Skip to content

Can Idealists Be Good At Business?

You remember the Newsies?

The rag-tag group of newspaper sales kids, famous for putting Christian Bale on the map (before he was an asshole) (presumably)? Anyway, turns out they were real. But their strike TOTALLY FAILED.

Like bad.

If you want a sobering look into the bleakness of reality, look up the real versions of stories we tell. Little Mermaid dies. Pocahontas was kidnapped. Snow White, legit poisoned. (Also: Did you know the Boston Tea Party was run by smugglers?!)

Americans don’t like unhappy endings. We prefer to believe in “the fantasy.” It’s what Henrik Ibsen called the Life Lie (from his play Wild Duck, boring play, but solid point). The play asks: is it better to know the truth or live a life based on an illusion (the “Life Lie”)?

Cognitive psychologists discovered a scientific version of the Life Lie they call the Just World Hypothesis. It’s an irrefutable belief in fairness. We all have it. It’s why we say things like, “Things tend to work out in the end,” and why we love the notion of Karma.

It’s a version of the Life Lie because there’s no way to disprove if the world is just or not. All you know is what you perceive and what others tell you, so it’s effectively…storytelling.

But we CLING to this story: Bad deeds are eventually punished, good ones rewarded. Life tends to work out.

If the world isn’t just, we lose our minds. We can’t handle the possibility that bad things just happen, fairness is a human construct, and perhaps things won’t work out in the end.

Myself included. My rational brain gets that these things might be true, but my beliefs (beliefs!) are that they’re false. In my mind, things ultimately work out. Because if I don’t believe things ultimately work out, it leads to the bad place:

What’s the point?

Why bother?

Who cares?

You’re basically Thanos.

If we don’t believe that things happen for a reason or tend to work out in favor of the good guys, then we quit trying.

So, we construct stories to avoid this outcome. We construct our Life Lies and we chase certainty.

We crave certainty. That’s why certainty works so well in sales. “Buy this course, it will make you a millionaire!” “Buy this juice, it will make you skinny!” “Hire me, I will kill 100% of the cockroaches in your house.”


No one wants the equivocating sales pitch: “I will try my best to kill the cockroaches in your house, but it depends on a few things…most of which are out of my control. It ​should​ work, but you never know.” Yeah, no. If I have cockroaches in my house, you better tell me you can get rid of ALL of them.

Here’s the problem for ethical idealists: We know there’s no such thing as certainty.

So, making a bold claim (even if it’s true) can feel like an ethical gray area. It can feel like we’re perpetuating a fraud.


“I can’t say that. I can’t guarantee that.” I hear this over and over again from people who’ve created something amazing: It’s not that they can’t, it’s that they won’t. Because they’re good people who listened to their moral compass that told them not to lie.

And this is problematic for business because most people lie.

I know, I know, conscious capitalism, it’s not *really* a lie, find something true, people are ultimately good, blahblah. Sure, yes, but it doesn’t change reality: People lie. A lot. All the time. You know it (or have suspected it) and I will confirm it: People lie all the time.

About mundane things.

You lie, too. You don’t like that gift from your great aunt. And even though she told you THREE TIMES, “You won’t hurt my feelings if say you don’t like it. I can just return it.” (she’s lying too, you will 100% hurt her feelings), you still didn’t tell her you think the shirt is atrocious and you wouldn’t wear it if you were paid a million dollars and promised a house in Miami Beach.

We also lie about big things. How much money we have. Whether we believe in God. Who we voted for. That we like one of our kids better than the other. That we were laid off. Humans lie all the GD time.

My contention right now is not with lying (I wrote about that here).

My contention is with denying we’re lying and calling it something else: Business.

“That’s just business.”

You hear it all the time. “That’s just good business.”

I call this the Gray Hat Argument.

The Gray Hat Argument is what gives good people permission to do bad things. It isn’t bad enough to make you feel like you’re a bad person, but just bad enough to maybe-soon-one-day be illegal. For now, “it’s just good business.”

