How to Build a 21st Century Organization

Why the Challenge of Now is Building Eudaimonic Institutions

May 2019.


Some of you have recently been complaining: “aaaruughh! It’s too depressing! I feel so daunted after reading your stuff I don’t know where to begin!” OK. Let’s discuss a little example of someone who’s doing it right. First, though, let me say: fixing the world isn’t your responsibility. Being a decent, kind, loving person is. But you don’t have to bear this cross if you don’t feel up to it — I write this stuff not to guilt or shame you, but just to keep you aware and abreast of the world, you, me, and us.

How do we build a 21st century organization? Whether it’s a society, city, town, country, company, corporation, network? At any scale? What does such a thing even mean. Here’s what it means to me.

In my terms, I’d call that a “eudaimonic institution” — eudaimonia, a good life, institution, a social mechanism designed to bring it about.

It’s pioneering, radical, and a little bit awesome. It’s the first such thing in the world. One of very few eudaimonic institutions we as a world have built lately. And the truth is there’s a gaping deficit of them. hence, the world is in a eudaemonic depression: life appears to be falling apart.

I mean “life” in a broad sense and narrow one, a colloquial one and a true one, both. Your life and my life are going nowhere fast. And so is all life on earth, which is the only life we know of anywhere in the universe, which is currently being annihilated at light speed in a mass extinction. See the titanic scale of the eudaemonic challenge yet? What happens if we can’t nurture and nourish life? The answer’s so obvious it hides in plain sight. We die.

(So while you might ask — why do we need eudaemonic institutions? The answer’s pretty simple. The world appears to be falling apart without better ways to organize for genuinely good lives, no? And that includes trees, bees, and insects, not just you and me, but I’ll come back to all this in the end.)

So what does New Zealand’s well-being budget actually do? The truth is that it does little things so far. It’s going to tackle homelessness, hunger, poverty, and so forth. But I want you to see the principles behind the institution to understand how radical it is.

To construct a eudaemonic budget, New Zealand has to measure the actual “welfare”, how well life is faring, for people. It has to look at the entirety of their lives — not just “GDP” or “shareholder value” or “profits.” But things like longevity, trust, happiness, meaning, purpose. Are people’s lives actually maturing and growing and developing in human terms? Or is capitalism just growing — which is what “GDP” measures? There’s a huge difference between the two.

Just measuring all this is a great and pioneering and historic national project — and I’m not sure if even New Zealand fully knows it. It’ll employ tons of bright young people in new careers — statisticians, managers, analysts, and so forth. But not of arcane, obsolete constructs like “profit” — of meaningful, resonant, sharp ones that have to do with genuine human well being, how well life is really doing or not. It’ll involve all kinds of new data, gathering it, collecting it, analyzing it. Do you see already the scale of the challenge a little? It’ll be harder — and bigger — than nearly anything we do collectively so far.

Then New Zealand has to look for deficits and gaps in all that data, all that analysis, it has to interpret the results in a careful and thoughtful way, which means: it has to begin to really understand what “human possibility” means. How well are people living — and how well could and should they be living? Maybe people could be living longer — but aren’t. Maybe people should trust one another more — but don’t. Maybe people should be happier — but aren’t. Maybe people’s lives are doing well in this way, money — but they’re crashing in that way, purpose. Why would that be? How would we remedy it?

Then it has to invest in eudaimonia. It has to find clever, novel, and enduring ways to turn those gaps and deficits in human possibility into surpluses and benefits. How do we improve trust? How do we elevate happiness? How do we lengthen lifespans? Some of these questions have obvious answers: build more, better, hospitals, schools, universities. But the hard truth is that most of them don’t. We don’t really know how to expand any of the following things beyond pretty minimal levels yet at this juncture in human history: trust, happiness, meaning, purpose, truth, kindness, gentleness, tolerance, understanding respect, self-worth. But these are the things that genuinely good lives are made of most, beyond the very basics of having a fully belly and a clean shower.

So New Zealand will have to pioneer new innovations to really bring eudaemonia to life. Maybe it will have to invest in town squares, clinics, new jobs. I don’t know. You don’t know. They don’t know. And that’s very much both the point and the challenge.

They’ll have to learn by doing. Imagine. Envision. Plan. Invest. Create. Test. Did this new set of town squares have any effect on trust? How about better media? No? Damn. Back to the drawing board.

