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The Snowball Theory

Dave Pollard at "How to Save the World" is thinking out loud about his next career choice.

I left my employer of 27 years, five months ago, because I could no longer stand the stupidity, the greed, the politics, the suffocating hierarchy, the imaginative poverty, and being a part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

But after the initial exhilaration, I've been caught in analysis paralysis. The things I would be best at doing, the Meeting of Minds opportunities that immediately dropped into my lap, are not that dissimilar from what I was already doing, and though they'd pay well, they're not what I want to do. The things I'd really like to do, the things on my How to Save the World Roadmap, the things that would make a difference, are either way outside my competencies, or would (probably) be strictly volunteer work, and I'm not independently wealthy enough, even though we have reduced our footprint significantly in the past year, to work for free. Or, perhaps more honestly, I'm not courageous enough to work for free, and just see what happens.


Although I am younger and have much less invested in my current career path, presumably making me more flexible, as you know, I am a little hesitant myself about taking even a year to go to school and learn about environmental sustainability, something that has absolutely nothing to do with anything I have done up until now. I don't even know if there is any way for me to make a living with the knowledge I gain.

It's frightening to think that despite having more than we need, and being relatively certain that we will never really be hungry (if you are reading this blog, you have a computer, or access to one... chances are you have no realistic chance to fall below the poverty level), we are all so afraid to follow our beliefs and our hearts. It's frightening to see what a hold society's idea of "success" and "enough" have upon us.

Below is one scenario I constructed to help myself make my choice, and to try to encourage a friend who currently spends 10-12 hours each day using her extraordinary mind helping a company with a dubious environmental and social track record amass more wealth and power. Granted, she is learning ALOT. She justifies the conflict between her companies values and her own by telling me that she thinking perhaps it would be better for her to develop her skills at these companies, to amass some wealth, so that later she can use these skills and wealth to do good.

While I am sure she may truly believe this on some level, I believe it is a bullshit cop-out based on bad logic. She is fooling herself.

The players:

  • Jenny: Jenny is an overachiever to whom success comes extraordinarily easy because of her above average intelligence, and social skills. She is a graduate of a top university and at any time has any number of the hottest companies offering her positions that most people would die for.
  • X Corp: A major global company with a reputation for recruiting and developing great business leaders. They understand the value of top notch employees, and use their enormous resource base to ensure that they always get the cream of the crop. X Corp also has a dubious track record on environmental and social issues.
  • The Cause: A cause Jenny has believed in and strived to further for most of her life, going so far as making it the focus of her under-graduate and graduate study.
  • Organization Y: One of many organizations, for profit and not, with a goal to further The Cause. Just like X Corrp, Organization Y is always looking for dynamic leaders, over-achievers such as Jenny. Without the financial resources of X Corp however, they are fighting an uphill battle.


Now, when Jenny graduates, she has some choices. One one hand, she has her beliefs and her morals. On the other hand, she is an over-achiever, and although she is far from materialistic, and can't even find was to use the money she has now, the thought of watching her bank-account numbers grow with each months salary is very appealing to her. As smart as she is, she, like all of us, is still influenced by society's view of what constitutes success, namely, money.

Jenny is being actively recruited by X Corp, and several other companies which many of her friends are applying for and not even getting called back. Jenny's advisers are helping her compare the benefits of each of them, trying to help her choose. Organization Y of course would also love to have Jenny join their team, but they just don't have the resources to actively recruit her, and the name never comes up in conversation with her friends and advisers. While she knows a lot about Organization Y, and shares their goals and values, faced with the salary, prestige, and training that comes with X Corp, Organization Y is all but forgotten.

Jenny is not insensitive to the conflicting interests of X Corp and her own values, but faced with everything else, she justifies her decision to join X Corp by creatively revising her goals.

  1. Making a lot of money becomes "I want to earn seed money so that later in life I can use it to further my beliefs in The Cause"
  2. Having X Corp on her resume become: "I want to work in a world opposite my values so that I can gain better insight into how to fight them... later."
  3. Gaining the skills needed to climb the corporate ladder toward even more "success" becomes "Before I work for someplace like Organization Y, I have to gain as many skills as I can, and X Corp is the best place to do this"

This all makes sense right? It must, I hear it so often from so many people.

But something just doesn't add up (boy am I glad I read that Introduction to Accounting textbook a few years ago). Let's take a close look.

Jenny spends 10 hours a day, 5 days a week working to further the goals of X Corp. That is roughly 2,600 hours per year. Now certainly not everything X Corp does is evil, and Jenny never does anything that directly goes against her beliefs, so to be fair (and to make the math easier), we will even reduce that to 2000 hours per year.

The main reason X Corp wanted Jenny, is because she is smart, and efficient, and can do almost anything she puts her mind to. Let's assume that for each hour she works at X Corp, she is contributing (or her future value) to their profits at least x% more than her own salary. Of course I don't know the actual return expected out of each employee, but I do know that X Corp spends much more than her salary just to train her.

You know what, let's just forget all the math... let's just do this with some good old common sense.

So, throwing the numbers out the window, we can still see that for each hour Jenny works at X Corp, she is increasing their productivity (or she would be out on her ass). After one year, her efforts has not only caused them to profit, but X Corp now invests the profits Jenny has helped with into, among other things, the dubious environmental and social practices they are known for, and recruiting other stars like herself. The more stars they can hire, the stronger they grow, the more damage they can do, and the more stars they can hire... it's a cycle. I think you get the picture.

