“Is That All There Is?”
Ten or 15 years ago we chatted one evening with a Dutch lady in a stylish Village restaurant known as “One if by Land, Two if by Sea.” Olga, the lady in question, had come a long ways from Amsterdam. Starting there as a secretary a decade before, she had conquered mountains and become a treasured vice president of a U.S. chemical company. Her question for me, after the manner of the songstress Peggy Lee, was “Is That All There Is?” What would come next for her? What should she strive for in the days ahead? Where was the next mountain?
My answer was that she had done it all. Now she could only hope to better her craftsmanship, to do what she was doing with ever-greater perfection. The answer did not please her. But given her relentless drive and self-absorbed ambition, what else was there for her than to lower her handicap? She could not hope to join the gods above Mount Olympus because she did not believe in them. She believed mainly in her abilities.
Wittgenstein Versus Popper
Aspects of this question, the interplay of career and metaphysics, are joined by a rather simplistic, enjoyable, and now quite popular book called Wittgenstein’s Poker. By a couple of British journalists, the book purports to recap and explain 10 minutes at the Cambridge Moral Science Club just after World War II, when the Viennese philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper clashed early on at a presentation Popper gave to the group. Wittgenstein interrupted and tried to prevail in the argument by rhetorical flourishes and a menacing wave of a poker.
What we learn first is that the British philosophers, at least back then, were rather slavish sorts, who easily clustered at the feet of ostensible greats. If they were teenie boppers, we would be able to call them groupies. Instead, since they were ponderous, we call them philosophers.
More importantly, in oversimple terms, we discover that the core argument between the two lay in their concept of philosophy. For the wealthy, Jewish, upperclass Wittgenstein, philosophy was a semantic tool that sort of cleared away language mix-ups, and little else. It was a game, but certainly not the solution to humanity’s problems.
For Popper, the middleclass Austrian, who was also part of Vienna’s very productive Jewish intellectual circles, philosophy did help remake the world. For him it was not a game but a career with a vital mission.
It is Wittgenstein, not Popper, who still has a hold over the academic imagination and young philosophers on the make. Probably his terrible angst has turned him into an appealing figure for romantic minds. Hardly a day went by for Wittgenstein where he did not contemplate “suicide as a possibility.” He died in 1951, age 62.
But what if you are a Popper and believe you are changing the ways of man and society for the better? Years ago the chairman of one of the world’s premier (at that time, that is) professional service firms asked me whether he should sell his partnership to a financial colossus with the view of still doing great work but accompanied by the comfort of great personal liquidity.
We concluded that selling was the wrong thing – akin to “selling out” – the term young idealists apply to someone who has gone commercial. The time to sell out, we thought, was when you were retiring from the fray, no longer determined to do great work. If you’re up to great stuff in your business, it’s highly unlikely that this can continue without your ownership and demanding involvement. All the merger and acquisition boys and all the acquaintances who want you to smell the roses gloss over this in urging you to give it all up.
Doing and Believing
If you are doing what you believe in, chances are you should not put your career and business under the gavel, but rather, know that you are best off soldiering on in the work that gives you meaning and worth. Selling out is for chaps like Wittgenstein, people who have spent their lives with the consolation of suicide always near at hand. Karl Popper kept well at it to the end, dying 17 September 1994 at the age of 92. If you believe in yourself and what you are doing stridently enough, you may have a very long run.
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