Absurdism vs Values

I was thinking that paradoxes are an illusion – if humans could understand complexity deep enough paradoxes would disappear. This reminded me of when I was helping a tech company work on a training program. Once I found out what they wanted, I didn’t want to continue working on it, not because it was to complex, because it was creepy. They had worked very hard on a list of Company Values that they had decided everyone in the company and all contractors must share.

By values I don’t mean things like honesty, compassion, or doing what you say you will do. We could label these as values or ethics or something else based on a variety of philosophical models, but what I mean in this blog post is a kind of invented set of values that are made to be useful and certainly not ‘really’ interfere with cash flow. Values like “Impassioned Engagement,” or “Customer Focused;” the kinds of values that people brainstorm over Slack about.

This type of values, from what I can tell, came into vogue a couple of decades ago. Companies can, in the best of worlds, use them for guidance and accountability. I’ve been in meetings before when someone in good faith has said, “I think that this proposal goes against our core values.” And they’ve been listened to, and weeks later the proposal has changed. That this actually happens makes values worthwhile. On an individual level, this happens too, whether through inner-monologue or with close friends. It’s a good use of values.

Just as often though, these values are hollow, to be picked up or abandoned depending the situation. Or worse, as a model for moral dividing lines. Those who don’t share the same values are an enemy. This is especially the case for corporations. I think individuals should be flexible with values because when all is said and done, they are artificially-constructed tools and as one grows one may replace them. They can be useful as a compass, but mistaking them for morality is a problem. Especially when a group starts weaponizing them.

Back in that training proposal meeting:  what this group of execs wanted was to enforce their new values through training. All employees and contractors (I was a contractor) must fully embody this new list of values. It’s important to note that this list had just been created and finalized days before. As a coach my job is to tell it how I see it, and I said it sounded like textbook totalitarian thinking. Something a cult leader would want instead of an executive team. A row of blank stares followed in which I imagine they were considering throwing me in a dungeon or something, but the response was that anyone who wasn’t willing to embody their set of values could leave and not work with them. I made a decision to not work with them anymore at that moment. I’ve had experience with both cults and gangs, and my Spider-sense was telling me to bounce. Thinking about it now, I’m astonished how cyberpunk so accurately predicted the melding of cult and mafia and technology that some Silicon Valley orgs have gleefully embraced. It might be cool to have a teal and pink hyper-fast motorcycle to race from client to client enforcing compliance with newly thought up values.

This is where the beauty of absurdism comes in. Absurdism is a door out of a mindset that others may be trying to instill onto you. Whether it’s framed as values, or norms, or a total perspective, absurdism breaks through all of that to reveal a secret tunnel out. I personally like a Marx Brother’s movie, or Dragonball Z, or like the previous reference, some cyberpunk or steampunk. The latter being the healthiest way to prepare punk.

What you’ll find is that there is something deeper than these invented values. Once you emerge, often you can see things in a new light, with the power to make more clear-headed decisions. In cognitive developmental theory this can be seen as moving the objective to the subjective, or in Adaptive Leadership, going up to the balcony to look at the dance floor.