Martin Madden had a thirty-year career at Johnson & Johnson, most recently as a Vice President for Research & Development, Innovation from 2012 until his retirement in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon and an MBA from Columbia.
Madden and I discussed innovation, research and development, the state of engineering education in the United States, college persistence, how students can market themselves to employers, the MBA, developing purpose in one’s professional life, and more.
We were talking about the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, author of the classic business bestseller The Innovator’s Dilemma, when our conversation unexpectedly started:
Martin Madden: Clayton Christensen: sadly he passed away last year, but I knew Clayton; he was a consultant to J&J. Now, I will tell you, there were some of Clay Christensen’s theories that I wholeheartedly believed in because I experienced them, but there were a few where I completely disagreed with him. For example, one of his philosophies is that all disruptive innovation starts with a low-cost push: somebody’s looking to disrupt an industry and they come in at a very low price point because they’ve got a technology that can enable that, and then it disrupts the entire industry. We had a real-life example at Johnson & Johnson that was totally counter to that, and I said, “Clay, robotic surgery has taken over certain aspects of surgery, and it costs the hospital a million dollars to buy these systems. It’s ridiculously more expensive than the previous technology. So how does that fit in your model?” Of course he couldn’t answer it. But, nonetheless, there were elements of his disruptive innovation model that really hit home.
Ryan Maloney: Since we’re already talking about it, what are the things you did agree with him on that were backed up in your real-world experience?
Madden: I can bring up examples from my field of surgery, but this one is easily explained when you look at Tesla. There is no reason why Volkswagen, and General Motors, and Ford, and Toyota should not have emerged as leaders in electric vehicles. They had a hundred year head start on Tesla in designing vehicles; the only difference is this guy (Musk) comes up with a new power source for the vehicle. Early on, those leaders at General Motors and Ford probably saw this disruption and said, “I don’t think it’s going to gain any legs.” Maybe they thought that an automobile with a battery was only going to have a range of three miles; or it could have been the very high cost of the batteries at the time; but for whatever reason they said it wasn’t going to work. And that happens a lot. I saw it happen often enough at J&J, where they said, “That new innovation isn’t going to happen,” and then ten years later it took over. For example, no one believed robotic surgery was going to take over. Robotic surgery had its initial foothold in prostatectomies; and it’s an important surgery for men; and you want the surgeon to be exquisitely careful in that surgery; and one thing robotic surgery can do is deliver that fine detail. The prevailing view was “It’s going to have a very small niche and it’s not going to take over.” Boy, was J&J wrong. It has taken over hysterectomies; now hernia surgery, colon and rectal surgery, obesity surgery. So we missed it. Intuitive Surgical was a Silicon Valley start-up in robotic surgery, starting in the ‘90’s. Now look at them. A market cap approaching $100 Billion! Another point that Clayton was absolutely right on is that in your current business you have a customer base that you know well, you are beholden to them, and also you’re beholden to the stock market to deliver nice, increasing earnings every year. So you need to iteratively innovate on your current product line: cars with greater horsepower, better brakes, better upholstery, and so on. But that’s all you have the flexibility to do within your financial parameters. It’s a double-whammy when you think about an electric vehicle: you disregard it on one hand, and on the other hand you don’t have the financial flexibility to invest in multiple platforms.
I don’t know if you saw recently, but Volkswagen, which has many brands of cars–Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche–they’re now talking about taking their Porsche division, which is ahead in electric vehicles, spinning twenty-five percent of it out to raise cash, and using that cash from the public market to develop a full line of electric vehicles for all of the Volkswagen brands. Because now all these companies see: “We were wrong, and we need to be there.” General Motors said that in 2030 all their vehicles will be electric. I know you follow the stock market: I think it still may be true that the market capitalization of Tesla is greater than the cumulative market cap of all the legacy auto companies.
Maloney: They’re so far ahead.
Madden: It’s incredible. So I would say those are two of the reasons why Clayton was right.
Maloney: I only know your title at Johnson & Johnson, but it sounds like you were the guy in charge of finding those things: finding the other revenue streams, making sure that you didn’t turn into Volkswagen not doing electric cars. Is there a process for doing that? That’s a lot of pressure. That’s a lot of foresight required of one person.
Madden: When I was at Johnson & Johnson I had responsibility for organic innovation. It’s making these implants better, whether they’re knees, or hips, or general surgery devices. But if there was a disruptive innovation which would obviate the need for an implant–maybe it was a magic solution injected in the knee to regenerate cartilage, obviating the need for a total implant–that was put on the plate of our new business development teams, which did not report to me. We would split it, organic and acquired innovation.
