Editor’s note: Billy Warden is a writer, marketing exec and multimedia producer based in the Research Triangle, where he co-founded the p.r. agency GBW Strategies. He writes a column exclusively for WRAL TechWire. His posts appear on Mondays.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The mission of this column is to uplift all its readers, heal our hurts, banish confusion, promote harmony and create a world where our true selves are also our best selves. This column is mind, body and soul. This column is a movement.
Or so I might say if I were in cahoots with Adam and Rebekah Neumann, the husband and wife hucksters at the heart of the doomed WeWork empire as depicted in AppleTV’s “WeCrashed.”
It’s the latest in a pipeline of movies, series and books fixated on how entrepreneurs and other alphas talk, posture, succeed and take a tumble. In another sense, how they seduce and get their just desserts.
WeWork, let’s recall with the obligatory eye roll, sunk billions of other people’s money into a network of extravagant real estate purchases that it zealously described as the dawn of an entirely new way to work. (Of course, the ACTUAL dawn of a new way to work was still a few years away. It would be called COVID-19.)
In the series, Adam and Rebekah soar on a magic carpet of platitudes:
“We’re not selling desks, we’re selling an experience.”
“I’m an entrepreneur, and I live for disruption!”
“Fear is a choice.”
Creating – aka “manifest”-ing – products and services to “elevate the world’s consciousness.”
“WeWork is not just a company. It’s a movement. It’s millions and millions of people saying, ‘I don’t just want to make a living.’ They want to make a life.”
Hearing this barrage of bromides, we know the pair is destined for a moral comeuppance – just as sure as audiences at a 1930s gangster pic understood Jimmy Cagney’s law-flaunting racketeer would eventually get his, probably in a burst of bullets.
But if Cagney’s characters trafficked in illegal booze, murder and other bad habits, then the Neumanns and their ilk – including Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos – are guilty of what? Fraud, critics and prosecutors may say.
But, perhaps more heartbreaking personally, they’re selling back to us our own oft-voiced dreams of world-shaking ‘movements’ and transformative ‘experiences.’ Yes! I would love for my coworking desk to be not just sawdust and glue, but a cause – a relationship, even. Please whisper more sweet nothings in my ear.
And like lovers scorned, we need perhaps to see the smooth-talkers who seduced us not only laid low but publicly hoisted on the pitard of their own silky promises. Especially in an era of rampant catfishing and disinformation, when we feel especially vulnerable.
The kind of floweriness wafting through “WeCrashed” led author/historian Jill Lepore to delicately describe many modern mission statements as “bullshit.” In a much-tweeted 2021 New Yorker piece, she noted that according to a study, “most managers don’t believe their own companies’ mission statements. Research surveys suggest a rule of thumb: the more ethically dubious the business, the more grandiose and sanctimonious its mission statement.”
On the other end of the style spectrum, there’s HBO’s “Winning Time.” The ribald series chronicles the chaotic, often plain crazy push by real estate entrepreneur Jerry Buss to make world champions out of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers. Which he eventually does. With frequency.
There’s nothing New Age about Buss. He wants skilled players, capable coaches and gyrating cheerleaders not to save the world, but to add a little spice to life and shore up his sensationally shaky finances.
His speech is salty, his urges primal. And that’s apparently how we like our pop culture entrepreneurial heroes; the show was just renewed for a second season. Meantime, aggrandizing pronouncements and florid promises have become the tropes of TV villains. It’s OK to be aspirational, just keep the talk straight.
About the author