How do you know when something is good? How do you make your business good? Your life? This might seem like an impossible or pointless question, but trust me, it is not. I’ve just stumbled on the answer, and it comes from an unlikely source.
Robert S Hartman died in 1973 and he was Professor of Philosophy at both the University of Tennessee and the National University of Mexico. Before becoming a philosopher, he was a German judge, but had to flee the Nazis after writing an article called “The Woman Hitler”. He was a businessman in America before becoming a philosopher. His lifelong quest was to find out “What is good?” – a deceptively simple question which had eluded the world’s best philosophers. Hartman came up with an original answer which is equally instructive and valid in any business and for any individual.
I discovered this by accident. I had never heard of Hartman, but a friend sent me Hartman’s book Freedom to Live. Hartman answers the question for people. I’m going to tell you his answer, and then extend it to business.
“A thing is good when it fulfils its concept”
So said Hartman. What did he mean?
He was thinking about people. But he started with objects – what makes an apple, orange, chair, table, microphone, or airline good? His answer was – what make them good, is when they fulfil their concept. A good microphone is one that enables you to communicate to a large group of people in a fluent and mellifluous way, and one that is portable and easy to use.
His thesis was that individuals are good when they fulfilled their concept, which was the same as “being themselves” – finding and fulfilling their unique Self. But this was quite a rich and deep answer.
“To be your Self,” he wrote, “seems to be a simple thing, but it is most difficult to achieve. The catch is that it’s not so easy for you to know who you are, and even more difficult, once you know, to fulfil this knowledge in your living.”
“Many of us avoid fulfilling our Selves by just doing what we’re told.”
Why? Because “the Self is our vertical dimension, our inner being, our conscience, our reservoir of infinite power which is there for us to use; in other words, our spiritual dimension. The cone of our being has infinite depth.”
Hartman says we have to define and become aware of who we are – “if we can BE that Self which we have defined, then we become a morally good ‘I’ and problems fade away.”
The Self, he says, is our spiritual side, which makes life of infinite value, power, compassion, and moral goodness.
The Maid Who Knew Her Self
He gives an example. Hartman and his wife lived in Mexico and had a maid, Maria, who came to work for them when she was sixteen. She came barefoot, and at first slept on the floor next to her bed. “But she stayed with us for fifteen years, she ran the house, she ran us, she was aware of everything, but she hardly knew anything. Yet there was a radiance and a spirit in her that made everything around her true and real … peaceful and serene.”
Despite being uneducated, Maria had complete inner awareness. She was, Hartman says, alive in her inner being. She was able to be completely and utterly.
Years later, Hartman and his wife were at home in Columbus, Ohio, and a long, expensive car stopped outside. Maria and her husband climbed out of the car with flowers in their hands. When they saw that a dinner party was in full swing, Maria insisted on taking over the kitchen, serving the food, doing the dishes, and cleaning up. When the guests had all gone, Maria told Hartman that she and her husband had started a business that was going well. “I know you are just a professor and not paid that well,” she told Hartman, “so if you ever need money please call on us.”
Hartman admits that many people to whom he explained his theory just didn’t get it. To bring it home, he said, “Look here, your inner Self, your humble Being, is that makes dogs lick you … with our inner Self we go down, down, down to the roots of creation. We have oneness with all living things. So dogs think you are a dog – or that they are people – and they come and lick you.”
Now, I don’t know what you think of his theory. I’m not entirely sure myself. But what I take away from it is the sense that individual goodness has to be unique and idiosyncratic, the expression of who we are, that nobody else could be in quite the same way. This is why we fall in love with someone, and why, when we are entirely comfortable in our own skin, we are powerful in a way that we cannot otherwise be. We are convincing because we are authentic. We are being what we were made to be. This is our destiny; this is our purpose; this is our mission.
Like Maria, we are serving other people and being our full Selves at the same time. I manage this some of the time – admittedly a minority of my time – and I know it is fun. It is related to the concept of “flow” – that the times we are most ourselves are when we most forget ourselves, when time passes quickly yet somehow we are also outside time, when we are doing what we are meant to do, love to do, and are uniquely able to do in our own particular way.
A thing is good when it fully embodies its concept, when it does what it is supposed to do, and what nothing else can do.
We are good when we do the same.
Now, let’s see what the parallels might be in considering what makes a business, a particular company, good.
When is a Company Good?
This is easy to grasp, in many ways easier to grasp than the importance of being our own Self.
A company is good when it fulfils its concept.
A company is good when it does what it is meant to do, and what it alone can do.
Take Apple. Only Apple could have made its devices in quite the same way. Only Apple could have created the iPod or the Mac or the Apple watch.
This is what Apple is meant to do.
To innovate, to create something delightful and simple to use, something beautiful and useful, in the Apple way.
Many things are beautiful, simple, useful, and easy to use. Well, perhaps not that many, but anyway, there are hundreds or thousands of examples.
But only Apple could have done what Apple did in creating something beautiful, simple, useful, and easy to use in the spheres in which Apple operated and created new products.
Of course, Apple products can be and have been imitated, but Apple’s mission was to create them in the first place. And in the second place, Apple prospered and prospers only to the extent that its products remain uniquely “Apple”. So that all other products, although similar in function, lack “Apple-ness”. Because if Apple-ness can genuinely be created by firms other than Apple, Apple-ness ceases to be itself. It is only itself when it is making and selling products that only Apple can invent and make.
Those versed in corporate strategy will see the parallels with the theory of competitive advantage, as espoused by many strategists, but perhaps most notably Bruce Henderson of the Boston Consulting Group, and Michael Porter of Harvard Business School. A company succeeds in so far as it is unlike any other company, and able to produce products or services that are unique, or could not be produced so cheaply or well by any other company.
But the advantage of Hartman’s theory – apart from pre-dating most of the theory of competitive advantage – is that it expresses the role of a company in a way that is more intimate, more charming, and more fundamental than any other formulation of competitive advantage. It is more fundamental because it is rooted in a theory of the good, the same theory that applies identically to individual human beings.
A company is good when it fulfils its concept.
A company is good when it is most itself, but loses itself in service.
And like Maria, a company prospers in the long run when it seeks first its own unique niche in the economy and ecology of life – when it does something worthwhile that no other company could do.
That is how the most valuable companies in the world prosper.
Not from spreadsheets, profit projections, hard work, leadership, or excellence. But from being itself in a uniquely useful way. Leadership and excellence cannot create identity. But identity can create leadership and excellence. Most of all, identity can create the otherwise uncreatable.
So the good company is a little like Big Bang. It creates itself, and through its own creativity it explodes into global pre-eminence. It creates something that did not exist before. It creates itself. And then it creates products and services that only it could have created.
If that isn’t good, I don’t know what is. This is the poetry of competitive advantage, the poetry of infinite goodness, the poetry of creation, and the poetry of good people collaborating together.