51/49 or 49/51?: A Provocative Question Regarding Business Growth, Self-Knowledge, and Making Good Art

Dearest reader, today I take a brief pause from tactical musings to offer you a thought experiment that may make you uncomfortable.

If there’s one thing that consistently destroys beautiful businesses, it’s looking to scale at all costs.

Growing a business can be a completely worthwhile goal. Helping more people and making a bigger impact can be a worthwhile goal. Creating more opportunity for your team can be a worthwhile goal. Hell, making more money can be a worthwhile goal.

But due to our evolutionary wiring, the allure of wealth and social status can make things confusing. Any intellectually honest person knows motivation is multifactorial; in fact, this a pretty well accepted tenet of psychology. We’ve all seen people talking about the altruism of their business goals, but sensed their underlying longing for wealth and status. And indeed, this focus can most definitely lead to a massive business.

But does it lead to your best work? Does it lead to your best art? Does it lead to the generosity of service that can transform lives?

I’m inclined to agree with Quincy Jones, who remarked upon the challenges of making art-for-money by saying “When you chase cash, God walks out the door.”

Listen, it’s perfectly appropriate for you to look out for your own interests and consider the personal costs and benefits of any professional choice. You should be trying to make money and make a life for yourself and your family. If you’re only looking out for other people and you’re not factoring your own dreams and interests into the equation, that’s not a good long term solution for anyone. An emotionally responsible human looks to fairly balance their own needs with the needs of the world around them.

So how do we assess this balance? How do we know when we’re bullshitting ourselves into making a choice because we’re being drawn by the money carrot or status carrot? It’s not as easy as it seems.

Consider this…

Have you ever noticed that every single person is always the “hero” in their conception of the world?

Or perhaps you’ve heard that 90% of all drivers described themselves as above average?

I’m an unrepentant optimist and at the core of my being, I’m a humanist. In fact, I believe everyone IS the “hero” of their own world, and that everyone is genuinely doing the best they can in a given moment. I know life is complicated and confusing.  But I also think it’s possible for us to do better over time by thinking deeply on ethics and morality, by understanding our personal values, and by studying the way the brain is wired.

Remember, your brain is the ultimate bullshitter. Or stated differently:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman

Here’s how I look at this balancing act when I consider business opportunities:

Is this choice reflective of a 51/49 ratio of service to personal gain? Or is it a 49/51 ratio of service to personal gain?

This may seem like a ludicrously small distinction. And like all models, it’s incomplete. But it’s a useful thought experiment.

Humans are social geniuses. We’re wired to pick up on even the subtlest of signals: facial tics that signal disapproval, vocal inflections that betray insecurity, body language that reads defensive, etc. It’s why we sometimes find ourselves in sales situations and something just feels a bit “off” about the person we’re talking to. Or we’re in the audience at a conference and a speaker is saying the right words, but some deep part of us isn’t able to buy it.  They may be saying the right things. They may be doing the right things. They may even be an obviously lovely person.

But on some primal level… we smell their agenda. And we feel ever-so-slightly more like a dollar sign than a person.

Ultimately, this thought process isn’t about judging the actions of others. Since we can’t control the behaviors of others, our primary moral concern is our own actions.

So let’s ask this provocative question:

How do you know if YOU’RE being 51/49 (service/ personal gain) or if you’re being 49/51 (service/ personal gain)?

Well, if you’re asking yourself this question, that’s a great start. In fact, simply willing to be introspective enough to deeply consider your motives suggest you have 49/51 potential. High five to you!

If you’re raging against this paradigm and you are completely certain your motives and intentions are always 100% righteous and virtuous, we’ve found a red flag. Only because logically, we know this isn’t true.

I also offer 51/49 as the optimal target ratio because brains are tricky; they’re designed to look out for our best interests. So really, our perception of 51/49 is necessary to hit the 50/50 mark, which is the actual goal.

Here’s another way to think about this…

Did you ever live with lots of roommates? Did you ever notice how every single person always did every single one of their dishes, and yet there were always dishes in the sink? The only way for all the dishes to get done in a large group living situation is for everyone to wash 110% of their dishes, or alternatively, for one individual to be a hero. This works because it accounts for the inevitable dishes that virtually everyone spaces out on. This is being 51/49 at work.

