday, and every misplaced-but-not-quite-forgotten dream. It’s the one that leads you to your better self. It says: “Follow my lead. Let’s go somewhere that matters — not just somewhere that glitters.”