The hardest part of growing a company is figuring out what it all means

The Hope for the 1990s
The frontier, as reality and symbol, is what has shaped the American way of doing things and the American sense of what's worth doing. . . . More money, more tokens of success -- there will always be people for whom those are adequate goals, but those people are no longer setting the tone for all of us. There is a new sort of more at hand: more appreciation of good things beyond the marketplace, more insistence on fairness, more attention to purpose, more determination truly to choose a life, and not a lifestyle, for oneself.

Dare we suggest that these new forms of more comprise a species of frontier?

-- from The Hunger for More: Searching for Values in an Age of Greed by Laurence Shames

Reading Laurence Shames's The Hunger for More: Searching for Values in an Age of Greed (Times Books, 1989), I kept thinking of the Inc. 500 CEO I met several months ago, one of eight or nine growth-company leaders participating in an informal focus group. They sat around a table telling war stories and swapping advice about managing their companies. But an hour or so into the meeting, this man, the founder of an expanding chain of retail stores selling inexpensive jewelry, posed a question that no one had anticipated. Didn't the others sometimes wonder whether there was any point to their continual striving for growth? "I mean, you make all this money," he said, "and so what?" It wasn't a subject the group was eager to talk about. The other participants ignored his challenge, and the conversation soon regained safer ground. I hope the jewelry retailer reads Shames's book. Indeed, I hope they all do.

This is a book about values -- the things we do or do not admire and hold to be important. Shames's examination of values speaks directly to what drives and motivates entrepreneurs. It helps explain why they sometimes find themselves in the uncomfortable position of feeling uncertain about their reasons for going to all the bother.

Shames writes with a deft touch. When he was doing his ethics columns for Esquire a few years ago, I admired his ability to avoid sounding preachy or self-righteous, which isn't easy when you're talking about ways people ought or ought not to behave. In fact, he had a knack for leading you to a conclusion so adroitly that it seemed, when you got there, as if you had arrived under your own logical steam. Even if you later decided you really didn't agree with him, Shames had nonetheless shown you another point of view. His columns didn't so much argue a point as throw light on it from an angle you hadn't expected. The Hunger for More does much the same thing.

Shames is not the first to notice that during the 1980s Americans began paying a great deal more attention to business than they had during the '60s and '70s. Yet it wasn't the businesspeople who made things but those who made money that tended to achieve celebrity during the Reagan years. Maybe we hardly understood what these new heroes did to earn their handsome keep: junk bonds, arbitrage, currency trading, and takeover strategies are still arcane. But we knew they made money, lots of money. The media touted their wealth. Was there something unsavory about people buying and selling companies where other people worked as if the companies were nothing more than the paper securities they had issued? Was there something not right about 30-year-old Wall Street lawyers earning six- and seven-digit salaries? Was there something mildly obscene about the display of so much wealth expressed in BMWs, condos, and Mont Blanc fountain pens? Well, it wasn't illegal. They did work awfully hard. Besides, if they hadn't been worth it, they wouldn't have earned it. That's the way the business works.

And that attitude, Shames holds, is the legacy of the '80s: what counts is what can be counted. What we have come to admire in other people -- and to envy for ourselves -- is not the achievement that earns a reward, but the reward itself. We have, Shames says, lost the link between the symbols of success and its reality. It is the symbols that we crave -- not because all of us have become morbidly venal. Rather, he thinks, it is because we have come to apply business logic and standards -- business values, in other words -- to things and conditions for which they were never intended and are inappropriate.

We have, Shames believes, largely lost the ability to assign worth to anything except as the market would value it. "Taste and quality, much invoked in the eighties, were trivialized to mean largely what things cost and where they could be bought. Life itself had much of the juice and mystery sucked out of it on the way to becoming lifestyle; the marketplace told you what sort of goods, clothes, vacations went with your income level, and you dutifully bought those items, telling yourself all the while you were free and even privileged to be able to do so."

Perhaps that helps explain what was bothering the jewelry retailer. The market has no mechanism for assigning worth to such things as fulfillment, a rich home life, pleasure gained from artistic expression, the satisfaction of having passed on knowledge, a day in the park, the thrill of discovery. "The more wealth-obsessed we became," Shames writes, "the greater grew a kind of hunger that wealth could never satisfy." Absent a price tag we can point to, we don't know how to confirm value. And so we count these other things as having none.

What are the consequences of this inability to recognize any but one species of value? I see one every day as I walk to work. The sidewalks of privately owned Quincy Market in Boston are immaculate while the adjacent public park is grimy and awash in litter. Tidiness in the market has a measurable effect on retail and restaurant sales, but what is the cleanliness of a park worth -- in dollars and cents, that is?

Then there is the attitude of a boy I know who is about to enter college. He will go directly from undergraduate to law school, he explains, because even at that, he will be 26 years old before he'll have a prayer of getting the BMW and the boat he wants. Actually, he says, he might want to get a house first and then the boat. He isn't sure. What he never talks about are the challenges and satisfactions he might achieve in practicing law. He may, in fact, be unaware that such things even exist. In any event, he clearly believes that they don't count for much.

There is a kind of impoverishment that we suffer as a result of our excessive reliance on market values. We impoverish ourselves by our tendency to undervalue all the other riches that come from our life experiences, the ones that can't be bought. This leads us to avoid pursuits, such as leisure, that don't yield measurable rewards, and it keeps us at work for all the wrong reasons. "A certain line gets crossed," Shames writes. "People look to their goods not just for pleasure but for meaning. They want their stuff to tell them who they are. . . . The pen they write with is taken to be more revealing than what they might scrawl."

None of this is to argue against growth, of course. I don't believe the CEO of the jewelry chain meant to do that either. Growth is a business strategy, just one means among many for achieving an objective. It is bad only when it's the wrong strategy or when it becomes an end in itself. As an end, growth's reward is a number -- ink on paper or a flicker on a screen and, in either form, of little lasting comfort. Tomorrow, who will care how fast you grew? Isn't it more important to know what you are building with your growth, and why?

And there lies the challenge. "Measuring more," Shames writes, "is easy; measuring better is hard. . . . Measuring better requires values." If you have answers that you value, the question of what and why need never put you ill at ease.