Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Hi. I’m Umair. I want to tell you a little story about life, death, meaning, purpose, happiness, you, me, the world, and why I founded Eudaimonia & Co.
A couple of years ago, right at the peak of it all, jetting around the globe, writing books, giving speeches, invulnerable as a rock, I got sick. Keeling-over-losing-fifty-pounds-in-a-month-sick. The doctors told me I had months to live. And after the heart-stopping panic subsided, a funny thing happened: I was happy, thinking and writing about the meaning of it all, in a way I’d never really been discussing economics, leadership, and society.
Dying young — or at least thinking you’re going to — is like climbing the Mount Everest of inner clarity. You think about life. Not in a mournful way. Maybe you haven’t lived enough for that yet. Just in an appreciative one. Life is a funny thing. Unique, singular, strange. Camus famously called it absurd. It’s the only thing in a lonely, clockwork universe that struggles. Rivers flow, clouds dissipate, oceans ebb. But only life undertakes an improbable, uncertain, difficult quest for self-realization. A tree stretches into the sun. A little bird builds a nest. You strive mightily all your days long for happiness, meaning, purpose, grace, defiance, rebellion, truth, knowledge, beauty, love. That quest is what makes life so strikingly different from dust, fire, mud, air.
Only today our quest for self-realization doesn’t seem to be going so well. If I asked you, “how do you think the world’s doing?”, I’d bet your reply would be on the spectrum between not-so-well and dire, not pretty good and fantastic. Which is just as I’d had to warn of, and that’s why writing about economics always made me unhappy. Maybe the fate of the world wasn’t my cross to bear. Maybe it isn’t any of ours. But I didn’t know that then. And yet. The world seems suddenly different now, doesn’t it? The headlines now are an almost comically absurd smorgasbord of catastrophe: nuclear war, Nazis, natural disaster, societies fracturing, impotent frustration at it all.
It’s a head-spinning, anxiety-inducing time. It’s even scarier to admit it, so let’s do it together. Climate change. Stagnation. Inequality. Extremism. They feel different, more threatening. Bigger and badder than yesterday’s problems. They are. These are Massive Existential Problems. To societies, cities, democracy. To you and I and our kids. To the entire planet. Why are they all happening at once? How are we to solve them? Can we? If we don’t, problems only create more problems. Climate change creates refugees, famine, starvation. Stagnation creates authoritarianism. Inequality and extremism create war. A vicious circle, a savage feedback loop of problems. We’re at cruising altitude — but the engines are stalling. A nose dive of human possibility looms.
How did we get here? Every age has a paradigm of human organization. A set of defining principles and beliefs about what life is for. In the past, you can think of things like tribalism, feudalism, mercantilism, and so on. What’s our paradigm? Why isn’t it working?
Every paradigm’s end, purpose, defines it. We organize — whether countries, companies, societies, days, projects, investments — for just one sole end: maximizing income. Whether it’s called GDP, profits, shareholder value, all are more or less different words for the same imperative: the most income over the smallest increment of time an organization can produce. This overarching social goal of maximizing income trickles down into maximizing incomes for corporations and firms and banks and households so on.
Today’s paradigm of human organization — which is a relic of the industrial age — is economic. Our lives — in fact, all life on the planet, in fact, all life in the universe, because life on this planet is the only life that we know of anywhere in existence — are thus oriented around the pursuit of a single end: maximizing short-term income.Maximizing immediate financial income is the sole purpose of all the life that we know of, which all the life that there is.
Here’s the problem.
In the economic paradigm, well-being, the fullness of life’s quest for self-realization — whether or not lives are growing, flourishing, becoming, developing, to what degree, extent, duration, quality, whether it’s your life, my life, our grandkids’ lives, or the planet’s life — is nonexistent. It’s not conceptualized, represented, counted, measured, quite literally valued. Not in GDP, corporate reports, profits, markets, theories, models, prices, costs, benefits, anywhere. Not even in the smallest way — quantitatively, functionally, arithmetically — and so certainly not in the truest way: qualitatively, conceptually, substantively. And so because well-being, life itself, isn’t represented or valued, it’s not worth anything according to the calculus of this paradigm.
