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Vision in the 21st Century, What Happens When Economies Create 99% Losers and 1% Winners, and The Promise of Something Better Than a World on Fire

Vision in the 21st Century, What Happens When Economies Create 99% Losers and 1% Winners, and The Promise of Something Better Than a World on Fire

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Hi? How’s everyone? I hope you’re all doing ridiculously well. Welcome, new readers, say hi in the comments, and a Big Thanks to everyone who’s joined me on this little adventure so far.

Today, we’re going to discuss…a lot of things. Politics, economics, psychology, how it all went so wrong in this world of ours, beginning in an unlikely place, so bear with me.

We’re going to start with Nike, which is rolling out a sort of rebranding, a new vision for its brand, and it’s sort of…an example…a microcosm…of the whole the-world-is-going-wrong thing. Now, this is going to get very weird, very fast, so…try to hang in there (my jaw dropped, and maybe yours will, too.)

How Not to Have a Vision for the 21st Century, or Whew, This Isn’t Gonna Work

So. Nike sort of lost its way over the last few years. It’s flailing. It tried to become fashionable, and forgot to just kind of…innovate…lead…become a beacon or pillar, which is what people need in the 21st century, in a time like this. Now, you might object: Umair, I don’t want to hear about companies! Fair enough, but this example is about so much more, and it’s going to become very obvious shortly.

Now when companies get there, failure, they tend to rebrand, with big new visions. So what’s Nike new vision? Prepare yourself, because this is.…to get…weird and creepy.

O’Neill, a 16-year Nike veteran, was responsible for modernizing the company’s retail strategy with immersive stores. But for a moment, her confidence seems to waver. “You don’t have to say it’s good,” she tells me, before reading aloud.

“Winning is losing in the world. People have decided it’s unhealthy to be so driven. They say it makes others feel uncomfortable. And wanting to do better than someone else is shameful. So they’d rather congratulate you for showing up, tell you ‘enough,’ give you a trophy, and remind you that winning isn’t everything. 

Clearly, they’ve lost perspective,” she reads. The manifesto posits that it’s time to reclaim the “desire” to win.

“It might make [people] uncomfortable to hear it, but winning is everything,” O’Neill concludes. “And if you don’t believe that, congrats—you’ve already lost.” 

Whew. Did you get what I did from that? Nike’s new vision is to…as my wife put it, reading the above…make people feel like losers? Is that really…a good thing to be doing?

And then…chiding people and telling them they’ve lost perspective? And where do you hear anyone saying wanting to do better is “shameful”? What even is all this?

“Winning is losing.” Let’s…think about this for a second. 

How do you think most people feel these days? How do you think they see the world—and themselves? I’d bet the farm that most people feel like they’re losing. That’s not really a guess, it’s more like…something I know without a shadow of a doubt. 

How so? Because all the macro trends in the world say so. The majority of the world’s now getting poorer. In America, incomes have been stagnant for decades, and that’s the case in Britain as well. Living standards are plummeting, as inflation bites. And as a consequence of all that, people are the walking wounded these days: levels of distress, anxiety,  and despair have shot off the charts.

Meanwhile, what do people think about today’s big “winners”? Cratering levels of trust in institutions and leadership tell us that people are super cynical about them. Why might that be? 

Now let’s come back to “winning is losing.” What does this…say? Let’s ignore all the Brand Jargon that might get thrown around for a second. The elemental human truth is simple. It says: you’re just not trying hard enough. To be a “winner.” And that’s all that matters in life, by the way. 

What you really don’t want to be? A loser. What you don’t want to do? Lose.

And yet that’s exactly where most people, the vast majority are. Let’s go back to the stats. They’re losing, in hard, very serious, extremely real, and material terms. What, precisely? Every facet of their well-being. Their happiness, their emotional centers, their financial futures, their peace of mind in the present, right down to their relationships, which are at breaking point, given a loneliness epidemic, and perhaps most urgent of all, their optimism, their spirit, their sense of just being here, in this world…on fire.

All of that tells us, by the way, that people are losing their agency.

So. “Winning is losing.” 

