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Rewards and the family business

Next-gens, and indeed others in family businesses, surely feel plenty of pressures, but they also have the promise of authentic rewards that Wall Street’s synthetic alpha males can’t dream of.

If you were to make a list of the things that Wall Street needs more of, then testosterone might not come high on the list. But according to a plastic surgeon who works there, there has recently been a constant queue of men asking for injections of the hormone to make them more aggressive. “Wall Street is a work hard, play hard environment,” one patient told the Financial Times, using a phrase that is always guaranteed to presage numskullery. He went on: “I now have a bit more of an alpha male personality.”

That you can be whatever you want to be is a cliché that’s central to the grimmest parts of consumer culture, such as flogging trainers to poor teenagers. The idea is that by buying stuff, we can become who we want to be. It’s hardly surprising that those in the more tiresomely, back-slappingly virile sectors of turbo-capitalism believe something similar – that by injecting yourself with drugs, you can be better, and unleash the inner alpha male.

But can you really change yourself? And is it a good thing to do so? Friedrich Nietzsche (or, rather, a simplified version of him) is the patron saint of all those management gurus who believe that what does not kill them makes them stronger. The subtitle to his last book, Ecce Homo, is “how to become what you really are”. It’s a sad phrase, that, written by a man who was desperately unhappy in his own skin. In his last sane days, Nietzsche thought that he was some sort of God. In fact he was a shy, bookish, syphilitic man who wandered around Europe being pitied by landladies. He wanted to be somebody else – more alpha male-y - and it didn’t make him happy.

There’s something wrongheaded about both Nietzsche and his disciples, and it’s that they are, in the jargon of mid-20th century existentialism, “inauthentic”. To be authentic is to be true to yourself, rather than to the dictates of society. True, it’s hard to tell what parts of you are truly you, if any are, and which are created by society. But there’s an intuitively attractive idea here. In her book The Need for Roots the French thinker Simone Weil said that to live authentic, fulfilled lives we need to be connected to a community, and have a sense of continuity, feeling that you are part of something that existed before you, and exists despite you.

I was reminded of this when I was recently talking to a next-gen from a large Italian engineering firm in her mid-20s, who told me that she knew from the age of 12 that she would do an MBA and go into the family business. She felt a tremendous duty, but I imagine she also felt deep roots and a sense of continuity. I feel that she has more chance of living an authentic, fulfilling life than most.

Next-gens, and indeed others in family businesses, surely feel plenty of pressures, but they also have the promise of authentic rewards that Wall Street’s synthetic alpha males can’t dream of. There are some things that you can’t get in a syringe.

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