What do you with stuff that’s free? Well, you take it. So the economic paradigm uses up, drains, exhausts all the many kinds of well-being above to attain it’s sole end, how much immediate income it can produce. Let me give you two examples. If we break each others’ legs, GDP will go up, not down. We’ll have to take taxis to work, and pay for more medical care, which are counted as “gains”. Does that example strike you as absurd? It is, but it’s very real: in the extreme case, you get a society where an economy is growing, but life expectancy is falling — modern day America.
Life itself — in it’s truest sense, as a quest for self-realization — is systemically undervalued, underrepresented, and under-understood by the economic paradigm of human organization. Let me put that a little more bluntly. The economic paradigm of human organization doesn’t care. About life. Yours, mine, our grandkids, our planet’s. In any of it’s three aspects: not it’s potential, nor it’s possibility, nor it’s reality — life a beautiful and universal quest for self-realization. It’s sole end is maximizing immediate income. It doesn’t care if you’re happy or miserable, if you’re fulfilled or hollow, if you’re humane and gentle and wise or cruel and brutish and spiteful, if you flourish or wither as a human being, if the oceans dry up and die or teem joyously, if the skies turn to ash, if if you, me, our grandkids, or the planet, dies young or old, or if any of us live or die at all, in fact. It just doesn’t care. It wasn’t designed to. Thus, all that possibility, all that potential, is never realized: it’s used up to maximize immediate income. More and more, maximizing immediate income minimizes life’s potential.
And that’s the hidden thread that connects today’s four Massive Existential Problems. Climate change happens when the planet’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. Stagnation happens when people’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. Inequality happens when a society’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. And extremism is a result of all that ripping yesterday’s stable and prosperous social contracts to shreds. Today’s great global problems are just surface manifestations of the same underlying breakdown — a badly, fatally, irreparably broken paradigm of human organization.
The paradigm is the problem. A solely, paradigmatically, one-dimensional economic approach to human organization. That old, rusting, busted, industrial-age, economic paradigm is what’s created the Massive Existential Threats the world faces today. The single-minded pursuit of maximizing short-term income (versus, for example, optimizing long-run well-being) is what’s ignited inequality, stagnation, climate change, and extremism — and the later problems that are likely to stem from them.
And so — it’s no coincidence — here we are. Desperately clutching the controls in a nose dive of human possibility. But the controls don’t seem to work anymore, do they?
Every age has a challenge. Here’s today’s. Crafting a new — perhaps a radically new — paradigm of human organization, that values, represents, respects, celebrates, elevates, and expands life. Life is an impossibly big word, because it is such a strange and striking and impossible thing. Yet when you and I say “life”, we don’t mean some kind of actuarial probability table, the one-dimensional way the economic paradigm values things, but life in all its fragility, messiness, emergence, contradiction, complexity. Life in that sense, as self-realization, is more and more what’s minimized by the economic paradigm of human organization, so that it can maximize income. That’s what a broken paradigm means, and because it is the problem inside all the problems, that is what needs to be fixed, reversed, upended, turned around, with a better one. So how can we —
“Wait”, you cry. “Why should I care?” I see extreme capitalism has trained you well, young Darth. I sympathize. I didn’t want to either, remember? I just wanted to die happily. And yet. We — you and I — are going to have to care for a very simple reason. No matter how glorious your startup, moneyed your giant corporation or investment fund, mighty your city or country — today’s Massive Existential Problems are going to take you down too. Think your company can function without working societies? Your startup without a planet? Your country while its cities drown? Think again. Sure, you can ignore it all, but you’re only kidding yourself. The world feels broken because it is, and none of us are mighty enough to keep on escaping its expanding catastrophes by a thinner hair’s breadth of victory on our own little treadmill. The precise opposite is true: it’s up to us to make it better, and not just some of us, but each and every one of us. Sorry. Welcome to reality. Here’s a little consolation. Even tiny ways will do, which, in their gentleness and grace, are often greater than big ways.
So. How can we begin crafting that better paradigm?