Given all that.

Do you really think it’s going to connect with people? Win their trust, attention, admiration, and respect? I don’t. I highly, highly doubt it’s going to do much but backfire.

Do you think that people, in a world on fire, feeling like they’re losing so much, maybe even everything—the feeling, remember—telling people like that that winning is everything is going to somehow…win them over?

A World of 1% Winners and 99% Losers, or Why Normal People Are Struggling These Days

Think of who the winners are these days. Now we live in what are called winner-take-all societies. And the winners in them…aren’t often very good people. The world’s richest guy trumpets weird, sinister conspiracy theories on the giant website he bought and renamed. Then there are other assorted billionaires, who sort of cavort while the world burns. Meanwhile, there’s a class of celebutantes who appear to think that Everyone’s Life Goal Should be Looking Fantastic While the World Burns, More Lip Filler Please. 

On and on it goes. The winners of this age…are a lot like Marie Antoinette, Louis XIV, the robber barons of the Gilded Age, and maybe throw in some war criminals and or Soviet-style crony capitalists for good measure. That’s not just my opinion, like I said, cratering levels of trust tell us without a shadow of a doubt.

Do you think people look up to the “winners” of today’s age? Some do, it’s true, but by and large, we sort of roll our eyes at them, left with the feeling of a) being exploited by them b) being powerless about it and c) watching them walk off having looted society, us, and the future.

Most of us? We don’t like them very much.

So the idea of being a “winner” in an age where a) everyone’s sort of a loser b) the world’s on fire and c) the “winners” are the guys who made all that happen

Do you really think that’s a good idea to base the Future of Your Brand on?

This is what happens, by the way, when boardrooms ignore these little things called macro trends. They cook up ideas that seem like masterstrokes—remember Apple’s disastrous ad—but go down like a house on fire, backfire, earn little but cynicism, eye-rolling, head-shaking, and finger-wagging. What were they thinking, people ask?

Sometimes, marketing is about seducing clients, instead of building brands that resonate, matter, and mean something to people.

So my advice is this. The world is burning. For heaven’s sake, pay attention.

Malignant, Hyper Winner-Take-All Dynamics Are Why the World is Melting Down

What happened to make the world like this? Why do we live in a world that ended up like this…again? Where there are just a handful of “winners,” who’ve gotten there, too often, by doing some pretty awful things, and the rest made to feel like losers, because in point of fact, they are losing, everything from their futures to their well-being? 

Winner-take-all societies, believe it or not, have been studied pretty intensely in economics and sociology. And the mechanism that creates them is sort of a ratchet of positive feedback. The rich get richer while the poor…don’t…kind of thing. In complexity theory, that results in out-of-control feedback. And that’s more or less what we see in the world.

As I often point out, this decade we’re going to probably see the world’s first trillionaires, while…the majority of people in the world are now getting poorer. I call that “phantom growth,” because it’s…not the real thing.

Think about that for a second, because it brings me to a point that everyone should understand. This is 100% wrong. It’d be one thing to see billionaires becoming trillionaires while everyone also prospered. Then, we might still debate the moral dimension—is it really OK to have a handful of people so wealthy they couldn’t spend it in a hundred lifetimes? But when billionaires are becoming trillionaires while the majority are getting poorer, something has gone seriously wrong. That tells us a game of wealth extraction is afoot. 

It’s not just about “distribution,” in other words—but something is actually very wrong at a fundamental level, because those immense fortunes appear to be being made at the expense of everyone else.

And people feel like that these days. What unites left and right, even though they might not know it? I made a friend in my neighborhood recently, just a guy, who I like very much. He works a pretty average professional job in tech. And he was surprised to learn that in his words, I “lean left” (I don’t, none of this is me preaching politics to you.) He? He was upset about how unfair the world’s gotten, and his preferred politics are more to the right.

But even so, what we both agreed on was that things are incredibly messed up, the average person is getting sort of violently screwed, and life’s become a bitter, brutal struggle, even if you’re sort of a working professional who’s played by the rules, and heaven help you if you’re not. So: left and right both agree that the system’s failed, and more than that, in the way it’s failed, too: it hasn’t left enough prosperity for the average person, whose future is in tatters, and whose present is a series of never-ending shocks and traumas.

