Perhaps the quality I look for and admire the most in people I associate with now that I’m 39 years old is altruism, whether someone will take actions to help others which do not benefit him in any way, whether financially, relationship-wise (gift-power dynamics), or reputation-wise (the spotlighter or faux do-gooder). It’s one of the hardest personal traits to fake and it reveals a glimpse into someone’s true character. It gives pause, it shows self-reflection; it may show in its worst form a dishonest penitence, but more often than not it shows love. It separates those who truly want others to succeed, even if they’re in direct competition, from those who preach cooperation and teamwork but practice Machiavellianism.
A competing rubric for whom you might associate with is the Steve Jobs-ian method of alphas only wanting to be around other alphas. In my industry, software development, alphas-seeking-alphas (a4a?) is the prevailing one. Everyone’s just trading up to be an ex of a Silicon Valley powerhouse — ex-Googler, ex-Apple, ex-Uber, ex-Facebook.
In this light, you would seek only to be around people better than you, either to improve yourself faster relative to your experience, or to use those people to catapult your status. Monetary reward is typically the main driver, whether it’s near immediate (finance) or delayed (the executive or pseudo-executive golden umbrella/fat signing bonus/no accountability for performance track). In such a competitive industry, to not pursue advancement is akin to stagnation and eventual career suicide. In such a competitive industry, the only line too far is, apparently, sexual harassment or the holiest of holies, trade secret theft, and even those charges apparently are iffy.
In most competitive companies, it has almost always been their duty to hire specifically for alphas: people who will fight, tooth and nail, to advance their company’s “goals”.
Naturally companies began realizing at scale, whether startup or enterprise, that they didn’t need loyalty; they just needed the best hired guns they could afford in order to accomplish short-term goals, while minimizing the biggest cost-centers: human capital and health care. Enter lobbyists, contractors, hired guns, revolving doors, job-hopping.
During my public education in the creative 80’s and careless 90’s, there seemed unbeknownst to me to be the transition from loyal company men to this mercenary class. A common film and TV trope in the 90’s and 2000’s was the death of the company man.
Mercs were one of the most lasting results of Operation Iraqi Freedom as I witnessed it — hirsute ball-capped knuckle-draggers and pampered support contractors while we made a military salary signaled some sort of rot back home in America. Offshoring and outsourcing were political third rails, a crude outcome of the displacement of corporate ideals.
Still, I grew up believing the rules of the game were clearly defined, and immutable to those who valued their careers.
In government, politics were partisan but most normal state and federal representatives sought the same goals: sustainment for the middle class and the advancement of American ideals. In government, there was the separation of powers, the three branches of government, the general idea that those who went in to government sought to improve the public good instead of receive monetary reward (whether that legend truly ever existed or not).
In 2017, either the perceived or real threat of foreign influence is at least enabled by this deterioration of loyalty as an organizational goal. If you don’t have to worry about integrity, the betterment of others, and even punishment for being caught committing a crime, you’d be stupid not to try to get the most you can for yourself, right?
The thing is, qualities such as loyalty, integrity, and selfless service are only valuable in societies or communities which enforce those qualities. If winning, or lack of enforcement of norms, trump those qualities, then those qualities become liabilities in the game. Those who play fair fall prey to those who want to win.
The name of the game, even in American daily life now, is winning. It doesn’t matter how you win. It doesn’t matter who you’re beating, or what you’re even playing for. Winners hire winners. Don’t get caught in a loss, big or small. Only you can tell yourself that you lost. Never admit you were wrong. You will never be cast out from your line of work or your principles, at least not for long, as long as you never lose belief in the win as a cure-all.
I’m not up for winning at any cost. I refuse to play that game. Psychopaths play that game. If anything I should probably enjoy winning more. I always root for the underdog. I root for the home team. I prefer team cohesion to hired guns. I’m okay with losing. I root for the magic of the dream ending, and the longevity of the ancestors who allowed those opportunities to happen.
But it requires that I pick my spots. Daily life and one’s engagement in it is avoiding the places where assholes abound. You’ve got your swindlers, your “intellectual debates” which are typically just cock-jousting, you’ve got the ex-Division 1 athlete kickball team that destroys everyone else, you’ve got the bullies who push the rules wherever they are because they know others fear conflict. You see them every day.
Imagine politics and government: you pit hired guns whose expertise is in winning at any cost versus people who are not playing to win but instead are playing to keep what little they have, playing on free time they have very little of. Money politics will wear down community fabric every time. Monied attacks are more persistent. They can keep trying new strategies. They can adapt to splinter the core community interests, learning from failure after failure, waiting for that one time when they crack the shell.
This is roughly in line with, say, the Russian approach for countering America, wearing down American ideals into division, bickering, disillusionment, lack of will or unity in the face of hopelessness.
In theory, laws passed would protect community interests from the attrition onslaught of endless directed attack by defining time intervals between relevant legislative sessions, to protect community capital.
But it doesn’t feel much like there’s been much to protect the community’s interest, right? There’s been loss after loss, and if it isn’t a direct loss, it’s likely a loss at someone’s expense who could not afford it.
With Citizens United, shit leaders, and everyone else trying to get rich or die tryin’, the rest of us just relegate ourselves to hoping that this person or that person isn’t going to fleece us as bad as the other.
At some point either the community will fight back against enemies domestic and foreign, or it will create its own alternative community which explicitly disallows the perceived enemies from before.
I don’t know what will happen but the worst thing good people can do is give up. That is pretty much what other interests would want them to do. Having recently moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I am least a little more relieved by the social fabric that exists in Brooklyn than by the mercenary lives of most Manhattanites.
As for me, I can’t stand alphas, save for the rare alpha that comes along very rarely and who works for everyone else — typically those types of alphas become historical legends. Fuck!, real alphas, ones I’ve gotten to work with in the past, both destroy poseur alphas while at the same time helping everyone else. All effortlessly, for that is where true benign power resides.
And I can deal with mercs — everyone knows where they stand on things, generally predictable in their monetary risk-reward calculations. But give me the misfits, give me the overlooked. Give me the people who do the right thing even when no one’s looking.
Give me the hard road. Though let me not walk it alone.
Give me the people who can’t be bought. Give me a life worth living, and a life with people worth living it with.