I call it moving from an economic paradigm to a eudaimonic paradigm of human organization. It has new ends for organizations: five new goals that elevate and expand life, versus blindly maximizing income. And it has new means: design principles with which to build organizations that can accomplish those ends. Together, those ends and means make up a little framework that I call “eudaimonics”. It’s meant to help us build organizations that are better at creating wealth, well-being, and human possibility, not just maximizing income, because life itself is the true measure of the success any and every organization, from a family to a company to a city to a country to the world itself.
What does such a eudaimonic organization look like? Whether it’s a company, country, or city, it’s different in vision: it has a concrete, overarching goals to To do it, it’s different in structure: it probably has a Chief Eudaimonia Officer or the like. It’s different in strategy: it doesn’t just launch products and services, but focuses on the human outcomes those have, whether lives are flourishing and growing or not. And it’s different in management: it doesn’t just report, track, manage, identify, optimize profit against loss, economic indicators, but eudaimonic ones, that are about how much life it’s really giving back to you, me, our grandkids, and the planet.
Here’s another example of eudaimonics, at macro scale. The objectives and strategies and policies and values and and roles and titles and numbers and metrics and measures and reports and the rest of it — all of the software of human organization, from “profit” to “GDP” to “markets” to “value” to “wealth” to “vision” to “mission” to “work” to “jobs“ — that power our countries, cities, companies, corporations is going to have to be updated and rewritten to realize life.
So. A brief summary. Human organizations have become treadmills. But they should be gardens. In which lives flourish, grow, fruit, and flower. The great challenge of this age isn’t single-mindedly maximizing one-dimensional income as the sole end and purpose of human existence, but elevating and expanding life’s possibility. Whether mine, yours, our grandkids’ or our planet’s. That noble, beautiful, improbable quest for self-realization — eudaimonia — is the reason we’re all here, each and every one.
Remember me? There I was, happily dying. And then the fates did what fates do. Pulled the rug out from under me. I didn’t die. The old world did. And the new world isn’t yet born. We’re going to have to create it, give painful birth to it, drag it out of ourselves, kicking and screaming, with love and grace. Even those of us, like me, who thought they’d be content watching the sun set.
Hence, this little organization. You can think of it as a lab, consultancy, thinktank — what it really is is an invitation. So if you’d like to join me on this quest, consider all this yours.
(Here are three brief footnotes for nerds. I emphatically don’t mean “economics is bad!”. It’s not. It has a great deal to teach us. The problem is that it’s used backwards. Abstractions of reality are meant only to provide academic insight and theoretical validation. But we use economic ideas — theories and models — not to validate theories, as real world levers to fulfill them. See the difference? That’s like taking a bunch of monkeys who’ve survived the clinical trials of a wonder drug and…putting them in charge of a nation’s healthcare. Inquiry has been turned around to become a method of human organization. Thus, the economic paradigm of human organization shouldn’t be one at all — economics should be just one tiny way, among many, to see, explain, think about human behavior, not a mode of organizing it, especially not the only mode.
In a similar vein, there’s often a refrain of “things are getting better! They’re not that bad!”, meaning that extreme global poverty has been reduced. That’s true, but. Those gains have been concentrated in India and China, and while the old paradigm might have raised median incomes there from $1K to $5k, it can’t raise them from $5k to $50k. Not just because the planet doesn’t have the resources, though it doesn’t — but because those societies already face the same tensions the old paradigm has produced: inequality, extremism, dissatisfaction, and so on. In other words, the old paradigm is out of steam. Technically, we’d say that the social, civic, and human externalities of the economic paradigm are too high for the world to bear.
That also means paradigm change isn’t just about going from capitalism to socialism. Both those — and all the “isms” surrounding them — still often share exactly the same paradigmatic goal, the same sole end — maximizing immediate income, trickling down from bigger to smaller organizations. As a simple example, China’s nominally socialist — but it’s overarching social objective, is precisely the same as America’s — to maximize GDP. So paradigmatic change doesn’t just mean “capitalism versus socialism”. It doesn’t mean any ism, in fact. Not liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, leftism. None of it. Paradigmatic change means something truer, deeper, more radical — changing the means and ends of human organization, the purposes to which our days, moment, ideas, relationships, careers, ambitions, dreams are devoted.)