Phew. Do you see how much work all that’s going to take? Do you see how much hard thinking — and bold doing — is going to be required? How the organization in question — in this case, a society — is going to have to pull together, and make it happen? How pioneering it is, and how much of this word we casually bandy about, “vision”, it’s really going to demand?

It’s not going to be easy. Ah, but you see the point. They are creating the future. In that series of steps, New Zealand is taking on the epic challenge of creating a future worth living in. How many other countries — organizations of any kind, corporations, companies, cities, investors, and so on — are doing that? Even a dozen? Most of us, the hard truth is, are not. So let me contrast New Zealand with America to make the lessons above crystal clear.

What are America’s eudaemonic gaps and deficits? The truth is that America still doesn’t have any unified measure of well-being — so what is there to act on? Hence, this endless state of paralysis and gridlock, that produced the vacuum which authoritarianism rose in.

Now, it’s pretty obvious when you take a glance around at the dystopian state of America what it’s eudaemonic deficits are. It’s true — there are all kinds of disparate social indicators that we can use to see them, and they’re the ones I often do. Longevity is falling. Suicide is skyrocketing. Incomes are stagnant. Trust has imploded. Social mobility has cratered. Happiness is plummeting. 70% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, the majority have no retirement savings, 70% struggle to afford food, medicine, and housing And so forth. All of these point to stark, severe, catastrophic eudemonic deficits — shortages of happiness, trust, meaning, purpose, stability, prosperity, safety. All that shows up in later data about sentiments, that says Americans are the most stressed out, angriest, depressed people in the rich world.

But how could they not be? They live under the yoke of predatory institutions, which never give them any kind of nourishment, emotionally, intellectually, financially, socially. And yet the astonishingly toxic effects of that kind of life — what we might call a dysdaimonic life, a life badly lived — aren’t measured or monitored in any kind of serious way.

So in the absence of eudaemonic indicators, what do American decision makers look at? They look at “GDP”, or its “growth”, at the “stock market”, and so on. Abstract indicators about the health of capitalism. But capitalism has turned predatory — and so America’s in the bizarre position of capitalist indicators skyrocketing upwards, while life craters. That’s not a coincidence — it’s a causal relationship: predatory growth, capitalism booming by eating life, society, democracy, the future, and the planet. Bang! The fatal, weirdly Soviet dance goes on: American life falls apart — while all the indicators American leaders use say “everything’s fine! Never been better!” What the?

Hence, without a reliable and generally accepted set of indicators for eudaimonia, how well life is doing, not just capitalism or the stock market, America’s then left in a trap: it can’t see the fatal flaws and shortcomings of its severely failed institutions, how badly they’ve left life fall apart, in its many aspects and dimensions, whether happiness, trust, truth, tolerance, and so forth.

So if there’s nothing that says anything’s wrong…what is there to invest in? Without eudaimonic indicators, to blink bright red, and signal failure, America’s never had any reason to invest in itself…and so it hasn’t, for decades now. Nobody can say — “hey, our national eudaemonia index says that depression and anxiety are off the charts! What should we do!?” — and then some bright spark replies — “how about a national mental healthcare revolution? We build mental healthcare clinics in every city, we train tons of therapists, we create good jobs, we innovate this whole field, and we have a happier society along the way.” You can repeat that for any one of America’s problems. Let me do it again. “Hey, our eudaemonia index says that longevity is falling drastically. What should we do?!” — and some bright spark replies — “Well, that means that we had better have public healthcare for all, stat, and we better make sure everyone goes to see a doctor whenever they feel ill.”

Do you see the links? No eudaemonia index, measure, metric — no vision, clarity, insight, consensus — no investment. So America’s problems, which are really gaps and deficits in eudaimonia, continue to spiral, out of control…until, in desperation, people turn to authoritarianism, shades of the Weimar Republic’s collapse.

Now that might still sound super abstract and impossible and high falutin — way beyond your pay grade. Let me assure you: it’s not. You don’t have to be a President to make your own eudaimonic revolution happen. In fact, most of the really transformative ones will probably happen from the bottom up — like Greta Thunberg’s.

There you are. You probably have control over a budget of some kind, too. Maybe it’s a big one — you’re a corporate bigwig. Maybe it’s a huge one — you’re a venture capitalist. Maybe it’s a little one — you’re just a middle manager. Maybe it’s a tiny one — just that everyday household budget. So what? The scale of the budget doesn’t make any difference whatsoever. The principles above do, and whether or not you apply them.

