Fight or flight. Survival of the fittest. Competing. Winning. The art of war. Only the paranoid survive. This fight and survive consciousness is in our DNA and has been the underlying paradigm for business in the 20th century and continues to this day. We learn to start behaving this way at a very early age — competing to get the best grades, to get into the best schools, the best jobs, the best promotions, and so on.
Survival is paramount. You can’t do anything if you don’t survive. Your business won’t achieve anything or solve any problems if it doesn’t survive. Survival is hard wired into our animal brains, it’s instinct and comes from us having learned to survive from the earliest days of our species.
There is also something primal about competition. It can be a strong motivator and source of drive. The best competitors fiercely bring out the best in each other. They push each other beyond any limits they thought possible. Sports rivalries are a thing of legend and a great example of where we see this play out. Ali vs. Frazier. Nadal vs. Federer. Magic vs. Bird. The Yankees vs. Red Sox. The Lakers vs. Celtics. Real Madrid vs. Barcelona. Jordan vs. uh, everyone. The list goes on.
Similarly, businesses compete in the marketplace for scarce resources — customers, attention and profits. So naturally, survival and competition feel very familiar here. The point is further driven home by countless sports and war analogies — “we are a team and we are going to score and win!”, you get the idea.
While I’ve lived and breathed the above throughout my career, I’m now starting to see a few issues with this mindset. One argument against the survival and compete paradigm has been beautifully laid out in the book “The Infinite Game” by Simon Sinek. Unlike sports or (most) wars that are finite games, things like business, careers, marriage and life are infinite games. While you may beat out other candidates for a job, there is no winner of careers. There is no winner of marriages. No matter how successful one may be in life, no one is declared the winner of life when they die. The same applies to business. “All these things are journeys, not events. Infinite games have infinite time horizons. And because there is no finish line, no practical end to the game, there is no such thing as winning in an infinite game. In an infinite game, the primary objective is to keep playing, to perpetuate the game.” The trouble begins “when we lead with a finite mindset in an infinite game, it leads to all kinds of problems, the most common of which include the decline of trust, cooperation and innovation. Leading with an infinite mindset in an infinite game, in contrast, really does move us in a better direction.”
The other issue I see with living out exclusively in the survival paradigm is that it’s primary energy is lack and fear. Fear of survival. Fear of losing. Fear of not being the fittest. Fear of not being successful. Lack of resources. Lack of attention. Fear and stress can be incredible motivators and stimulants. They can lead to out-performance — in the short term. I don’t believe they work well in the long run, and certainly not in infinite games. Fear and stress are bound to lead to destructive behaviors, creating harm for oneself and others in the process. Acute stress can be a good thing. Chronic stress is not.
Fear and lack can be deeply embedded in one’s subconscious. We may not even realize we’re operating from this paradigm. But instead of admitting to or facing this fear, a lot of us compensate as we’re desperate for some inner fulfillment. So we go out seeking some ‘wins’. The issue is that a lot of this compensatory behavior can be destructive. It is my belief that this underlying fear and lack is the primary driver of unsustainable businesses practices such as the pursuit of unicorns with no profits (WeWork anyone?), growth for growth’s sake, like a cancer or virus (too soon?), massive trust, privacy breaches and scandals, and ultimately the blind pursuit of profits to maximize return for shareholders and investors (with little regard to the impact to customers, employees, society or the world). It’s no wonder, as when in survival mode, and worried about lack, one operates solely in self-interest and looks to maximize outcomes only for oneself.
Now you may argue that while operating selfishly can have negative consequences, the reality on the ground is that markets are finite, and while ‘lack’ may be a strong word, there is a scarcity of customer attention and dollars. The market is only so big, and can accommodate only so many players. Pick any market and you see lots of companies competing. No company can claim to be beyond competition. So it is a matter of competing to survive. Competition also has other benefits like pushing one to be better, as discussed earlier.
