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Friday, September 28, 2012

Business Porn

Credit: Janine Avila

Why do people read all those books about MLMs? Or "how to become a millionaire in business" books -- sold for $19.95, and found in the "half price" bin? (As G. K. Chesterton said, these books about success are written by people who cannot even succeed in writing books.) Michael Kinsley, in Curse of the Giant Muffins and other Washington Maladies, has the right idea. It is business porn.

What is the difference between pornography and erotica (apart from the fact that what I enjoy is tasteful erotica and what they enjoy is dirty porn, I mean)? Well, porn is fake, a simulation. The same is true for business porn: books which explain to you that making money is the only thing that exists and nothing else matters -- not character, not knowledge, not even achievement itself. (As Kinsley notes, "upward failure" -- failing in one venture after another and then still getting bigger and better jobs -- is quite common among American business executives.) People who buy these books think that there is some gimmick that will make them rich, if only they have the correct "attitude", or correct smile and business etiquette, or correct PowerPoint presentation, or correct desk calendar or electronic "time management" gadget. All that really matters in those books is not to actually be successful, but to fake being successful. Just like in porn, it's not love, or even passion, that matters, but faking it.

One example, Kinsley notes, was one Tom Peters, who rode the wave of the "management by excellence" books in the 1980s. Well, excellence is important in business (duh), but this was business porn. It wasn't about actual excellence -- actually doing things that made one's company's achievements better than others -- but about simulating excellence (which is about as much fun as simulated sex or simulated orgasms). It was about management by hugging random employees to show that you care, of management by randomly hanging around the office's water cooler to obey the "management by by wandering around" lesson from the In Search for Excellence course, and above all, having a heavy desk calendar made of leather to show just how busy you are.

Kinsley notes that Peters actually offered at one time an A Year of Excellence 1985 leather-bound calendar, with time marked in light blue for "wandering around" and hugging and congratulating people. On January 30th, 1985, for example, they were supposed to do that from 2 PM until 4 PM. Have you noticed the millions of new millionaires who were instantly created by this method in 1985? Me neither. Perhaps because truly excellent managers didn't just stop whatever they dealt with and started waking around randomly congratulating and hugging co-workers because as desk calendar said so. Or perhaps because, in a less tolerant age, men were wary of setting aside time for prowling around the office looking for Dick and Tom to hug while reeking of leather, which might have given people an entirely wrong idea of their intentions.

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