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.

Supporting Causes With Integrity

Introduction

I am a skeptic when it comes to charity– I believe most charity efforts are inefficient ways to make the desired impact, misunderstand the nature of the problem they seek to address and are doomed to treat symptoms rather than causes or, at worst, create more problems than they solve. I believe that this is partly due to the incentivizes and mechanisms of philanthropic activities versus monetary/commercial exchange activities, and partly (mostly) due to the fact that most people interested in charity do not spend much time thinking philosophically about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it.

As I do intend to contribute to (or even create) some philanthropic entities over the course of my life and I do not wish to be a hypocrite, I have attempted to identify and outline some important tradeoffs which must be considered before engaging in charitable activities.

Spectra of tradeoffs

Short-term vision vs. Long-term vision

This tradeoff involves the consideration of looking at problems which are immediate, present or developed in nature versus looking at problems which are distant, in the future and developing or potentially could develop based on a particular trend playing out. This tradeoff also has implications for questions of fund-raising and financing methodology and the construction of a strategy to meet the problem (ie, building a strategy which is active in the coming year versus a strategy which may only become active many years from now). This tradeoff has a generational component– looking at one’s own generation or the immediately following generation, the generation of one’s grandchildren or even more distant successors, or looking at the general inheritance of mankind for all time.

Physical issues vs. World of ideas

This tradeoff involves considering problems related to things that affect the material well-being versus predominant ideas, values, culture, etc. An example would be providing books to schools, versus influencing what is in the books in schools.

Treat symptoms vs. Prevent problems

This tradeoff is one of both urgency and quantity. It implies a certain metaphysical reality for the tradeoff to exist, that is, that a smaller good can be had now at the expense of a larger good later. The tradeoff demands that we consider which is more important: ending present suffering or ending the the cause of suffering. An example is providing malaria medication, versus providing mosquito nets.

Act locally vs. Act globally

This tradeoff involves the radius of impact and the desire to improve one’s own community versus the potential to affect a more desperate community further afield. An example would be trying to end homelessness in your own city, versus trying to provide clean drinking water to everyone on the planet.

General application vs. Specific application

This tradeoff is similar to the impact radius consideration but the question asked is more precise: “Given that resources are limited, do you seek to relieve the problem as it affects one specific group, or as it affects all groups?” A person may choose a specific group far away or a specific group they know familiarly, that is why this is not a question of acting locally or globally. An example might be seeking cures for childhood cancer, versus seeking cures for all cancers.

Verifiable impact vs. Difficult to measure

This tradeoff involves considerations of the empirical measurement of philanthropic influence. You may decide only to support a cause which has a clear and objective metric to indicate the influence your contribution is making, or you may decide to support a cause where the impact is subjective, mixed up with other independent variables or is simply on too vast of a scale to easily measure. An example is delivering computers to third world classrooms, versus improving the happiness of a community.

DIY vs. Pay to fund others

This tradeoff is a question of agency and considers whether one will serve as the agent of change himself, or whether he will hire others to do the work for him. It is not just a question of leveraging the efforts of others through the division of labor– it is about whether it is personally desirable to be involved as an agent oneself or whether it is preferable to provide things like ideas, organization and money while leaving others to actually execute on the plan. An example is going on a mission trip and building houses for the poor, versus making a donation to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Change the system vs. Work within it

This tradeoff involves an analysis of the contribution the social system (rules, laws, cultural customs, traditions, economy, etc.) makes to the existence of the problem in question. You might see the problem as a necessary outcome of the system itself, necessitating a “revolution” to resolve it, or you might see the system as largely disinterested in or detached from the problem meaning it’s possible to use the system, or channel its energy differently, to resolve the problem. An example is abolishing the tax code, versus seeking a privileged status within it such as 501(c)3 designation.

For-profit vs. Non-profit (Self-sustaining vs. Dependency)

This tradeoff examines the proper method of financing a charitable activity. It signifies an awareness of the way that the existence of a charitable resource might influence the supply or stickiness of a social problem. It also provides consideration for the likelihood of strategically resolving a social problem with a potentially uncertain, inconsistent or mismatched method of finance. It understands that the design of economic systems and the consideration of incentives is often background for the existence of certain social problems. An example is a business that purposefully hires various “at risk” demographics to keep them out of trouble, versus a charity which spends significant time and energy ensuring its continued financing by others; a corrolary example is a charity with a substantial endowment which is intelligently invested over a long-period of time allowing it to grow, versus a charity which comes hat in hand every year asking for new donations to continue its operations.

Individuals vs. Families/communities

This tradeoff involves the philosophy of “If you can change the life of just one person, you’ve made a difference” as opposed to “It takes a village” or “Only together may we truly prosper.” It asks one to focus their consideration on whether the problem is truly being solved if only some are relieved or whether a wholesale solution must be put into affect to feel a sense of accomplishment. An example is a scholarship for a talented student, versus constructing a school for an “underserved” community.

One causes vs. Many causes

This tradeoff considers whether one can do the most good by having many plates spinning and doing a little good in a lot of places, or if it’s better to dig deeply and do a lot of good on just one issue. An example is putting all your effort and resources into diabetes research, versus supporting the local children’s hospital, a charity sports league, providing scholarships to handicapped students and funding a legal defense fund.

One project vs. Many projects

This tradeoff is similar to the one immediately preceding it. The difference is simply that one could have one project at each of many causes, or many projects at one and only one cause, or some other combination of the two. It is partly a question of finishing what you started before going on to something else. An example is just feeding the poor, versus feeding the poor, providing job training for the poor and organizing community awareness seminars about the challenges of the poor.

Mankind vs. Other Organisms

This tradeoff is self-explanatory– do you seek to resolve human issues, or ecological issues (including issues related to the state of the environment, the welfare of non-human animals, the prevalence of plant species, etc.) An example is building a church, versus saving a species of river smelt from extinction.

Conclusion

When it comes to philanthropy, I believe the most important epistemic principle is that you should have a rational, deeply contemplated answer to the question, “How do you know you aren’t making it worse?”