Drinking the Cool Aid…

I’m sure that you are probably aware of Jonestown, even if you’re not exactly sure what happened there.

Long story short, this was one of the eponymous suicide cults, where about 900 people drank Flavour Aid (often misquoted as Cool Aid) that was laced with a bunch of nasty crap.

It’s a story of paranoia and blindly believing the stories told by those around you, even if it makes no sense, and of following orders blindly. I know that some people here might not like that kind of story, so I’ll spare you any more details, but if you’re interested, I’ve read through the Wikipedia article at least a dozen times and it still gives me chills. I only was able to listen to the audio once.


In the corporate world, “Drinking the Cool Aid” has become shorthand for companies, usually the executive suite or the board, becoming so involved in their own version of reality that it ends up killing the whole company. To “Drink the Cool Aid” means that you are so devoted to the company and the internal ideals that you are basically willing to sacrifice yourself for them. You hear about it a bit in books like “Disrupted,” which goes into life in a tech company in silicon valley. And it’s funny how many times you see it happening when you look at case studies; executives, disconnected from the real world, start to believe what they are telling themselves, even when evidence to the contrary is mounting.

I could probably write quite a lengthy essay on why this happens, but it’s mostly to do with natural bias, and also thinking that you are somewhat better or more perceptive than the average person. However, there are many more people with a much deeper understanding of those mechanisms that have written much more fascinating versions of this story, of which I would suggest Thinking Fast and Slow. However, before you start to think that most highly-paid executives have some sort of prescience that mere mortals don’t, I can tell you that they don’t.

Now, I’m lucky enough to have climbed high enough up the corporate ladder (albeit in a niche market sector)  to see this first hand – and to be faced with my own decision about drinking from the poisoned chalice. I know that a fair portion of my current position was due to luck – being in the right place at the right time, but I would like to also think that there was at least some degree of skill involved. Maybe 20% or so. I’m now an executive in my company and managing an interesting amount of people and money. It’s nowhere near the amount that stock traders shuffle daily, but it’s enough for me.

But I can see that our niche is coming up against hard times. Already we’re seeing a huge number of acquisitions, meaning that companies are starting to drop, and instead of being completely wiped off the map, they choose to be eaten by a bigger fish. And there are new entrants coming from previously unconsidered markets. Those are not good signs; so you could say that the writing is on the wall for us in the long run.

And yet, our executive meetings seem to go around in circles. I’m always either on the end of a Skype call in the middle of the night, or in the room but jetlagged to hell, so I usually don’t try to extend the meetings any longer than they need to be, but at the same time this means that I’m not really ringing the alarm bells long enough.

The same is true for many of the others. We’re all aware of what is coming in the next 10 years, but there is little that we can do to change the whole company. It’s kind of annoying, really. We know that we want to make sure that the company survives, but to do that almost everything that we stand for today (and a proportion of the people we employ) need to be left behind. So at what point do you call it quits? One of the things that we stand for is bringing everyone along with us, and not downsizing for the “fun” of it (and, be sure, restructuring is a hard call for many managers).

So, sitting at that table, I can either choose to drink the Cool Aid and try and run the company as it stands today as effectively as possible, until that day in 5-10 years that we get acquired. Or I can keep standing on the battlements and screaming about the incoming invasion, failing to raise the city. Neither is really an appealing option, but now I can kind of understand how those people who you read about in case studies that appeared to do nothing.


And, at the same time, there is my “personal” chalice. Changing jobs for me would mean keeping the same salary or increasing it. In reality, that might not be an option, especially if there is another recession. So maybe I either stay with the company now, and probably be loathed because I’m not content to keep things “the way they are” simply because it is easier, or I decide to leave and end up compromising somewhere along the aspects of freedom, pay, or title.


I’m not sure what I wanted to say here. Maybe that I have first world problems. At least my kids are cute and healthy and (apart from the mortgage) I’m debt free. That’s more than I can say for a hell of a lot of people that I know. And maybe that’s what it’s all about; remembering that sometimes it’s not all so bad, and that just having a job, even one as unstable as management, is a good thing.


So I guess you could call this a pep-talk to myself. Apologies but I just wanted to post something here as I know that it’s been a while.



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