Better, Not Perfect -A Realist’s Guide to Maximum Sustainable Goodness, by Max H. Bazerman, 2020, Harper Business (An Imprint of HarperCollins), 256 pages.

Reviewed by Bharat Wakhlu, FASQ. FIMA

Professor Max Bazerman’s well-written book, Better, Not Perfect, straddles the intersection of Ethics, Philosophy, Cognitive theory, Psychology and the vast body of knowledge connected with the creation of sustainable value – not just for humans – but as the author mentions repeatedly throughout the book – for all sentient beings as well. In that sense this book is a treat to read because it deals with a number of fairly intricate, albeit germane ideas, -from diverse areas of human existence – but which have rarely been put together in a way that provides a holistic guide to those committed to the creation of value for all, and for making the world a better, humane place.

The book provides a pragmatic perspective of what each one of us can do, to make a difference in the world for the better. It is full of anecdotes, stories about the initiatives of people, and insightful facts and data, gleaned from events and occurrences that have transpired over the past five to six decades; all of which reinforce the theme and the points that have been made in the book.  I found these lucid diversions – scattered wisely throughout – highly interesting and pertinent to the subject matter; and specifically, to the ideas being elaborated in a given chapter. The anecdotes and stories of real events also provide a glimpse into human nature, and how even the most obvious of things might elude us, if we don’t cultivate the ability to be watchful and become ‘noticers’; and thereby more acutely poised to initiate actions that yield beneficial outcomes.

Interestingly, the author is clear in his mind that as humans we will all have diverse and often divergent preferences with respect to the things that we can or would like to do, to make a meaningful and fulfilling impact on the lives of other people or animals. Such differences are to be appreciated and reconciled according to the author, but in ways that don’t necessarily pit one party against the other. Instead, we can work in collaborative ways that enhance the total value that’s available to all. In fact, the author reiterates that in the quest for creating greater value, the limitations arise not so much from the actual ability to work together or take appropriate decisions, as from determining the manner in which the value will eventually be shared.

The title, Better, Not Perfect also reflects the author’s view that in our endeavour to make ours a better world we need not worry about perfection, because in doing so we may lose out on the myriad possibilities of delivering value, which might not pass muster if we set our sights too high. The author suggests that even if we succeed in helping people gently move away from eating meat ( as an example ), rather than insisting that they become total vegetarians for the benefits of no-meat consumption to accrue to them and to the world, that might be a better way of creating value, than to stick to a “perfect metric” and losing out on the opportunities that exist even as we move ahead in that broad direction. The author calls the direction the “North Star’ of creating value, and is emphatic that even as we traverse the long road in the right direction, and with the right intentions, we are likely to make the world a better place – not perfect, but definitely better than before.

The obvious starting locus, for changes in our perspectives, resides in our minds: and the first part of the book therefore focuses on the “new mindset” that’s needed for making decisions in the vein suggested above. This is all the more so, since the human brain – having evolved over millennia – does have a part that’s useful to our survival as a species, and which yields what is also known as ‘System 1’ thinking. Most matters that elicit our emotions are likely to be decided on the basis of such thinking because it is hard-wired and therefore an automatic way of responding. The author is clear that the outcomes of System 1 thinking can actually erode value, and therefore suggests the more rational (as in, less emotional) mode of decision-making – the ‘System 2’ thinking mode – that relies on data, facts and information processed by the neocortex of our brains. System 2 thinking is also at the heart of consciously moving away from ingrained human tendencies such as tribalism, and in-group favouritism. The author emphatically suggests that -in the context of choosing System 2 over System 1 thinking – evolutionary logic or requirements need not be valid today.

The book places prominence on the idea that corruption is a value destroyer, and provides a number of short pieces on how Governments, businesses as well as individuals have systematically destroyed value through the wilful application of wrongful practices. Some of these acts of wrongful omission deprive those who are most in need of resources, outside of the ambit of the value that they should legitimately have had a right to, because the corrupt party hogs it all. Other situations, concerning the corporate sector, have been shown to destroy value through mis-information ( the tobacco industry), the tardy pace of processing insurance claims, and making measly pay-outs against valid claims ( insurance); as also by lobbying in restrictive ways or by creating conditions whereby rules are bent or broken to perk-up the beneficiary firm’s bottom-line: as was done by Amazon when they were thinking of expanding their offices across states in the US.

There’s a strong message in the book concerning the social responsibility of businesses, and the manner in which they may either end up creating or destroying net value. While discussing the case of well-known philanthrope, Andrew Carnegie the author goes to show that while the man is hailed for generously using his wealth for the creation of socially beneficial assets, he and his businesses made much of their wealth in ways that destroyed considerable societal value. For instance, he not only wilfully broke the back of powerful trade unions, he also deprived his labour-force the opportunity to create additional value for themselves through collective bargaining and negotiating with management.  A similar example, concerning the Sackler family, and their enterprise, Purdue Pharma is also presented to show that for many, the outward creation of value – by donating large sums to social causes and the like – often hide the dark and sordid truth of considerable value destruction by the very same players.

In determining the points of leverage to create greater value (which forms Part II of the book) the author focuses on four areas: Equality, Waste, Time and Philanthropy. In his treatment of each of these four areas he goes deep into how the traditional approach of each can shrink value for others, even as it enhances it for a privileged few. In the section on ‘Equality’, the author shows how ‘in-group favouritism’ – as was being practised by Harvard University as a part of their admissions policy – deprived so many bright and potentially better students the chance to be a part of Harvard, because of the university’s policy-bias. Similarly, the waste of food when viewed alongside the cruel treatment meted out to farm animals for the sake of meat production, is a glaring example of how oblivious and unconcerned we all seem to have become, to our own value-eroding behaviours. Even the most precious asset that we possess – which we can’t even store for later- Time, if not used consciously can erode value. The time that we spend, or don’t spend on the things that create value and joy for us, can contribute to the enhancement of overall value, and to our sense of fulfilment. Small changes in how we prioritize the things we do, according to the author, can bring about many desirable changes in the value that we create for ourselves and others. In the same vein, the kinds of philanthropies that we associate with and choose to support, can have a bearing on the global good that we create and the extent to which we can derive the most bang for our philanthropic buck. Besides, we can extend the impact of our altruism not just to current generations but to future generations as well.

The creation of sustainable goodness therefore, is the outcome of a number of small but conscious and essential steps that are taken keeping the right direction in mind. This is what the book emphasizes in Part III, where the creation of more value for oneself and the world, are treated in detail. The key emphasis has to be on creating greater value for all, and not harbouring a ‘fixed-pie mindset’, which can dramatically limit creativity and innovation. Wilfully using one’s capabilities to look at life and our role in it holistically is the basis for unleashing human intention and effort that can create value, and make for a better world – which may not be perfect, but which would still be way better than it was before our intervention.

This is a book that all must read – but especially, those people who care for the world, for all the diverse sentient beings, on land and in the oceans, that we share our planet with – and who wish to create an abundance of well-being for all – without exception – through their small, honest and impactful efforts.


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