As the joke goes, economics is the only field in which two people can share a Nobel Prize for saying opposing things (Gunnar Myrdal and Friedrich August von Hayek in 1974). The ‘dismal science’ is not known for breeding comedians; nor is it a seething hotbed of social activism, its practitioners tending to favour pessimism over optimism, the system over the individual, the long view over the short.
Stereotypes, though, obscure surprises. In a thoughtful piece on British economist John Maynard Keynes, blogger Maria Popova revisits his 1930 essay, ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ in which he fast-forwards 100 years and writes with startling prescience about cultural and social challenges. “Keynes goes on to reach into the heart of the economy of purpose,” Popova says, “in which the existential value of finding your purpose and doing what you love far exceeds the economic value of making money, and the challenge of defining success through joy rather than through materiality.”
Keynes lived through a period of social upheaval – the Boer War, two world wars and an economic depression – and is perhaps best-known for advocating massive public pump-priming during economic downturns, a theory dusted off and adopted by numerous governments during the more recent global financial crisis. As Popova’s exploration reveals, Keynes also thought deeply about purpose and fulfilment, topics that resonate deeply in the current climate of social fragmentation and rapid change. “The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyment and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity,” Keynes wrote.
His warning is echoed by one of Harvard Business School’s most respected scholars and innovation researchers, Professor Clayton Christensen, in his recently published book, How Will You Measure Your Life?. Christensen’s thoughts were shaped in part by bouts of ill-health, his religious beliefs, and observations of the changing business world and Harvard student aspirations over time. He was fascinated by success and why it was so hard to sustain in companies and has increasingly turned that focus upon individuals and the question of why good people stumble. “The reason why successful companies fail is they invest in things that provide the most immediate and tangible evidence of achievement”, Christensen told a TED audience in Boston. “And the reason why they have such a short time horizon is that they’re run by people like you and I. And we then apply that very same thinking process in our personal lives.” Far better to focus as much on investing time and energy in the people who will sustain us over time, he adds, “because our families truly are the deepest source of happiness in our lives”.
As Keynes pointed out, “the strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”