Updated: Mar 22
A young entrepreneur starts an app that will become a multi-billion dollar ride-hailing firm in under a decade, with operations in hundreds of cities around the world. Does the company become what it is today because of, or despite, the delusions of grandeur suffered by its founder-CEO? Are the founder-CEO’s actions even relevant, or is it as Tolstoy puts it in War and Peace, foolish to assume that one individual can direct the course of history?
From War and Peace Book 3, Part 3, Chapter 1,
A countless number of free forces (for nowhere is man freer than during a battle, where it is a question of life and death) influence the course taken by the fight, and that course never can be known in advance and never coincides with the direction of any one force.
From Book 4, Part 2, Chapter 8,
The sum of human wills produced the Revolution and Napoleon, and only the sum of those wills first tolerated and then destroyed them.
Brilliant Jerks is wonderfully balanced and nuanced
Brilliant Jerks is a brilliant piece of writing because it captures both the power and futility of the top management at Uber (or Uber-like fictitious firm, as the story does not explicitly mention Uber even though it is clearly inspired by it) in directing the monolithic firm's motion. The founder-CEO sets a vision and a set of (comically exaggerated) core values (heard of the champion’s mindset?), but to what extent employees absorb and assimilate this vision and values into their work is determined not just by how strongly the message is drilled into their skulls by their superiors, but also by their social and cultural identity, aspirations, life circumstances and a gazillion other small and big sources of knowledge and experience, unique to each individual.
We encounter an Uber (or Uber-like fictitious firm) driver who tells us her life story, her trials ad travails, and it does not take long for the audience to realise that the way she relates to her experiences is inextricably entangled with her experience as a driver. We encounter two programmers working out of Uber headquarters - a boy and a girl - and we see the way their identities outside work affect the way they relate to, and experience their work. The juxtaposing of the stories of the three levels of employees - the driver, the programmer, the founder-CEO - is elegant and seamless, but simultaneously does full justice to the complexity of each one’s circumstances.
Are brilliant jerks more successful than brilliant nice-guys?
Another key theme of the play is whether it takes a jerk to be successful. The bee was reminded of a recent play it watched at the Playground Theatre, called ‘Picasso’, which chronicles the life of the celebrated painter Pablo Picasso and debates the age-old question of whether the man’s ruthlessness as a human being was a necessary condition for his genius as an artist. The man himself certainly appeared to think so.
The CEO-founder of the current play’s Uber (or Uber-like fictitious firm) seems to believe something similar, that people do their best and most innovative work when they are unleashed, unfettered. They need to be allowed to be themselves, and if they’re misogynistic jerks, that’s an unfortunate but necessary price to be paid for great inventions to advance human civilisation (honestly it is a bit of a stretch for the bee to imagine Uber as a giant leap for mankind and civilisation, but the founder-CEO had no doubt he would go down in history for being a great person). How else does an artist find his muse, or a programmer his eureka moment?
So he allows his employees to transgress social propriety, just a little bit here and there, looking the other way. Except that once the floodgates are opened and employees understand that there is (at least some) tolerance for their transgressions, the worst of the lot begins to descend down a slippery slope that ends in outright illegal activities, including blatant mistreatment of women both within and external to the company.
The bee once read a (potentially apocryphal) story about Picasso. Supposedly, an octogenarian Picasso was once sipping a drink at a bar when he was approached by a woman who, having recognized him, asked if he would make a quick sketch for her on a napkin. He obliged and drew something in thirty seconds, but before handing the napkin back to her, he apparently asked her for a hefty sum of money for it (two thousand dollars according to one source, ten thousand according to another). The bewildered woman protested, saying it took him less than a minute to make the sketch, to which the great artist replied, “No, it has taken me over forty years to be able to do this.”
That sounds fair, but if the man wants to correctly apportion credit for his greatness to the knowledge and skill he accumulated over his whole lifetime, then why not also apportion credit to a lifetime’s worth of creative inspirations and muses, i.e. the countless women he treated like trash and ground to a dust, claiming their destruction was an essential and inevitable part of his creative process? Why weren’t they given their fair cut of the fortunes he made off their misery?
There are two problems with Picasso’s claim. One is exaggerating skill and underplaying luck in his success. He may well have taken forty years to perfect his skill, but part of an artist’s abilities is innate and comes from genetics, so he did get lucky in a genetic lottery, and that did place him on an elevated pedestal from where forty years of practice could lead him to become one of the world’s greatest artists. The second problem is, even if we concede that Picasso is a “made” artist, not a born one, it is a logical fallacy to count only his own self and discount all his other accumulated life experiences in the list of factors that “made” him.
Uber’s founder and CEO appears to suffer from the same brand of arrogance, so that every little success he attributes to his own knowledge, skill, management style, ingenuity, and perseverance. He isn’t the only Silicon Valley CEO to mistake correlation for causation, though. Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google, co-authored a book titled “How Google Works” in which he lists out what Google did to achieve its highly coveted success, again assuming that Google’s innovations followed because of, not in spite of or independently of, their management practices.
These Silicon Valley geniuses appear unable to fathom the possibility that maybe their great innovation would have happened anyway, with or without their peculiar management styles. Maybe their employees would have been even more innovative under a different system. Unfortunately, people don’t tend to think about counterfactuals when they succeed. And while their delusional mindset is obvious to onlookers, and in the case of the current play, to the audience, they appear to remain so blissfully ignorant that one can’t decide whether to feel insulted by their superiority complex, or feel sorry for their delusional tendencies and the relationships it has cost them, or feel plain frustrated that these Brilliant Jerks are still the role model for thousands of youngsters and aspiring entrepreneurs around the world, many of whom still subscribe to the narrative that allegations of sexual misconduct and discrimination at Uber are the mere musings of a jealous, incompetent feminist zeitgeist.
Joseph Charlton gives us a highly topical and (unfortunately) frustratingly relevant story in Brilliant Jerks, packing quite a punch into 90 minutes. Must-watch.
Watched March 2023 at Southwark Playhouse, London