Concept in brief.
Current work culture values great performance over good humans. As a professional, especially in the Product Management discipline, you need to ask yourself, do you choose to accomplish something great—over being good?
There is no universal law that says the ethical will win. In fact, living a moral life means you accept the choice that you will choose not to win at all costs.
Concept in action.
- Save, liquid, an amount equal to or approaching the number of months of living expenses you need to find a job or an income stream in a recession. It is easier to live by your ethics when you have a floor (a tolerable limit to the harm that can be done). The best asset in a negotiation is a strong BATNA.
- Be willing to downsize. Relative to your savings and income, maintain or drive down debt. High monthly expenses limit your ability to downsize. Avoid expensive hobbies. Don’t scale your living expenses with your earnings. It’s a flawed assumption that your income will always go up and to the right.
- Develop skills and experiences that will be marketable for tomorrow’s opportunities as well as desirable in a recession. This will help you become a helpful person.
- Signal, proactively, that you have a code of ethics. Unethical people will find other unethical people to go to for their requests and collaboration. So your code of ethics won’t be tested.
- Prioritize ethics in choosing where to work, the type of work you do, and who you want to work with.
- Build self-employment optionality. If you had to earn your wage, outside of your employment, could you? What would you do? When the answer is no, know that your career ethics can’t be more stringent than the ethic’s your field or the dominant employers in your field tolerate.
- Keep a global perspective. A high-income person living in New York City lives contently in an apartment that a middle-class person living in Seattle thinks is low-income. For these two things to be accurate, the issue with happiness can’t be in the apartment; but in perspective.
- Rehearse. You’re asked to reject a candidate because their name sounds funny. How do you handle this?
How much a dollar cost?Kendrick Lamar, How Much A Dollar Cost, To Pimp a Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar once asked, how much a dollar cost?
The question is syntactically odd. But upon reflection, it’s quite lucid. There is a cost to how we earn our dollars. And we all pay it.
We’re most familiar with time cost, drawing from the metaphor that ‘time is money.’ We “spend” our time earning a dollar. The advice that you can’t get rich by “renting” your time draws from the concept of time as a cost. Some dollars are more expensive in terms of your time spent doing undesirable activities than others.
If you can earn $125K working 40 hours a week, why would you work 80 hours a week for $140K all things being equal?
The next cost we’re also familiar with is opportunity cost. Opportunity cost relates to the idea of time cost, but it’s more specific. Pursuing one dollar earned is choosing not to spend those resources endeavoring towards another. For example, by making a living as a Product Manager—I am choosing not to earn a living as a DJ.
The third cost, the most invisible of them all, is the ethical cost of a dollar. When we earn our dollars where others bear the risk, this is a moral hazard. But what of the impact on the human doing the earning.
What does it do to a person to earn a dollar inconsistent with their ethics? And what is the cost to convince someone to do so?
The short answer is the cost is a lot less than you think.
You can get a person to behave inconsistently with their ethics for the dollar amount on their next paycheck. Don’t believe me? How many ethical people continued to work at Uber and Theranos knowing what was at stake.
You can get people to voluntarily behave in a manner inconsistent with their ethics for a $20K increase in their salary. Or a lottery ticket opportunity to profit off of destructive entrepreneurship.
It’s because, as a society, we value great over good. But as leaders, we must find the conviction to prioritize good, unyieldingly, over great.
We must find the conviction to prioritize good, because good has a cost. The question is, what the price you’re willing to pay for it is?
Let’s take extremes.
In coaching sessions, there are two common fears I come across the (1) the fear of being poor; (2) the fear of not being great that drive behavior. I’ll address them in order.
In regards to being poor, most people I coach have a lifetime of advantage in their favor. Their definition of poor is many steps removed from poverty. It simply means not being able to meet their existing financial commitments and being forced to “downsize.” This could mean ending an expensive hobby, selling their home, or gasp sending their kids to public school.
Looking at the extreme case, would you choose to be homeless over being unethical? Specifically, what if any personal value do you place over having a home?
Let’s go further, would you choose to be jailed over being unethical? What personal value would you choose lifetime imprisonment over violating?
The reality is almost none of us will ever be asked to take this to this extreme. But let’s be clear if you don’t have an answer to these questions, you don’t have a code of ethics. Ethics are not tools of convenience, they are tools of inconvenience.
Your ethics are for you to define. It’s not on me or anyone else to state. But the most foundational, I believe, is that you should not inflict deterministic moral hazards on society or others. In short if it is knowable in advance that your actions will lead to harm for others, your ethical responsibility is to mitigate that or not take that action.
There is a lot of room for you to define this to your situation. But I earned money as a telemarketer, selling gas station credit cards to people who barely understood what that meant. The fact that I didn’t have a different way of paying my living expenses was my problem, not theirs. So I took accountability and resigned.
The second fear, the fear of not being great, is something I know from personal experience.
Early in my career, I wanted to be known as someone who would not suffer fools, as someone who was allergic to mediocrity and insisted on excellence.
In short, I wanted to be known as a jerk.
All the titans of industry I had read about, past and present, Steve Jobs, Rockefeller, Bill Gates, were known for their fiercely competitive nature and dominance. The greatest like Michael Jordan were never known as nice guys but for their domineering attitudes.
I wanted their careers; I wanted to be known as great.
Then my career progressed. I earned more and more money. I saw my peers, stressed every day, driven by common fears and in some aspects unaware that much of it was their own doing. I also saw the stress of executives sometimes behaving in questionable and nefarious ways driven by the desire to be great.
It caused me to ask, what the hell was I doing it for? Why am I working so hard to take on more stress and malleable morals in pursuit of dollars I don’t need?
It’s then that I realized my priorities were out of order. I prioritized being great over being good.
I made my decision, and it’s time for you to choose yours.
While you’ll certainly never have to choose in black and white terms, you need to know where your genuine and earnest priorities lie.
Would you rather be good or great?
And now that we’ve got that settled, what about the products you build?
Note. The fact that most people will read the title and summary as a variation of perfect being the enemy of good, is a testament to how little room we give for ethics in discussion of our role as individuals in society, leaders, and product leaders.