It’s like the folks who hire a company to do social engagement for them and that company posts, “Love your shirt!” on your behalf on 3,000 Instagram photos. That’s a schmucky thing to do to someone who sincerely believes it’s you. It’s commonplace now, some might say, “the norm.”

It’s just good business.

Or how about buying a list and then emailing those on it, pretending as if that person signed up on their own volition? It’s not illegal. (Yet). It’s just good business.

Or using a CRM to reach out to 400,000 people with the same script asking for a backlink by giving the illusion of personal connection when really, you don’t GAF about them.

It’s just good business. <— If you’re saying this to justify bad behavior, that’s the Gray Hat Argument.

Lucky for you policymakers don’t know or understand Gray Hat anything, so you probably won’t get caught anytime soon, but the law is not what I’m worried about.

It’s your conscience.

Gray Hat offenders don’t care about legality and they don’t care about their people. But YOU do.

People like us, feel things like this: Disgust. Regret. Shame. Remorse.

Feelings make it extremely difficult to lie effectively.

People like us can’t sleep at night knowing we did something deceitful, even if it doesn’t *really* register on other people’s radar as deceitful. Things that pass as “just business” for normal people, register as fraud for people who care. It’s what makes you a good person and what makes business, especially sales, kinda hard.

Now, the lines are pretty clear in marketing, something I’ve talked about before and will re-explain here: Making a claim that isn’t true is lying. Touting a subjective superlative is not lying.

So, I can say, “Most delicious orange juice you’ve ever had according to Juice Drinkers Association.” And that’s fine. But saying “Orange Juice” when it’s made from concentrate and sugar: LIE.

Claiming your product does something it doesn’t is also a lie, like, “Orange Juice Cures Cancer!” That’s a lie. Claims are where we get ourselves into trouble and why everyone hates marketers. They’re also why business is hard for idealists with a strong moral compass.

How do you compete with people who are driven to succeed at costs you’d never pay (bribery, deceit, ethical gray areas)?

I see two options here for people like us:

The first option is you GTFO of business.

Lay down your sword. Go do something else.

Capitalism is rooted in the assumption that individuals are naturally competitive. Adam Smith clearly never watched me play soccer. You want me to FIGHT that girl for the ball?? She can have it, I’ll keep my knees intact TYVM.

This makes me a lousy capitalist.

It also means there’s a selection bias. If you care about ideas and people more than you do winning, the odds are stacked against you. Or to quote the guy speaking way too loudly on his phone at my coworking space, “Bro you gotta be in this thing to WIN. Whatever the cost.” 

Yeah, if the cost is my integrity I think imma tap out. Which begs the question: How do people with integrity compete in a world where your competitors play dirty in the ethical gray area?

That’s why there’s option two: Fix the system. Work your ass off to make it better.

Listen, it’s absolutely possible that everyone who tells you you’re an idealist is right. But who besides the idealists ever changed the world for the better?

If you don’t have a vision for a better future and the gumption to follow through on it, how do we create it?

I think the real criminals here aren’t the internet scam artists of the world. Guys like that are following the advice of the true criminals: upholders of the status quo. The people who say, “this is just how it is, kid.”

Here’s my retort to that:

It doesn’t have to be.

We have choices and we have power. We can subvert the status quo and set up a new one if we choose to. If we continue to fight and refuse to accept lying as the norm (but also don’t deny it exists and don’t call it business – call it lying).

That is why we tell the wrong version of Newsies.

We tell the wrong version of Newsies in the vain hope that someone idealistic enough to believe it, will actually make it come true.

We also tell the wrong version of Newsies because it will make more money. But the reason it will make more money is we will pay for hope. We will pay for the feeling that things ultimately work out, the heroine wins, and good triumphs evil.​

You don’t have to be naive to be idealistic.

But you do have to try.

Open the gates and seize the freaking day.​ 




For the idealists who still want to change the world: