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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Observations On Expectations

A story of expectations met and unmet, in two parts.

Part the first. I spoke in front of a group of students at a local continuation high school this morning. The original topic was my career (what do I do? what do I like/dislike about it? etc.) and my career path (what’s my background? education? how’d I get to where I am?) but I never quite got there. I mostly ended up talking about economics as I was speaking to an economics class, nominally, and the program coordinator kept prompting me on that subject.

I introduced two economic concepts to the assembled: TNSTAAFL/opportunity cost, and subjective value theory. I tried to apply them to “real life” to make them tangible and interesting to the audience. I talked about how everyone got suckered into the Housing Bubble, which cost a lot of people their homes, their personal finances, their jobs and sometimes more. I suggested that a person who understood that TNSTAAFL wouldn’t have gotten suckered in because he would’ve recognized the bubble for what it was and played it safe as he could. Subjective value theory I used to explain why we have an economy and why people work jobs, to serve each other’s subjective needs. I encouraged the class to think about their own values and to pursue them, and recognize that when people tell them what to do they’re simply telling them they should follow subjective values other than their own. I tried to highlight the role opportunity cost plays in pursuing subjective values, for example, people often get into traps such as pursuing money to provide for their families in such a way that they don’t get to spend time with their families. This opportunity cost is forgotten or ignored.

I also covered time value of money and the function of credit during a brief tangent, prompted by the program coordinator emphasizing the importance of personal finance principles.

The instructor goaded the students into applauding me before I had even spoke, as some kind of polite welcome for someone who had taken the time to stand before them and pontificate on a subject they cared little about. I said, “We’ll see if you still feel like applauding me at the end” and then began my talk. At the end of it, as the students rose to leave at the sound of the Pavlovian bell, one of the young men closest to me in the front of the room turned to his classmate and said in a quite intentionally audible way, “Thank GOD that is over!”

The morning’s events completely met my expectations and as a result, I was satisfied with myself when I myself left. I had entered a prison, whose inmates were being held against their will, by force of law, who had been assembled before me because they had no other choice save punishment and who had little to no interest in the subjects I had been invited to speak about before them. You certainly can’t blame a person in such circumstances for being disengaged, melodramatic and at times downright hostile.

If you put me in a cage I’d be uncomfortable and not in a friendly mood, either.

I didn’t expect to touch anyone, change a life or spark a fire or interest in anyone for the subjects I spoke about (economics, careers, my career, me) and if I happened to do that despite my intentions, that’s fine. I expected to go in there, treat the poor beasts with respect and maybe a bit of sympathy, having once been caged in a similar manner myself, and deliver my thoughts as articulately and coherently as I could. I expected to get practice speaking before an audience and trying, not necessarily succeeding, at making a foreign subject engaging or relatable for them.

In this, I met my expectations and so I believe I succeeded and thus I felt satisfied.

Part the second. For some time now I have watched in despair as a previously favorite blog of mine has gone into seemingly terminal decline. What was once a source of original thinking, unique coverage and respectable ideological consistency has in time become a haven for hacks and simpletons, its content hollowed-out and refocused on a few topics I just don’t have much interest in. The purveyor of the site has taken numerous opportunities, on his blog and his new webcast radio show, to demonstrate qualities of his personality I’ve found surprising, disappointing and at times reprehensible.

My distress with this reached a fever pitch early this week when a long-awaited debate on the subject of “intellectual property” was joined by the purveyor and another popular blogger on the subject. While the purveyor’s behavior leading up to the discussion gave me no reason to believe it’d be an intelligent, objective attempt at sussing out the truth by the two parties, but rather much evidence that it would be a battle of wills and ego characterized by willful blindness of reason and savage emotional assaults on each respective victim, the final product was so shockingly extreme in terms of all the undesirable qualities I suspected it would contain that I almost couldn’t believe these two adults had allowed themselves to be recorded, their outrage to be shared in front of a public audience of strangers.

I found myself so disappointed with the whole thing. It was anti-intellectual and truly uncivilized, the kind of stuff blood feuds at made of (gusto about sacred honor and the like that can never be satiated by way of reasonable argument). I knew both men were capable of a bit of underhandedness, but at least in the past the underhandedness seemed to have some kind of productive point. This time, after I finished sitting through two and a half hours of two middle-aged men calling each other names and screaming at one another, waiting for a point, I realized too late that there was none beyond sharing pure hate and distrust.

Who was to blame for my dissatisfaction in this instance? Initially, I found myself disgusted with these two people for subjecting me to this idiocy. “How dare they!” Then I thought about it some more. They are who they are. Their current skills and capabilities with regards to interpersonal communication and intellectual reasoning are aspects of their identity that exist as they do, whether I find them appealing or satisfying or not. I expected them to work hard to please me in their debating efforts (despite, I should add, much evidence that they were capable of no such thing) and when they didn’t live up to my expectations, I was disappointed.

Not by them, but by myself. For expecting people to live to serve my intellectual and emotional needs.

In the first part, I participated in something that could easily be seen as a disastrous waste of everybody’s time. Yet, I walked away from it in a positive state of mind. In the second part, I witnessed a true social tragedy and felt depressed and upset. Both circumstances were undesirable, but my reaction was different each time because my expectations were different.

Expectations can glorify our existence or cast the light of our lives down a dark abyss. I hope to remind myself of this fact more often.