From the archives: On Dan Price and Absolutism
Say it with me: schadenfreude
I’m working on a fairly long, very personal piece about agency that might be done as soon as next month and as late as 2025. In the meantime, given that there are quite a few of you who are new here, I thought I’d resurface a piece I wrote last year on a topic near and dear to my heart.
Dan Price is the former CEO of a relatively small payment-processing company called Gravity Payments. In the unlikely event that you don’t recognize his name, you probably know him as the CEO who gave all of his employees a minimum wage of $70,000 per year.
The reason it’s unlikely that you don’t recognize his name is because he seems to have made it his life’s mission to make sure that you do. After gaining a fair bit of publicity for the minimum wage raise, he decided to become the embodiment of the Working Man’s CEO. By regularly posting things like “An actual good CEO would never do layoffs ever” and “How come when banks, car companies and airlines collapse they get a bailout, but when people's bank accounts collapse they get an overdraft fee?”, Price amassed millions of followers and impressions on social media and became something of a celebrity, regularly appearing on talk shows and rubbing shoulders with famous people and politicans. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich dubbed him “the one moral CEO in America.”
Unfortunately, the truth has a pesky habit of interfering with carefully manufactured public personas. A New York Times article detailed some of the things Price left out of his virtuous posts, including being sued by his own brother, orchestrating a stunt where he had his employees “surprise” him with a Tesla, domestic abuse accusations from his ex-wife, and, the kicker, over a dozen allegations of sexual assault.
There has been a predictable reaction of hindsight-fueled schadenfreude, and rightfully so. The easy takeaway from this story is that it reminds us that virtue-signaling and self-declared righteousness are usually indicators of the opposite qualities. In retrospect, nobody is all that surprised that the guy who regularly talks about how great he his is actually a giant douche.
But I think there’s more to be gleaned from this.
Absolutism, Binary Thinking, and DoorDash
I recently wrote a piece about why most advice is bad, which focused primarily on the fact that there’s often a much larger distance between those giving and receiving the advice than we realize. The story of Dan Price underscores another reason that a lot of advice, and information in general, should be regarded with suspicion: absolutism.
Imagine that I took twenty people off the street and asked you to sort them into those who are smart and those who aren’t. After spending some time wondering how I managed to abduct twenty people, you turn to the task at hand and consider how you might define “smart.” At first it seems overwhelming. There are many different kinds of intelligence, you reason, and each exists on a spectrum. How would one even begin to measure this? Wait a second, you say to yourself — a solution already exists: IQ tests! You can simply give everyone an IQ test and choose a cutoff point. Those who score above that point will be sorted into the “Smart” group, and those who score below will fall into “Not Smart”. You have settled on a clear and simple solution. The abductees can now be released, armed with the clear-cut knowledge of whether or not they’re intelligent.
This is, of course, a terrible strategy. Intelligence is incredibly difficult to measure, and aptitude tests are an awful approximation for doing so. Your initial instincts about the complexity and nuance of the task were correct. But, rather than accepting that complexity and diving into the challenge head on, you did the equivalent of ordering DoorDash for the fifth time this week instead of going to the grocery store and cooking a healthy meal. You took the easy way out.
We take these kinds of shortcuts all the time, often unconsciously, because we’re fundamentally attracted to simple, black and white explanations of how the world works. The clarity promised by viewing the world through binaries and absolutes appeals to how our brains work and provides relief from the complexity and ambiguity of life. It’s much easier to categorize people, things, or ideas into distinct buckets of good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy, and so on than it is to examine nuance and context and make situational, conditional judgments. Thus, we take the easy route. Smart. Not Smart. DoorDash.
The Dangers of the Easy Route of Absolutism
This is why we gravitate toward people like Dan Price: they appear to provide straightforward answers to complicated questions. They are the DoorDash to our hunger for simplicity. They take an emotionally charged topic like corporate greed and make confident, unwavering, absolute statements that are designed to appeal to our fundamental desires for clarity and us vs. them tribalism. The conviction with which these statements are made serves to bolster our confidence in them.
There’s no doubt that much of what Dan Price had to say had merit; I still agree with some of it. There’s a reason he gained the following he did. There are a lot of issues with the employer-employee dynamic, and the outsize influence that large corporations have can be a problem. These are challenges that we need to continue to explore and address. However, offering answers in the form of rigid absolutes fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the challenges themselves. Topics like economics are inherently messy, nuanced, and full of variables and complexity. If they were as cut and dry as we might like them to be, there would be considerably less study, debate, and social upheaval around them.
This is why this sort of absolutism should be a major red flag. While it may be appealing, it is more than likely a sign of unreliability or inaccuracy. In addition to rarely being a truthful representation of the topic at hand, this manner of speaking also indicates a lack of a malleable worldview. These are not the ingredients for a credible source of information or wisdom.
Given all of this, the fact that Dan Price spoke in attention-grabbing absolutes without acknowledging or exploring the nuance of the subjects he talked about made the ugly truth about him rather unsurprising. Rigid, unwavering thinking is usually a symptom of a deeper unresolved problem. This is true regardless of — and, as in this case, can be directly correlated with — how virtuous that person may come across. (For another example, see Cosby, Bill.)
It’s easy to be drawn to the DoorDash of “thought leaders” like Price because the clarity and simplicity they appear to offer is a relief from the ambiguity of the world. Nuanced thinking, like grocery shopping and cooking, takes time and effort. But the rewards in both cases are well worth it. You will find that who have the most to offer very rarely speak in absolutes. Instead, they are measured, quick to acknowledge complexity and point out potential holes in their reasoning, open to debate, and will evolve their thinking over time as they are exposed to new information.
The world is wonderfully messy. We would be wise to embrace, rather than avoid, its messiness. This allows us to engage with reality as it truly is — not an idealized and sterilized version of it. Doing so is probably not a great way to get a bunch of followers on social media and meet women who think you’re the corporate world’s Dalai Lama, but, as we’ve seen, those are pretty lame things to pursue anyway. The real world is much more interesting.