We’re all in existential time these days. It’s not just that we’re facing a more unpredictable future; the pace and rhythm of events is also increasingly variable and unpredictable. Especially since September 11, 2001, the corporate planning horizon has widened to embrace fundamental uncertainty spanning life-or-death, boom-or-bust dimensions. This is not all bad for the human spirit — if a wider horizon reminds us of our freedom.
Just as existential philosophy emerged in Europe between the two world wars, when life got weird for individuals and the old verities no longer seemed to hold true, so existential strategy emerged during the final decades of the 20th century, as life was getting weird for organizations. Just as individuals reached for an existential philosophy that was adequate to a new sense of freedom, so corporations are now looking for the kinds of strategic tools that can accommodate real uncertainty. An existential economy, in short, demands existential strategy.
But what does that mean? For starters, existentialism is a philosophy that stresses the importance and robustness of individual choice. In a world where it sometimes seems as though there are too many choices, and too little authoritative guidance in making those choices, existentialism provides a viable approach to strategy — perhaps the only viable approach. In this article, I’d like to offer an elevator-ride introduction to the existentialist philosophy, then call out a series of specific ideas from the writings of the existentialists to show how they can help us understand our business realities and decisions on a practical day-to-day level.
In Silicon Valley, there’s a saying: “Who needs a futurist to tell us about the future? We’re building it!” This is pure existentialism. The point isn’t so much that the pace of change is increasing — Alvin Toffler’s argument in Future Shock (Amereon Ltd., 1970). Instead it’s calling into question who’s in charge — God, haphazard fate, or human invention? The existentialists have something to tell us about taking charge of our own future.
The term existentialism gains its basic meaning from its contrast with essentialism. The ancient philosophers, particularly Aristotle, understood change as biological growth. A favorite example was the acorn turning into an oak. It can’t do anything else. It is the essence of an acorn to become an oak. It cannot choose to become a maple or an elm. Its oak essence precedes its existence. First acorn, then oak.
Impose this model of growth and change on human beings and you get Plato’s theory of gold, silver, and bronze souls — souls slated, from birth, to fulfill a predetermined path. Part of the education system in Plato’s Republic involves a series of standardized national tests for separating the aristocratic guardians from the lowly worker bees. This was the first articulation of what we now know as a tracking system. You’re born bronze, silver, or gold. The tests will reveal your essence. And, as with the high-stakes exams that characterize the French system of education, once your essence is revealed, there’s very little likelihood that your existence will ever escape your class.
Such essentialism sounds downright un-American … and it is. If your essence precedes your existence, then all you can do is play out the pattern of your essence. The passage of time, to an essentialist, is like the unrolling of an Oriental rug whose every stitch, every line, every pattern was first obscured within the rolled-up rug, and then revealed as the past moved into the present.
The future, according to essentialist philosophy, is like a rug as yet unrolled: The pattern is in there; you just can’t see it yet. And as with most Oriental rugs, its pattern is probably repetitive. Prior to the focus on history and evolution by figures like Vico, Herder, Hegel, and Darwin, “the future” was seen through essentialist eyes. The very word future connoted a stretch of time that would contain more of the same, occasionally better, occasionally worse, as the eternal cycle of generation and corruption, rise and fall, repeated itself age after age.