Saturday, July 17, 2010

Is the world right-brained or left-brained, III

David Brooks, for one, thinks it should be more left-brained--at least when it comes to business.  (When it comes to education and Asperger's Syndrome, Brooks' bias is more right-brained).  In his July 12th New York Times Op-Ed piece, he divides the business world into princes and grinds. Guess which ones are left-brained.

The princes?
If you go to business conferences, you know that at lunch it is definitely better to be seated next to a prince than a grind. Princes, who can be male or female, are senior executives at major corporations.
They are almost always charming, smart and impressive. They’ve read interesting books. They’ve got well-rehearsed takes on the global situation. They can drop impressive names as they tell you about their visits to the White House, Moscow or Beijing. If you’re having lunch or dinner with a prince, you’re going to have a good time.
Or the grinds?
Grinds, on the other hand, tend to have started their own company or their own hedge fund. They’re often too awkward to work in a large organization and too intense to work for anybody but themselves.
Over lunch, they can be socially inert. You try to draw them out by probing for one or two subjects of interest to them. But as often as not, you find yourself playing conversational ping-pong with a master of the monosyllabic response.

Every once in a while you’ll run into one who can’t help but let you know how much smarter he is than you or anybody else in the room. Sitting at this lunch is about as pleasant for him as watching a cockroach crawl up his arm. He’d much rather be back working in front of his computer screen.
And guess which ones, according to Brooks, make better contributions to the economy.

The princes?
Since the princes are nicer and more impressive, it is easy to be seduced into the belief that they also are more trustworthy. This is false. During the last few years, for example, the princes at Citigroup, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers behaved with incredible stupidity.

...The smooth operators at the big banks were playing with other people’s money, so they borrowed up to 30 times their investors’ capital. 

The social butterflies at the banks got swept up in the popular enthusiasms... The well-connected bankers knew they’d get bailed out if anything went wrong. 
Or the grinds?
The hedge fund loners often behaved with impressive restraint.
[They] usually had their own money in their fund, so they typically borrowed only one or two times their capital.
...[They] knew they were on their own and regarded their trades with paranoid anxiety.
In short:
In finance, as in other realms of business life, social polish doesn’t always go with capitalist success. Often it is the most narrow, intense, awkward people who start the best companies, employ the most people and create the most value.
And guess which group Brooks thinks is doing better under today's recovery?
Sadly, this recovery has been great for princes and horrible for grinds... The big companies are posting excellent earnings. They’re sitting on mountains of cash.

The aspiring grinds, meanwhile, are dead in the water. Small businesses are not growing. They are not hiring. They are struggling to stay alive. (Though my friend Paul Downs, a small business owner who blogs for the New York Times, thinks things are improving).
In short:
The princes can thrive while the government intervenes in the private sector. They’ve got the lobbyists and the connections. The grinds, needless to say, don’t... [They] try to stay far away and regard the interlocking network of corporate-government schmoozing with undisguised contempt.
But the problem has spread beyond the grinds.  Because "very few grinds are bringing new ideas to scale and hiring workers to enact their us-against-the-world schemes," we have "an economy that is inching toward recovery but that is not creating much in the way of new innovations and new jobs..."

Brook's solution?
For jobs to recover, the grinds have to recover... Maybe the real issue is how we are going to light a fire under the country’s loners, its contrarians and its narrow, ambitious outsiders.
An interesting idea, but is it the undersides of the grinds that need fire, or those of the princes?

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