The problem with big numbers

The problem is that they’re big, and that they’re numbers.

Our brains are not capable of thinking about “1,000 people” in a real way, let alone 10,000 or 100,000 or more.  We don’t know how take something amazing, or tragic, that happened to one family and multiply it by 10,000.

Emotions, whether joy, fear, or disgust, don’t amplify that way. We just hear a number.

And that fundamental limitation too often insulates us from reality and from action.

Employee since 2007

The next time you’re in CostCo, check out the employees’ badges.  Right under the employee’s name, the badge say “Employee since _______”.  Subtle, but powerful.

From what I know about CostCo, this is the real deal – they care about employee longevity, about treating people right, and about setting themselves apart from their peers.  Barron’s called them the “anti Wal-Mart”, and with average 2007 pay of $17/hour – 42% higher than Sam’s club – there seems to be real truth to the story.

And then in the perfect twist, analysts like Emme Kozloff of Sanford Bernstein calls CostCo’s CEO Jim Senegal “too benevolent” and analysts at Deutche Bank complain that “it’s better to be an employee than a customer or a shareholder.”

(Now  I’m supposed to drop in the chart of CostCo’s 10-year stock performance and show how it’s drastically outperformed the Dow and Walmart – each of which have offered a 0% 10-year return versus 80% for CostCo.  So here’s the chart if you’re curious.  But that’s not what’s on my mind.)

Costco v. Wal-Mart v. Dow Jones Inex
Costco v. Wal-Mart v. Dow Jones Inex

What’s on my mind is that, while I recognize that Jim Senegal has to do the dance of saying he pays employees well and treats them right because it’s good for the bottom line – because employee retention is higher, “shrinkage” (aka theft) is lower, and CostCo’s more affluent customers value interacting with happy employees – at some point we have to get to the heart of the matter.

When did it become accepted that actions that are right and moral – like paying employees a decent wage – have to be explained away and justified?  When did we accept the notion that people should be moral in their lives but that the moment they show up for work their morality is subsumed by their obligation to maximize profits (whatever that means)?

All great companies exist to change their industries, to change the world, so the starting point is a sense of purpose and a willingness to play by a different set of rules.  The question is: how far are we willing to go?  Of course great companies should do great things for their shareholders and make lots of money for (all!) their employees, but the notion that it is better for management to be amoral rather than moral undercuts the foundation of our society, our values, what makes us human being.

It may sound naïve, but I find it ironic that in a country (the U.S.) where values, morality, and religiosity have such a central place in our culture, in the corporate mainstream – which is itself populated mostly by values-driven, moral, religious people – it is verboten to talk in any serious way about acting in a moral way because it is the right thing to do.  Instead there’s this Texas Two Step, nudge-nudge wink-wink from CEOs to Wall Street to say “honest, guys, I’m just doing it to make more money!”

And then all of a sudden, a company that wins the Global Renewable Energy Award and that plasters magazines and billboards and tradeshows telling the world that “BP” stands for “Beyond Petroleum” is responsible for a 60-mile oil spill that will wreak unknown and unmitigated havoc on the environment, on wetlands, on marine life, and on us.

When will we as a society get to the point where we see that this is all connected?

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Matt Harding’s caveman brain

You’re probably one of the 20 million people who have seen Matt Harding’s video online.  You know, the one with the guy doing a goofy dance all over the world…

Sure, it’s silly.  But it’s also hopeful and inspirational, transcendence masquerading as simplicity.

Matt was recently featured on NPR’s This I Believe.  Here’s how he described the project:

I made a video of myself dancing terribly in exotic locations. I put it on my web site. Some friends started passing it around, and soon millions of people had watched it. I was offered sponsorship to continue my accidental vocation, and since then I’ve made two more videos that include 70 countries on all seven continents. A lot of people wanted to dance along with me, so I started inviting them to join in everywhere I went, from Toronto to Tokyo to Timbuktu.

Something about what Matt did captured people’s imaginations, made them laugh and smile and think.

The images are inane but beautiful:  Matt dancing on an sunset-tinged desert dune in Lancelin, Australia; on a desolate beach covered with busy red crabs on Christmas Island; in a sea of red tulips in Lisse in the Netherlands.  Through all the quick cuts, you have one constant: a young man who knows he’s doing something that is a little bit absurd, but at the same time joyous, exuberant and playful.

And then the story grows.  The crowds rush in.  In the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, exuberant Spaniards bound in and start to dance, fresh from a soccer game.  A gaggle of kids in Antseranana, Madagascar flash easy smiles while they dance.  More quick cuts of more people pouring in, from Brisbane to Dublin to Buenos Aires to Istanbul to Fiji…

You can say we are all one human race until you’re blue in the face.  Or you can see our common humanity all around the world in Matt’s Riverdance-meets-high-school-prom dance odyssey.

Reflecting on his world dancing tour, Matt observes that his (and everyone’s) “caveman” brain isn’t wired to handle all of this.  “My brain was designed to inhabit a fairly small social network of maybe a few dozen other primates-a tribe.”  He continues:

And yet here I am in a world of over six billion people, all of whom are now inextricably linked together. I don’t need to travel to influence lives on the other side of the globe. All I have to do is buy a cup of coffee or a tank of gas. My tribe has grown into a single, impossibly vast social network, whether I like it or not. The problem, I believe, isn’t that the world has changed, it’s that my primitive caveman brain hasn’t.

I am fantastic at seeing differences. Everybody is…. When I dance with people, it makes those differences seem smaller.

This is the modern-day challenge.  Whether it’s Al Gore on climate change; Tom Friedman on a world that is Hot, Flat and Crowded; China’s Premier Wen Jiabao on the safety of U.S. Treasury Bonds; or Jacqueline Novogratz telling her Blue Sweater story, we’re all saying the same thing:  that we have to rewire our brains to understand that our tribe has gone global.  That our actions and inaction truly do affect people we may never know or see, in a way they never have before.  And that we have an opportunity that we’ve never had before to make change on a global scale.

Our job is to keep on telling these stories, until our caveman (and cavewoman) brains catch up to this new reality.  Because I truly believe that we all would behave differently if we knew in every fiber of our being that we’re all, each and everyone of us, mostly the same.  And that there’s a lot we all can do to make the world better for all of us.

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