I get it, I’ve been there. This view makes sense when you only view yourself as a company that makes widgets. You’re in the widget (insert any market category here, e.g. “Marketing analytics”, “Legal-tech”, “Ad-tech”, “Property-tech”, etc.) market. If your only interest is in making widgets for profit, and your goal/mission/purpose is to be the #1 widget maker for said market, then yes, all you’re going to see is other widget makers fighting for scarce resources. You’ve constrained and bound yourself to an existing category, so you’re going to compete against everyone else that’s done the same. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s just how things are in the survival paradigm. It’s very difficult to see above this when only in this mode.
Contrast this with a slightly different approach. Let’s set the widgets aside for a second. Let’s start with a purpose, one that has nothing to do with your product or market. Your company’s purpose is to “make work life simpler, more pleasant and more productive”. You’ve experienced the frustration of email and various messaging tools deployed by company IT departments. There’s got to be a better way, and you’re passionate about advancing the state of work life and communication. You’ll still develop a widget, but this is no longer about just your widget and how well it does. It’s about advancing something bigger than yourself. You’re going to change how work is done. This very unique outlook of the world will birth very unique solutions and ideas. You’re no longer worrying about what other widget makers are doing — you’re focused on your mission and purpose. Your success may birth competitors, but as long as they’re focused on making widgets, and you on your purpose, you’ll exist and operate in two completely different paradigms. By the way, as you may have already guessed, the purpose above isn’t fictional — it belongs to Slack. They didn’t just set out to make another widget for the crowded and competitive messaging software market, they truly have changed how most businesses work and communicate. Welcome to what I call the thrive paradigm.
One more thing about competition. Yes, competition can make you better. But the danger with competition is that it can make you play with a finite mindset in an infinite game. It can bring in ego and a “win at any cost” mentality, taking focus away from customers, their problems and your vision. Ultimately, it also just limits you and your potential impact to your industry and market as it constrains you from thinking about the bigger picture.
“You want to do something that you’re passionate about and where you get better, but competition per se is generally very destructive. You end up fighting over things that don’t matter.”
— Peter Thiel (Co-founder PayPal, Palantir Technologies and Founders Fund)
The thrive paradigm is a higher perspective that gives us the opportunity to evolve beyond survival and competition. At its simplest, it’s based on the principles of service and truth, and the energy of love and abundance. It’s also a recognition that business is an infinite game. It’s my sincere hope that companies, founders and leaders that operate from this paradigm can and will create successful businesses like we’ve never seen before, and will leave a lasting positive impact on all stakeholders — employees, customers, shareholders/investors and society.
My vision of a thriving business is an organization that builds products people want to buy vs. one that wants to sell its products. An organization that considers its impact to it’s people, customers, society and the world vs. just benefiting a few investors, shareholders and leaders. An organization that has a purpose, a vision, and looks at the long game vs. one that’s primarily just concerned about just the next quarter, next year or even next couple of years. An organization whose people come in to work each day motivated and inspired to make it better vs. one where employees dread coming to, feel emotionally unsafe and only show up to pay their bills. An organization that wants to create for the benefit of its people and customers vs. one obsessed with competition and winning and profits above all else. An organization focused on the important vs. one focused primarily on the urgent. An organization that experiments and explores unknown possibilities vs. one that just responds to an illusion of control and known factors.
The key elements of this paradigm (along with a contrast of thrive vs survive mindset for each):
Someone who’s worried about survival is going to act very differently from someone that wants to thrive and put a dent in the world. It’s a completely different lens — a very narrow vs a broader and higher view. Steve Ballmer vs Steve Jobs — it wasn’t a fair fight. Jobs wasn’t even competing with him, he was changing the world but was making Microsoft almost irrelevant in the process at the time.
I believe operating from this paradigm can allow any stage of business to thrive. Now if you’re starting a new business, or engaged in a brutal competition for market share, survival is probably all that’s on your mind and all this talk of thriving may seem trivial or hogwash. I’m not down playing the importance of survival – my intuition is that going beyond the survival mindset and approaching things with a thrive mindset will actually increase your likelihood of survival, while also leading to greater success and impact. I’m a huge believer in process vs outcomes and the thrive paradigm allows one to take a higher perspective, and not get lost in rivalries, trivialities or “things that don’t matter”. Play an infinite game rather than just chess or checkers.
In future posts, I’ll expand on each of the elements above and how they can contribute towards building a thriving business.