People, like I said, feel like that. They know it deep in their bones. This is unfair. This is wrong. I am being cheated, lied to, exploited, discarded, abused

And that, in turn, is what’s leading to sociopolitical destabilization. Because such feelings tend to lead to the sort of epidemic of rage we see, and turn people towards demagogues. And those feelings are real—the result of malignant winner take all dynamics, resulting in phantom growth.

In that larger view of the world, Nike’s making a Very Big Mistake, because…how did that branding make you feel? And what does that tell us about this thing called Vision in the 21st Century, anyways?

The Modern Crisis of Being, or What Do You Feel These Days? Anger? Despair? Rage? Futility?

Let me be honest with you. That new branding sort of produced a ripple of anger in me. Wait, you’re really going to chide people for being losers

And as I examined my own emotions, I realized that came from a few places. I was a little bit mad, yes really, that someone could get branding so wrong—don’t forget, I helped create the modern art of it, though I don’t talk about it much. But I was also mad because it sort of made me feel like a loser. Hey, am I just not driven enough for you, Nike?

What do you see in that branding? How did it make you feel? My lovely wife likened it to…Trump. And she’s sort of right. After all, Trump would agree with all the following statements: winning is everything, losers are nobodies, and losing is the worst possible thing in life.

Demagogues prey on people’s broken hearts and shattered spirits in times like these. When we see demagogues rise, that alone is enough to tell us that people feel like “losers.” Because of course what they seek from the demagogue is the feeling of protection, safety, strength, “winning.” And yet the demagogue’s game is deeper, too. They make people feel like losers, in order to provoke that flight into their very arms. They rub salt in the wound. They twist the knife. They speak in lacerating terms, and then promise to break down the system that’s left people feeling…

Cheated, Exploited, Abused, and Discarded, Versus…The Opposite

It’s our emotions that are sort of creating the room for demagogues to thrive, and thrive they are. Trump’s back, and he’s likely to win, the European far-right’s surging, India, China, etcetera. The global wave of feeling…this sequence of stuff…maybe I should it give it a name, or maybe you have one for it already…cheated, exploited, abused, and discarded…is destabilizing the world…

And it happened, in turn, because the world sort of descended into this insane mess of the majority of people in it getting poorer, literally becoming losers, in terms of well-being, opportunities, financial and emotional and social stability, while a tiny number of winners gained so much that they’re becoming richer than Roman emperors.

So where does all that leave us? Well, there are a lot of takeaways, if those are what you want, I suppose. If you’re going to build a brand—let’s start with the sort of tedious one—don’t…try not to…ignore the way the world feels. But there are many deeper than that. Let me pick one that I think jumps out at me.

The world shouldn’t be like this. We all know it, left and right, despite how different the prescriptions end up being. Yet beneath that, we’re all sort of feeling the same, or some level of spectrum of the same, which is CEAD, cheated, exploited, abused, and discarded, as if we’re trapped in a relationship with a Machiavellian sociopath, and we just want out. 

So what’s the opposite of CEAD, anyways? A proper vision for the 21st century starts there. It’s not—definitely not—Nike’s sort of creepy, weird insistence that hey, you’re a loser because you just didn’t try hard enough. There’s nothing positive in that, is there? Nothing…that speaks to today’s immense need for profound change.

Hence, Trump’s resurgence—burn it all down. The destabiliation of the world proceeds and accelerates. What else can happen, when we’re all feeling that way, that the world shouldn’t be like this? We might not agree on what “fairness” or “improvements” even are anymore, but what jumps out at me is how a world of hyper-winners, and everyone else a loser, is a place that can’t sort of hang together anymore, democratically, politically, economically, financially, socially. 

We’re going to discuss that much more this week, in sharper terms. Tomorrow, I have a really good post (I think) lined up, which is going to be super fun to write. For now, I hope that helped you mull over life, love, and truth—fire away in the comments.

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