(Let’s say you’re just a kid. Greta Thunberg took her budget — of time, energy, attention. And said: “I’m not going to school. I’m going to protest climate change. What if there’s not a planet worth living on?” Presto! A global rebellion was born — this very day, kids across Europe are skipping school in solidary with her, protesting. See what I mean? You don’t have to use the words, “budget” and “organization”, in capitalist ways to begin with.)

Let’s say that you’re a corporate bigwig or a VC or a middle manager. You could do exactly the same thing that New Zealand has done. You could say: “Man, I need to make eudaemonic investments. The same old way just isn’t working for me. We make profits — but everyone’s miserable, and our customers hate us. Let’s try making things better.” How would you begin? Probably just the same way I’ve outline above. You take a long hard look at genuine eudaemonic outcomes — for everyone, all your constituencies, employees, customers, suppliers. Do their lives suck? Make them better! Not hard in theory — hard in practice.

And you’ll probably have to repeat New Zealand’s learning by doing. Measure. Envision. Plan. Create. Build. Test. Remember? You’ll have to come up with — wait for it — genuine innovations, then test whether they’ve had any real positive impact on life. You’ll have to hire people, change people’s roles, create new departments and titles — “Eudaimonia Architect”, “Well-Being Designer” “Well-Being Data Analyst”, you choose yours and ignore mine if you like, the principle’s the point. You’ll have to actually reinvent organization as we know it — to do stuff that matters again. From the ground up. Rip it all up and start again. From measuring to planning to envisioning to doing to testing to failing to trying all over again.

That’s a hard challenge, I know. But it’s the challenge of this century. The truth is that we’re still optimizing our organizations for profit, growth, “shareholder value.” But we know how to “deliver” all these things. It’s a solved problem.

Solved in all the wrong ways, though. Cut corners here. Externalize costs there. Dump some unwanted pollution here. Charge a hidden fee there. And so forth. Profits, shareholder value — these things have never been higher. We’ve solved this problem — too much, and in all the wrong ways. In childish, abusive, and juvenile ways. Kill the planet! That’s fine! Destroy democracy — totally cool! As long as our profit margins go up! Wooohoo!! It’s the thinking of a Zuckerberg or a man-child, but I repeat myself.

What we haven’t solved is the harder problem, the true problem, the genuine one. How do organize life — endeavour, creativity, effort, imagination, labour — so that there is a genuine surplus? Not so that we make paper money with one hand — by destroying the planet and democracy with the other. That’s a false economy — a fake trade — isn’t it? So how do we do better? How we do we create real wealth? Wealth that isn’t merely exploitative, abusive, me taking from you, you taking from them, in an endless vicious circle of collapse?

The truth is that we don’t have many good answers to that question — how do we create real wealth, not just exploitative wealth? We have just a few. But it’s tomorrow’s radicals, pioneers, and revolutionaries who’ll discover the world-changing and life-transforming ones. Visionaires like New Zealand. Maybe you’ll be on that list. Maybe sitting in that office somewhere, or that home, pondering your own budget, such ideas will occur to you.

Or maybe you’ll go the way of America — which is the predatory way. Remember when I said I’d discuss why we need a eudaemonic revolution? The answer’s pretty simple. What happens if we’re all trying to prey on each other — me trying to take from you, you trying to take from me? That’s what the American economy’s become, sadly. The answer is that you become America, too. You collapse. Everyone eats away at the foundation of everyone else’s wealth — instead of genuinely creating newfound wealth for society to share in. When everyone’s busy trying to be Goldman Sachs — or being forced to work for them — who’s going to Edison, Einstein, Mozart, Michelangelo?

Maybe you see my point.

So. How do you build a 21st century organization? Simple. Hard. Easy. Painful. You change everything. You turn the old world on its head. You put life first — life maturing, developing, flourishing, becoming its truest, richest, wholest self. Whether it’s you or me or an insect or a tree or a bee. You think about how to build a world like that — whether that world is your home, your company, your corporation, your city, your country. You invest in it. You fail, fail, fail. You get up, and try, try again.

And that struggle, my friends, is the beautiful fight. The noble one. The true one. It is the fight to bring life to fruition. It is the place where all philosophies meet. It’s the place Jesus and Buddha and Aristotle are sitting under a tree, watching us, laughing, not in mockery, but in understanding. How hard is it to change a world for the better? The answer to that question is another question.

How hard is it to change just one life for the better? And yet the worth of one’s own is denominated in that currency, my friends. Not in dollars, cents, and gold.