Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

David Brooks’ recent column on genius , which offered a portrait of the Mozart who excelled by logging his ten thousand hours of rote practice to get on sooner to the good stuff, seemed to gibe poorly with not only our romantic understanding of unique human excellence but our practical understanding as well. However perfect practice might make, we all recognize the difference — even if we can’t detect it expertly — between outstanding technical competence and the unity of skill, raw talent, and greatness of vision that betokens the true genius.

But now, Brooks has written an important sequel , a column which in no way advertizes itself as such, but nonetheless cries out to be read that way. The subject of “In Praise of Dullness” is a particular kind of human excellence — that of the business owner or chief executive officer. Here, Brooks tells us, is a type of executive who leads in a manner utterly different from that to which we have become largely accustomed. The best C.E.O., in fact, has little use for ‘the vision thing.’

The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours [ . . . ] warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.

Studies have shown, Brooks tells us, that “the best C.E.O.’s were not the flamboyant visionaries. They were humble, self-effacing, diligent and resolute souls who found one thing they were really good at and did it over and over again;” that “extroversion, agreeableness and openness to new experience did not correlate well with C.E.O. success. Instead, what mattered was emotional stability and, most of all, conscientiousness — which means being dependable, making plans and following through on them.” While “it’s important to be a sensitive, well-rounded person for the sake of your inner fulfillment,
the market doesn’t really care. The market wants you to fill an organizational role. The market seems to want C.E.O.’s to offer a clear direction for their companies. There’s a tension between being resolute and being flexible. The research suggests it’s more important to be resolute, even at the cost of some flexibility. The second thing the market seems to want from leaders is a relentless and somewhat mind-numbing commitment to incremental efficiency gains. Charismatic C.E.O.’s and politicians always want the exciting new breakthrough — whether it is the S.U.V. or a revolutionary new car. The methodical executives at successful companies just make the same old four-door sedan, but they make it better and better.

A profound argument about the interplay of genius and accomplishment is at work here. In a guruized age, where the cushy yet elite consulting gig is the prize plum of the job market, American capitalism has become antagonistic to the soul or character of true accomplishment in business. Dry, inflexible, persistent, comprehensive, and disciplined work is associated today with everything uncool about old white guys. That uncool is predicated upon a fierce opposition to the idea that those old guys’ way of life is worthy of honor and imitation — not only insofar as their boring, plodding ways fall short of the good life, but insofar as they themselves are understood to repress that understanding: the dinosaur takes obsessive refuge in his ways to mask and cope with his deeper anxieties and longings to ‘be himself’ and ‘color outside the lines’.

Two symbiotic languages are deployed against Brooks’ virtuous dull — the language of therapy and the language of charisma. Charismatics are essential to the institutionalization of therapeutics — especially charismatics who ritually perform and advertize their equality with the therapeutically managed as a fellow dependent upon therapy. But, of course, the kinds of charismatic transgressions against routine, method, and order that the licensed charismatics are permitted (and rewarded for) goes way beyond the kind of token revolutionary innovations permitted the theraplebes. Matt Crawford, in Shop Class as Soulcraft , takes star public gurulectual Richard Florida to the woodshed on this point. Florida has rhapsodized over the “small change made on the salesroom floor” by “a teenage sales rep re-conceiving a Vonage display or an immigrant salesperson acting on a thought to increase outreach;” for Matt,

It seems the unleashed power of all those mavericks in the Best Buy creative sector is fully compatible with near-minimum wage. [ . . . ] Are we to believe these teenagers and immigrants working at Best Buy have reclaimed the unity of thought and action of the preindustrial craftsman, or of the gentleman innovator? Florida seems to suggest there has been a wholesale overthrow of the centralization of thinking that is the hallmark of industrial capitalism. (49)

So long Sam’s Club conservatism, hello Best Buy liberalism! The symbiosis of charismatic transgression and therapeutic routinization comes together in a wholesale overthrow of the meaning of experience. For Brooks’ accomplished businessman, experience — to use an idiom Matt uses — is a cumulative revelation, a relationship of honed competence with a quite closely circumscribed portion of the world. Experience in this mode is something past, present, future, and also in an important respect outside of time, preserved in the head and heart and etched into one’s soul or character. It does not flip on and off like a lightswitch activated when one is working and deactivated when one is not. For the professional whose idea of accomplishment has been guided by the allure of therapies of charismatic performance, experience is something totally different — an instant, not a constant. The ideal person is he or she who is hungry to experience an experience , whose hunger has not been qualified, focused, or cabined off by his or her experience .

This transvaluation of business values reflects a routinization and banalization of Nietzsche that Nietzsche fatally failed to predict. “I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy,” he said, not very beyond good and evil. Neither Nietzsche nor competence are sacred in the corporate culture of what Eva Illouz calls emotional capitalism. Holy is a pejorative, as in ‘holy relic’ or ‘sacred cow’. H0ly is bad; holy is a handicap.

Brooks’ bottom line is a firm challenge to this desacralizing ethic of sacrificing experience at the altar of experiences: “the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence.” And then he makes the following leap:

For the same reason, business and politics do not blend well. Business leaders tend to perform poorly in Washington, while political leaders possess precisely those talents — charisma, charm, personal skills — that are of such limited value when it comes to corporate execution. [ . . . ] Until recently, corporate culture has been free to thrive in such unlikely places as Bentonville, Omaha and Redmond. Of course, that’s changing. We now have an administration freely interposing itself in the management culture of industry after industry. It won’t be the regulations that will be costly, but the revolution in values. When Washington is a profit center, C.E.O.’s are forced to adopt the traits of politicians. That is the insidious way that other nations have lost their competitive edge.

For the embattled heroes of Brooks’ story, management pertains to the quality of products. For the villains of Brooks’ story, management pertains to the qualities of people. Among other things, Brooks’ story reveals that technology doesn’t have much of a dog in this fight. Questions about science and human responsibility aren’t much to the point in this controversy; if anything, technology sides with the ‘outmoded’ old businessman concerned with the orderly refinement of competence in the physical world of tangible things. In a wider view, the moral life of the individual is impacted far more profoundly by the desiring relations among persons than by the rationalizing relation between man and nature. Our fervent desire to experience the genius for individuality leads us to denigrate and dismiss as unglamorous experienced accomplishment. But individuality is not going away anytime soon. Ultimately, the philsophy of virtue that could be said to have arisen from the genius of experienced accomplishment itself pointed inexorably toward the individual ideal.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.

Tags

Loading...

Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles