On Corporate Meetings

by F.

Today I went to a fairly large corporate meeting. Kind of like a pep rally. The company holding the meeting is a client. Big company. Tens of thousands of employees. Huge revenues. Big budgets. Lots of spectacle at these sorts of things. It had been a while since I’d attended a meeting like this–maybe more than a year. I’d forgotten what it’s like.

The stage was impressive. Well lit. Shiny. Nice podium. Pretty packed house. There were maybe 500 people in the audience. Could have been more. After some introductory remarks, the program started: three speeches by execs on the company’s products, performance, and product roadmap. All of the talks were good–as good as these things can be. Not Steve Jobs good. But close. Close enough. Crisp slides, simple themes, engaging speakers.

I’m not sure how others feels about these rah-rah sessions, but I don’t like them much. The question I kept asking myself throughout was, Why? Why don’t I enjoy these things? While it’s tempting to think up complicated ideological or philosophical reasons for aversion to this kind of meeting, I suspect the answer is actually much more mundane.

It could be something simple like the noise. Lots of clapping and shouting and all that stuff–it freaks me out. Not a lot. But enough. Makes me sort of uncomfortable. It seems vaguely threatening. I’m not saying it’s rational.

Or the crowds. Generally, I don’t like crowds. I don’t know why. Probably for some of the same reasons. Crowds are strangely random and, to me, menacing. Which is sort of why I don’t like sporting events. Add beer and things get even more bizarre. Concerts are the same. I’d rather listen to the music on a good stereo.

So those are the basic reasons. What about something deeper?

I do get this strange feeling of being subsumed inside a larger collective when I’m at a big meeting like this one. Some people find that pleasurable. Going to church, for instance, gives the same feeling (so I’m told.) I don’t like it. Never have. I don’t like that feeling of losing my individuality. Being part of a mass. A movement. Again, probably not rational. Just a strange quirk.

There’s also the propaganda aspect. I feel like I’m being indoctrinated. I get this feeling that much of what’s being said is, if not false, then grossly exaggerated. “You’re the best employees ever!” “Your division is the heart and soul of this organization!” “It’s you that make this company run!” Yeah…maybe. But unlikely. More likely is that that’s what the audience wants to hear.

I don’t want to seem like I’m singling out companies. Yes, company messaging is highly controlled and often full of lies. But all organizations do the same thing, as far as I can see. Governments. Rotary Clubs. The Boy Scouts. Whatever. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the way it has to be.

And in some ways, the truth of what a speaker says is less important than other aspects–like the fact that he or she said it. The veracity of ideas is often irrelevant. They take hold whether they are correct or not. I’m reading a book at the moment about environmental sustainability. It’s a really good book, written by a couple of truly smart guys. And one of the things they mention is how the environmental movement has shot itself in the left testicle by exaggerating. Alar. The population explosion. DDT. The ideas have wings of their own.

On the one hand, this is a bit scary. It’s another random element in human affairs. (As if we didn’t have enough.) On the other hand, randomness can have quite constructive effects. Take evolution. So even if ideas are wrong or false, they may have some good effect. Can someone even in principle calculate the likelihood of harm versus benefit? I doubt it. Too many interactions. It’s like calculating the weather 17 years and three months from now, or the fashions in 32 years. Good luck.

So is it bad if environmental ideas are wrong–if sustainability is largely bullshit? One part of me thinks it is. Another part of me thinks it doesn’t really matter much.

I was reading a book on finance in which the author analogizes market economies to poker games. We all have to play. We all do play. What’s the alternative? There isn’t one. We trade things. Are we better off? Sometimes yes–probably on balance yes. What we trade doesn’t really matter. Sure, we need basics like food, water, clothing and iPods. But after that? The game is all. Keynes, I think, said something similar.

And maybe sustainability is like that. It’s just something we do. It may not matter much whether it’s a fad or not. If people want to consume the fad, great. Will it kill us? Unlikely.

Human beings are such unbelievably resilient animals. Look at all the stuff we’ve been through in the last 5,000 years. Clearly, the trend is toward the better. I’m flabbergasted by people who think that somehow “society” is “in decline.” Huh? In decline? Romans lived for, on average, 33 years. Sure, you could go see a play of Plautus if you lived in ancient Rome. But that probably wasn’t much fun if you were dead.

When you look at humans as individuals, they seem weak and biased and stupid. But when you look at the collective achievements of human beings, they are staggering. This is the difference between reading, say, Danny Kahneman (whom I admire so, so, so much) and Hayek. (whom I also admire so, so, so much.) Individually weak, yet collectively capable of such remarkable achievements.

Which brings me back to being part of a collective at a corporate meeting. Somehow, I hold these two seemingly incompatible thoughts in mind at the same time: groups freak me out but I know that, in the aggregate, without them we’d all be worse off.