Time is the school in which we learn.
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

There's a misunderstanding about what you learn when you study religion. Aside from all of the world history that is wrapped up in the history of religion, you also spend a significant amount of time studying atheism or the disbelief in gods. But an interesting saying came up during my first semester of study when someone said that atheists like to deny the existence of god but hold fast to the idea of the devil. They meant that whether or not someone believes in a god, we can easily slip into attributing bad acts to the evil forces inside someone. That also happens often when discussing capitalism or the idea that capitalism is evil. What is that mysterious force, that devil inside (#dreamboat), that rules our financial fancy? (Even Socrates described money as barren.)


This past weekend, I returned to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square to see for myself the reinvention that so many journalists have been raving about. I was pleasantly surprised not only by the experience of the expansive non-fiction section and found a gem of a book, For Profit: A History of Corporations, by William Magnuson. His work looks at the corporation from ancient Rome to Silicon Valley. In summary, he argues that "while corporations haven’t always behaved admirably, their purpose is a noble one. From their beginnings in the Roman Republic, corporations have been designed to promote the common good. By recapturing this spirit of civic virtue, For Profit argues, corporations can help craft a society in which all of us—not just shareholders—benefit from the profits of enterprise." It is a fun and informative read, landing on The Economist's best business books of 2022. It is one of the most refreshing traditional business books I have read in a long time. Magnuson doesn't paint a rosy picture; he's even in his critiques and his praise for corporations. If he is accurate, that historically corporations have been designed to promote the common good, how did we get here? 


When people used to ask me about crypto and NFTs, I used to say, no, I'm not interested; I lived through the Beanie Baby craze of the 90s. So close to it, in fact, that the documentary HBO did about Beanie Babies was set in Naperville, Il, the town next to where I grew up. (If you haven't watched that documentary, I highly recommend it, if only for the Beanie Baby Rap!) But crypto has been interesting to observe from the sidelines. Could you make money early in crypto? Yeah, sure, but you could have also made much money early on in Beanie Babies. 

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite authors in finance wrote a guest essay for the NYT; Mihir Desai is a professor at HBS and the author of The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return. A brilliant economist himself, he uses literature and poetry to help explain complex financial concepts and how they relate to our everyday lives. In his NYT essay, he said, 

 "I have come to view cryptocurrencies not simply as exotic assets but as a manifestation of a magical thinking that had come to infect part of the generation who grew up in the aftermath of the Great Recession — and American capitalism, more broadly."

His use of the term "magical thinking," of course, immediately reminded me of Joan Didion's book on grief after losing her husband and caring for her sick daughter. And the concept of grief made me think a lot about a generation of entrepreneurs who came into leadership after the Great Recession of 2008. Again, Desai,

Where did this ideology come from? An exceptional period of low interest rates and excess liquidity provided the fertile soil for fantastical dreams to flourish. Pervasive consumer-facing technology allowed individuals to believe that the latest platform company or arrogant tech entrepreneur could change everything. Anger after the 2008 global financial crisis created a receptivity to radical economic solutions, and disappointment with traditional politics displaced social ambitions onto the world of commerce.

What Desai misses and Didion captures is the experience of grief and its ability to influence our thinking if it's repressed. Magical thinking is also a way to bargain with grief. But what happens when grief is never acknowledged? It is often said that anger and risk-seeking behaviors are a sign of unresolved grief. Could the last decade have been fueled by this unacknowledged grief, or as Michael Hutchence said, fed on nothing but full of pride


How do we get back to the foundation that Magnuson claims corporations were founded on and which Desai supports in his concluding remarks—that corporations are valuable socially because they solve problems and generate wealth?  

Maybe the answer came from Robin Wall Kimmerer's interview in the NYT on Monday. When asked about whether or not she felt she romanticized the living world and its beauty too much without also acknowledging the destructive forces within nature, RWK had this to say: 

Of course the natural world is full of forces that are so-called destructive. I think about Aldo Leopold’s often-quoted line, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” But those destructive forces also end up often to be agents of change and renewal.  

Wounds, grief, renewal. What do you bring to your own experience of entrepreneurship? Capitalism, the economy, does not happen to us; it happens with us. It is the result of all that we bring—resolved or unresolved. As Hutchence said:

Here come the world

With the look in its eye

Future uncertain but certainly slight

Look at the faces listen to the bells

It's hard to believe we need a place called hell

(This email was written as an homage to the 35th anniversary of INXS Devil Inside single.) 

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