Remember, if you’re being 49/51, it’s not that you’re breaking any laws; we’re not talking about robbing a bank.

We’re talking about the time you took the job you didn’t care about because you wanted the check. Or the time you ever-so-slightly exaggerated your enthusiasm about promised results to close that client your instincts knew wasn’t the right fit for you (and ultimately led to a very unsatisfying working relationship). Or the time you ever-so-slightly exaggerated a personal attribute to makeout with someone your instinct knew wasn’t the right fit for you (and ultimately let do a less-than-spectacular hook-up experience).

When you’re 49/51, you may even be delivering genuine value to the people you’re serving as you pursue your personal gain. But the true victim of 49/51 is your work. It’s the art you make. Because when you’re not aligned with your true mission, you’re robbing the world of the best work you’re capable of doing.

Let’s say another uncomfortable thing. This entire conversation is, of course, built on a foundation of privilege. Most of humanity doesn’t get to consider these moral and ethical considerations or assess the quality of their work because they’ve got to pay their fucking rent. And I get that. So if you’re reading this and you’re doing what you need to do to pay your bills and feed your family, I salute you. AND rest assured, you are 51/49. Your mission is to serve your loved ones.

But for those of us who do more than get by on our income (most of you reading this article), the stakes are higher BECAUSE we have opportunity.

Maybe our goal doesn’t have to be about making as much money as possible or “scaling” our business.

Maybe our goal can be making the best fucking business possible.

Maybe the goal can be to put in every ounce of love,

every drop of belief in human potential,

every painfully-earned but dammit-you’re-proud-of-it scar you’ve acquired on the path,

and make something beautiful in the service of someone.

Maybe the goal can be to find a way to serve people so deeply, that some part of each of you recognizes, even for just a moment, that maybe, just maybe, we are NOT actually all alone in our meatsuits.

I’m 8 years into my journey of accidental entrepreneurship. At this point, I will never NOT identify first and foremost as an artist. When I look at MFF and BFU, I feel like a fucking old-timey baker with a bakeshop. I don’t want to be Richard Branson (though, of course, I fucking LOVE Richard Branson). I want to be Jiro Dreams of Fucking Sushi. I realize this gives me a specific skew, and I’m not saying everyone needs to look at life the way I do.

But I am saying that the drive to grow and scale a business can quickly be analogous to “spiritual materialism”; it can be like a seeker aggressively pursuing spiritual knowledge and enlightenment as one more trophy to attain.

And to be clear, a generous 51/49 mentality doesn’t limit growth at all. While we can all think of enormous environment-destroying globe-choking corporations that live in the world of 49/51, there ARE businesses that are both massive and 51/49-tastic.

Furthermore, 52/48 can be as problematic as 49/51; 52/48 can be a one-way ticket to resentment, burnout, and martyrdom.

I admit, when well-meaning humans imply that MFF “should” be scaled, I bristle; I bristle at the assumptions made not only about MFF, but about my personal life dreams. But who knows? I may yet feel called to trip the light fantastic. Maybe my inner 51/49 compass will lead me there one day. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I swore that I never wanted a “real business” because I didn’t want to deal with real estate, staffing, financial statements, corporate taxes, etc.

So please laugh out fucking loud in my face if I announce next year that MFF has taken on investors and is looking to go national and open up 25 locations over 12 months. 🙂

Bigger may not be better, but it’s also not inherently worse.

I merely question the relative importance placed on “scale” and never-ending growth. I question the assessment of a business’s impact on human lives by looking at top line revenue, total number of employees, or any other vanity metrics. Getting better isn’t always about getting bigger.

If more businesses focused on relentlessly improving their services as opposed to pure numerical growth, the world would be a far, far better place.

So when you’re boldly sharing your hyper-quantified mission to “Impact the lives of 10 million men and women through [fill in business offering]…”

Are you willing to honestly assess how much of your drive comes from the financial upside?

Are you willing to ask how much of this mission is an ego play for status?

Are you willing to ask if this a 51/49 or a 49/51 moment?

I’m not here to judge or tell you what you “should” do. You are uniquely equipped to do that and only you will know how to answer. But my hope is you find this thought experiment useful as you pursue your star and make your art and seek to leave this world better than you found it.

Love you.