Organization Y on the other hand, while still growing, does not have the human capitol of X Corp. They get fewer people of Jenny's caliber, and as a result, grow slower.

Fifteen years have passed now. Jenny has spent the first five at X Corp, then looking for a new challenge, and new skills to add to her arsenal (to be used sometime in the future in her fight for good), she has changed companies three more times. Each time was a step up in terms of career path. Each time her job entailed more and more responsibility, and her contributions were of a higher magnitude. Every place she went she helped the company to prosper and became a role-model for other young hopefuls who follow in her footsteps.

Finally she feels she has the skills, knowledge, and resources to turn the tables. Now she can work to further her beliefs and values. Certainly it will be a step down on the career ladder to join Organization Y, but that just goes to show how selfless and altruistic she is. It really is admirable isn't it?

She starts putting those skills to work, and she works hard. It's tough though, and the problems have grown steadily worse in the past fifteen years as X Corp and other companies like it have grown stronger, and their influence has spread. Sure, the skills and knowledge she has acquired over the years help, but not as much as they did at X Corp. One reason is that Organization Y just isn't as efficient as X Corp was, it doesn't know how to use her skills to their fullest potential. She is frustrated, wondering why no one implemented the policies and changes in Organization Y that she spent the last 15 years implementing in other companies. Another reason is that while the people are smart and passionate about what they are doing, there are fewer "great" people here than there were in her other offices. What's more, they have not received training to help them use their abilities to their fullest. She is frustrated, wondering why they don't make more of an effort to recruit, train, and retain more people like herself.

Now, Jenny is in a situation where she is exposed to bad news about the state of The Cause, news that was ignored or spun into a positive light at X Corp, making her feel that what she was doing was actually a "good" thing. The news isn't good. She realizes that the problem has progressed to a point where just to get back to the same situation of 15 years ago will take more time and money then Jenny even has to give. X Corp has an even stronger foothold in the human resource market, and with every new graduate they are able to entice, they grow stronger and Organization Y is left choosing only from those stars with extraordinary courage and conviction -a rare thing in a society where salary and job-title is more highly valued.

Of course, the moral is that by using her skills to help X Corrp grow, while she certainly honed those skills and gained some knowledge, everything she did to benefit X Corp in those years was compounded, creating even more benefit and momentum in the future.

If she had, however, chosen to go to Organization Y in the beginning, she might not have developed the same skills as she did at X Corp, but she would have developed other skills (that's what people like her do), and what is more important, her mass and momentum would have been added to Organization Y, making Organization Y more efficient, acting as a role model to help increase ORganization Y's human capitol.

Of course Jenny alone would not have caused Organization Y to grow stronger than X Corp, but the situation can best be described as a couple of snowballs rolling down a hill. With only a limited number of flakes (people) and flakes of different sizes and mass (people with more natural skills), it is easy to see what would happen of the smaller, snowball (Organization Y and a society of people fighting to make a positive difference) attracts more and larger snowflakes than the currently larger snowball (X Corp, and a society of people focused on their own wants). Not only does the good snowball gain more mass and speed, which we all know causes a snowball to grow faster, but the bad snowball doesn't gain that mass.

Once the good snowball gets closer to the bad snowball in speed and mass, it will be so much easier for those (most people I think) who currently feel trapped in the bad snowball to bail out, joining the good snowball which is more in line with their own values. And once the bad snowball is smaller than the good snowball it is no longer profitable for the selfish few to remain without the human resources. Eventually they will bail as well, or be left in our wake. They only have their momentum because we give it to them.

But, for this to happen, we have to not only donate money to help causes they care about, not only make minor changes in our lifestyles, but also STOP using the majority of our waking hours and skills to promote and grow the lifestyle that is causing the problems we hope to fix with donations in the first place.

We have to take a close look about the issues we care about, wether it is something we donate money to, volunteer for, or situations we just plain feel sick and sleepless about. Next, take a look at who benefits most from what we spend the majority of our time on, and who benefits form the way we spend the majority of our money? What does the company or client stand for, and do we have enough time and money left-over to donate just to make up for our supporting the root cause of the problems we hope to fix?

It doesn't seem to be brain science.

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Comments

There's a certain joy that comes from doing work consistent with WHO YOU ARE. In the Jenny example, consistent with her values. Work also needs to be consistent with her personality, so that doing the work feels right, natural, comfortable, fun, etc. Two kinds of joy-in-work. It always amazes me how many young people have no idea why this is important. What matters to them is the money. I guess they can't learn the horror of doing work you don't want to do, until it's too late.

In this case, Jenny enjoys her job as far as the content and daily activity goes. To me I think however, it comes down to choosing *where* to do the work.

She could do the same type of work, work that is herself, for another company, one that is part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

So what you're saying is that we should all just quit and work for an NPO? Who drives the economy?

Not at all, but what I am saying is that just as we should be making much tougher choices about what and how much we consume, and who we support that way, we should also look at who we support with our time.

Obviously most people have some type of an aversion to working for the "really evil" companies, but what about the "sort-of evil", or "not really evil, but don't care about doing anything good either" companies?

If enough people took their great minds someplace else, you can bet these companies would change their ways or die.

It's just interesting how people justify their hours and hours of working for the cause of many problems, but saying that "I am going to use the money I earned to help solve the problem." What's even more amazing, is that if many of these people made business decisisons like that in their jobs, they might not have that job for very long.

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