Relative values – and the Barbenheimer phenomenon.

You’d have to have been in a cultural wilderness this last month not to be aware that the two most talked about films of this summer are almost diametrically opposed in their style and substance. That said, the simultaneous release of Barbie and Oppenheimer is arguably a marketing masterstroke, generating thousands of column inches and an equivalent commentary on social media. Interestingly, the critical consensus is that both movies have their merits, with an appreciation of their differing qualities that are encapsulated by the use of the term ‘Barbenheimer’ to describe seeing them both side by side.

This mutual appreciation of two very different offerings has neatly coincided with my own exploration – indeed, growing fascination – with how we create the best conditions for the growth of happiness and well-being. Or, to be more precise, my awareness that despite the criticality of these goals to the quality of our lives, there are no clear and obvious means to measure and calibrate them other than through internal experience. 

Let me try to explain.

For most of my adult life, and certainly my business career, I’ve held in tension two convictions that have guided my actions and my decisions. Indeed, the strain between them and how we might embrace it is the underlying theme of my book of essays, Fair Value – reflections on good business.

Numbers Don’t Lie

The first assertion is that ‘numbers don’t lie.’ This refers to the need for financial acumen, the ability to correlate and interpret data, and an acknowledgment that we have a duty as leaders to respond to reality as it is rather than how we might wish it to be.  

Values are Critical to Performance

The second is that values are critical to performance.’ Indeed, I’d go further and say that in business terms, values and purpose are today more important than the pursuit of pure profit or return on capital or whatever other fiscal measure we might choose to highlight.  

Does either help with Internal Feelings?

Neither of these convictions, however, helps us to accurately measure those goals which arguably matter most of all, such as happiness and contentment, or their counterparts, sorrow, and anxiety.  Almost by definition, these higher-level concepts are abstractions, resisting the specific quantification that a trained statistician so craves. 
Take, for example, my love of PG Woodhouse, an author whose wit and humor have given me (and millions of others) immense pleasure, without his writing ever being highbrow or having claim to the literary genius of, say, Shakespeare or Steinbeck — both of whom I enjoy too.  Is my pleasure from any one of these authors better or more important than the others, and if so, how do we measure that difference?

We All have Preferences 

All of us will have experienced something similar to the example above, for part of being human is the ability to hold preferences, be they for music, architecture, landscapes, foods, or humor…   Just as we have different desires for less tangible satisfactions such as security, contentment, and personal growth.  We know as well that over time, and in changing circumstances, these wishes will evolve and vary, which explains why one day we might choose to watch Oppenheimer and the next take as much pleasure (albeit in different ways) from Barbie.

My key interest here is less philosophic than it is practical. 

Moral Relativism vs Absolutism

In the 2,500 years since Plato, our best minds haven’t found a watertight alternative to what’s known as the problem of relativism. This perhaps explains why the questions I’ve been wrestling with these last few months don’t neatly fit into one article. But despite our lack of objective measurements, the reality is that most of us don’t truly live our lives in a way that assumes all pleasures to be equal, just as we don’t think there’s no difference in mortality between acts of cruelty and kindness.

Business and Moral Relativism

At its core, what concerns me is the real-world problem of how we best manage our businesses and organizations (as well as our family lives and careers) to align with what we might summarize as our ‘happiness and well-being.’  Or, more specifically, how might better promote the variety of perspectives and preferences that make us who we are and yet are so problematic to rank and measure in any objective way? 

And finally, there is the question that interests me the most.

As businesses and organizations, can we shift our emphasis towards a greater personal fulfillment and yet stay true to the twin convictions of ‘facing reality’ and ‘values inspired performance,’ which remain key to tangible success?  In other words, can we find a Barbenheimer solution that embraces a greater range of aspirations, existing side by side and making contributions that may not be equal, but are collectively beneficial?  
Cracking that conundrum, it seems to me, would be a real breakthrough for the good.

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