Review – Grinding It Out

Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s

by Ray Kroc, with Robert Anderson, published 1992

Reading through the stories of great entrepreneurs, business people and politicians like Cornelius Vanderbilt or Warren Buffett, it is easy to find a sentiment much like this one from Ray Kroc:

Ethel [his wife] used to complain once in a while about about the amount of time I spent away from home working. Looking back on it now, I guess it was kind of unfair. But I was driven by ambition.

I find this sentiment remarkable for a few different reasons.

The first is how common it is. It seems to suggest that achieving “great things” in a particular field of enterprise is not possible without neglecting one’s family and other personal relationships in favor of the “productive” relationships and activities.

The second is how little awareness of this tradeoff many such people seem to possess, at least until they reach the end of their life and all their glory has already been gotten. Then, as they contemplate their state of affairs, either looking back on the empire they built or ruminating regretfully now that they are deposed (violently or voluntarily), they seem to re-evaluate how they spent their time and decide they came up short in considering family time less important than it should have been. They also seem to be either disconnected from the damage they do to their children and their psyches, or else try to evade such recognition– I think Ray Kroc mentioned his daughter all of two times in this 200 page telling, and while his daughter may not have been critical to the story of building McDonald’s, you’d think she would’ve provided enough value and motivation in Kroc’s life to merit more than a couple passing mentions!

The third is how excusable such high achievers seem to find their behavior to be in retrospect. “But…” is a permission word. It negates what comes before and offers cover. Yes, Ray Kroc was unfair, but… It suggests a different moral framework for studying life or a particular circumstance, one in which the rules don’t really apply and the ends justify the means.

The fourth is what a temptation these great projects must’ve provided to these people, to ignore their family, their health or any number of other values. If I was a successful paper cup salesman but stumbled upon the idea of McDonald’s myself, could I have resisted the temptation to build it and in the process knowingly give up my family, friends, physical well-being, etc.? It is perhaps easy to sit in judgment of another person’s efforts and decisions when the attraction of my own responsibilities is relatively less compelling. It’s easy to go home to my family at the end of the day as they typically offer me more interest and excitement. But would that be the case if millions of dollars and a global business organization hung in the balance? That I don’t know for sure, and perhaps you can’t know until you’re tempted with it.

But that leads to the fifth point, which is to consider whether a story like Kroc’s and McDonald’s could be told any other way. What if in the first 27 pages of the story of this business the quote above was not to be found, nor anywhere in the 173+ pages that followed? What if Kroc didn’t get divorced (twice), didn’t have a string of health issues along the way, came home and kissed his wife and daughter on the forehead five nights a week and spent most of each month at home and around town rather than around the country? What choices would’ve needed to be made differently to support that outcome, and how would the company look different either internally or competitively if that had been the case? How big would Berkshire Hathaway be if Buffett had raised his own children and loved his first wife more considerately instead of reading so many damn books and annual reports?

To ask may be to answer, but it’s frightening (hopeful?) to think otherwise.

Besides neglecting important obligations and personal considerations, what else do stories like these seem to tell us about those who achieve outsize success?

Incredible stamina seems to be part of it. They don’t just work hard, they work all the time. But again, it’s hard to know if this is part of the person, part of the responsibility and opportunity, or both. How would a person not work hard and often at something they didn’t love to the point they were mesmerized by it? Enthralled is a good way to describe the state of mind in relation to the idea of the thing being pursued here.

Also, simplicity. Maybe it’s the bad ghostwriting designed to break the story down for a lowbrow audience but the way these people talk about what it is they did, they rarely come across as great geniuses, though they’re often wits (Buffett is a notable exception here, and Vanderbilt was clearly “sharp”, a word for cunning back then, though it wasn’t clear he was necessarily “intelligent”, while it was clear he was no buffoon). The grand strategy and complexity is often seen in hindsight, knowing how the story ends and having years and years to tell it and thus accumulate various trappings which may or may not be integral to the success. In Kroc’s own words, it was all about Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value and then spreading it across the land. Their financing was complicated, but it’s not clear it needed to be, especially if the company was less levered and less insistent on growing as fast as it did. Being focused seems obvious, yet important enough to mention it.

Where does that leave me? If there’s a way to build a legacy that doesn’t involve neglecting one’s family and health, perhaps by being more patient, moving more slowly or being less obsessed about the outcome, that is the kind of legacy I want to build. And I have to wonder what kind of personal insecurity or individual idiosyncrasy or whatever it is, that I seem not to have, that would not allow a person to make that choice given the alternative.

But if the only way to make things great is to trash some other part of your life and leave a smoking crater behind, a crater that’s especially painful in the vulnerability of old age, then I guess I better prepare myself mentally for more humble achievements. I’m just not interested in those kinds of tradeoffs and I don’t understand how such achievements could be satisfying without a family to enjoy them with and the sound mind and body necessary to experience it all.

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Review – The Party

The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers

by Richard McGregor, published 2010

Thus it is obvious that the only visible, tangible government we have is made up of these professed agents or representatives of a secret band of robbers and murderers, who, to cover up, or gloss over, their robberies and murders, have taken to themselves the title of “the people of the United States”; and who, on the pretense of being “the people of the United States,” assert their right to subject to their dominion, and to control and dispose of at their pleasure, all property and persons found in the United States.

~Lysander Spooner, “No Treason, no. 6, The Constitution of No Authority“, 1867

The “secret” at the heart of this book is that the nation of China has been ruled, since 1949, by an unelected confederacy of gangsters calling themselves “The Communist Party of China”, who wield extra-judicial power over Chinese society up to and including superiority over the so-called sovereign government of China. In other words, the Chinese government does not discipline members of the Party, but rather members of the Party discipline members of the Party, and everyone else.

I see three interesting questions raised by this fact, none of which appear to be addressed by the text:

  1. How is it that a private “political” organization (ie, mafia) came to control an entire country like China, including its government?
  2. If members of the Party are not answerable to the Chinese government or the Chinese people, who are they answerable to (what restraints, if any, are there on their power and why)?
  3. If the Party controls everything and is the real source of opportunity in Chinese society, why wouldn’t a rational, ambitious person make it their goal to enter the Party and thus enjoy their rewards?

The first question is not addressed because this is not a work of history as much as it is an exploration of the mechanical functioning of Chinese politics. But the question should interest us nonetheless, because if it has happened in China, it’s possible it could happen somewhere else, or more cynically, that it has happened somewhere else (I’m not talking about the USSR, or Cuba, or North Korea here…) and may be it is happening somewhere else right this moment. If murderous gangs can get control of extremely populous, ancient and fairly homogenous societies as a kind of accident of history, there is nothing to be done about it. But if there is some kind of predictable pattern to this kind of exploitation, there may be a similarly predictable pattern for defending civilization against it or unwinding such a menace once installed.

The second question is not addressed because the book’s focus is really about China narrowly, not China in the context of international political structures. Within the domestic domain, the author suggests that the Party’s control is essentially ironclad. If you can murder tens of millions of people by starvation or as collateral in a kind of cultural war, and continue on in power, you don’t seem to have many internal threats to your power. What is it that seems to get the Party’s panties in a bunch? The risk of failing to impress the outside world with a spectacular 2008 Beijing Olympic Games when revelations about a mass infant poisoning via tainted baby formula come to light. Why doesn’t a market for political control exist within China, but it does seem to exist outside of China? Who is a realistic potential hegemonic external ruler of China in the post-colonial era?

The third question is not addressed because it is taken as given by the author that the Party is an immoral institution and thus no reasonable person would want to participate in it. The people who stand outside the Party, or who are demonstrated as being victims of it, are painted as the good guys, just trying to get by, while the Party members highlighted are discussed in menacing terms, from afar, almost like a kind of wild animal whose motivations do not merit spending time trying to understand. But if your society has been co-opted by a secret band of murderers and thieves, isn’t joining forces with them your best and most rational chance for survival, at least while a domestic market for political control seems non-existent?

And what of our own society, in the West generally and in the United States specifically? It seems like choosing not to be political, to not only avoid participating in politics but to avoid membership in political parties and ambition within their institutional frameworks, seems to be a choice to cede social and even a measure of individual control to those who choose otherwise. Why play the victim? What good is morality when it is a tool of your own undoing?

Of course, a party that everyone is invited to join has no advantage in exploitation, so it must have some meaningful criteria for excluding people and thus ensuring a supply of victims from which it can extract its privileges.

Satisfaction Versus Happiness, And Change And Finality

A theme for discussion between a good friend and I over the last couple of years has been the existence of a dichotomy between life satisfaction and life happiness. We have been debating whether there is a difference between being satisfied with life and being happy about one’s life. We have discussed whether happiness is possible, and, if so, whether it is a desirable emotional state over an extended period of time. A related idea is whether one should measure the moral quality of one’s life by the metric of happiness (ie, if I am happy, then I live a “good” life and if I am unhappy, then I live a “bad” life).

I can’t say we’ve come to any meaningful conclusions so far and part of the problem seems to be that we can’t even agree on any meaningful definitions. This probably is not a unique or original discussion but we’re not familiar with the literature on it or else skeptical about the approach of some who have made attempts. Normally I am hesitant to engage in philosophical inquiry without agreeing on terms ahead of time but this is too “meta” at this point to do anything but grope around in the dark for a place to start so I’m going to pen a few thoughts as they stand now, as they come to me.

One thing we’ve pondered is whether there is room for any negative emotions in a person who is happy. Does one have to feel and describe oneself as “happy” ALL the time, MOST of the time, A LOT of the time or just SOME of the time to honestly bear the moniker? Does being happy mean ignoring or even repressing the negative emotions one might experience (sadness, anger, disappointment)? This gets at the question of whether happiness is authentic and human– does being happy necessitate disconnecting part of your emotional apparatus and living a kind of emotional lie?

What are the necessary components of a happy person’s life? Can one be happy in poverty? In sickness? In loneliness? Can one be happy in a moment of failure, or a lifetime full of it? Can the stupid be happy? The incompetent? The mean? Are there different varieties of happy, or just one? Different qualities, or just one? Is the happiness of an accomplished, healthy adult the same as the happiness of a decrepit moron? Is a child’s happiness like an adult’s? (And is an adult’s even possible?)

Is happiness possible for everyone, or just a lucky few? Does it come with hard work and discipline or is it connected to the genetic lottery and inbred disposition? A popular idea is that everyone can find work they love that they’re passionate about, yet only few people seem to describe their jobs or careers as emotionally fulfilling. Is happiness like these wonderful jobs or social roles?

Another thing we wonder about is whether happiness comes from accomplishments and milestones, things achieved and earned or accumulated, material or otherwise, or whether happiness is an outcome of process, procedure and the act of living itself? Can one be making progress towards things one wants, without ever getting them, and be happy or does a goal need to be seized to secure happiness along with it?

My friend spent some time reading some Arthur Schopenhauer with his wife and while I haven’t read it, the synopsis I got from him is that life is a living hell and the best one can hope to do is get as far away from the flames as possible. This view of the world might seem reasonable for someone living with chronic hunger, crushing poverty or within an active war zone or communist regime. But is it a reasonable conclusion for a young couple in a major American city who are closer to joining the top 1% than the bottom 1%?

This is where the idea of happiness becomes a moral weapon. If we don’t suffer any particular hardships, but we also don’t find ourselves emotionally fulfilled by our lives, does this mean we are not happy and must compound our circumstances by heaping moral approbation on ourselves for this emotional failure? Could we allow ourselves to acknowledge we are merely satisfied with our lives and get on with living them?

I think about dying (hopefully decades from now) without happiness. Ignoring that death itself doesn’t seem to be a happy circumstance however you go about it, I wonder if reaching that point and having a final or recent thought being “I didn’t manage to achieve happiness over the course of my life” kind of takes whatever satisfaction you might have up to that point away from you at the last moment leaving you with truly nothing. Not your life, not your friends and family, not your wealth and not even a final happy thought before you blink out of existence. (For those who cherish the idea of an afterlife, what if you make it into the kingdom of heaven a moral saint but your soul is plagued by a Woody Allen-esque neurotic paranoia with regards to contentment and joy? I realize the very notion might be blasphemous or at least theologically untenable but work with me here on the existential problem I am grasping at.)

Now what if I reach my point of universal departure and I am not happy, but I am confident my life was a satisfying one? I have no major complaints, I’ve got a few things I care quite a bit about and I learned enough about those things and how I relate to them to effect some kind of meaningful impact according to my values? Should I be disappointed at that point if that was the most I could manage?

I then try to follow this logic back from my eventual time of death to my present existence. Where am I “going”? I won’t know until I get there. What if where I am “going” is where I am right now? And I am not rapturous about life, but I am not miserable?

What if not much changes between now and then? I’m about who I am, I have about what I have, I suffer no major indignities, troubles or traumas and I just keep going about the routine I am in albeit as a slightly older person with each iteration? I dream and scheme, I work toward these goals but I don’t get “there.” Can I be satisfied with a satisfying life? Or must I start chastising myself somewhere down the line for my personal stagnation? Is life that much greater if it’s characterized by greater intensity and frequency over time of a particular pattern I’m engaged in right now? Is one happiness and the other only satisfaction?

I doubt anyone would want to read a book about my life right now. He ate this. He read that. He walked the dog. I might not live a life worth retelling by the time I die, either. Is that some kind of existential problem for me?