Maloney: Part of what I understand about good companies is that they do a lot of research and development. When you look at Amazon’s balance sheet you see an enormous amount of research and development; they’re always pushing resources into the future in order to grow. Can you talk a little bit about what research and development is, and how a layperson can understand its importance?
I’m interested in economic growth and prosperity. Buying my groceries probably isn’t that important in terms of economic growth, but a new way to save peoples’ lives, or a new process for organ donations, is. I don’t think the general public has a good understanding of what the most important uses of our resources are. I was talking to someone the other day who said, “In the United States we’re fantastic consumers, but we’re terrible producers.”
Madden: How I would frame what he said is that America is no longer the breadbasket for making stuff. We’ve given much of that to China, to the broader Asia, to Mexico, to low-cost countries to make things. What we’re great at is inventing. In the world of biomedical research–whether it’s pharmaceuticals or diagnostic imaging–the United States is by far the world’s innovation leader. By far. That being said, a lot of our medical devices are manufactured outside the United States.
Maloney: What makes the United States such an innovative place?
Madden: I think there are a number of factors. Number one is economic incentive; two is the respect we have for helping our fellow man, and three is the broad foundational base to nurture innovation via start-ups. This last one is what separates the US from most all other areas of the world. There are a lot of incentives for startups; certainly a lot of risks too. At Johnson & Johnson we were really good at acquiring a technology and then growing that technology base. For example, prior to 1997 Johnson & Johnson didn’t have a hip implant; it was a big hole in their portfolio. So they acquired a company, DePuy, that had a really good hip product, and brought it into their family of orthopedic companies and kept improving those implants. Those small companies that come up with those disruptive innovations: J&J is always on the lookout for them, who have a new take on how to do surgery or who have a new implant. The percentage of those companies that fail are far greater than those that succeed, but for those that succeed it’s a great win for those individuals economically; and obviously for the company that buys them; and then at the end of the day, really, for the patients. So I think the way we’ve structured economic incentive in the U.S. is a huge, huge plus.
Maloney: It almost reminds me of Berkshire Hathaway: they’re a holding company for all these other companies. Johnson & Johnson isn’t that, but it’s as though they’re acquiring all these companies under the hood of Johnson & Johnson. It’s interesting.
Madden: You’ll see it all the time. You can probably do some background research into this new field of immuno cancer therapy, where in the United States we’re trying to strengthen someone’s immune system to fight off cancer antigens. This field has just exploded over the past five to eight years. I think every one of those early innovations occurred in a startup, and then all of these big companies–whether it’s Johnson & Johnson, or Pfizer, or Bristol Myers Squibb, or Sanofi–they’ve purchased them.
Maloney: And so is that the main reason that J&J’s stock grows? That their earnings grow?
Madden: There are a couple reasons why they continue to grow sales and earnings. They do a great job with their existing portfolio, developing better products and iterating on them; and they acquire new products. If you have a business, and you’re selling a billion dollars of knee implants a year, and if a small company comes along and disrupts that then there’s hell to pay; that’s a horrible situation. So you’re always looking for any disruption so that you can be the one that acquires it, and not your competitor.
Maloney: When you say you’re looking for that disruptive company: in your case, was that actually you?
Madden: No. I was the one continuing to improve on our existing surgical portfolios.
Maloney: I imagine that’s a high-pressure job, so a) was it?, and b) did you like that, if it was?
Madden: I think there’s pressure in any job. I think there’s pressure for instructors: if you’re a college engineering professor you are teaching the next generation of people who will design the next set of implants for the world. The best professors I ever had were the ones who took their profession very seriously; I’ve got to believe they felt a lot of pressure in what they were doing. So I think if you’re doing anything that’s really important, and you believe what you’re doing is important, sure there’s pressure, but it’s all good. It really is. Without that stress life wouldn’t be all that fun.
Maloney: You talk about a drug to develop an immune response to fight off cancer, and I think to myself, “What could be more important than that, to keep on living?” I look at universities that don’t have engineering programs and I wonder to myself, “Wouldn’t it be better if we stop doing, say, French, and start doing engineering instead?” I don’t mean to poo-poo other disciplines, but curing cancer just seems more important. You’ve sent your own kids through college; you’ve probably mentored a ton of young people coming out of college; maybe a two-part question: what do you think of today’s engineering graduates? And two: do you think universities in the United States should be putting even more resources towards engineering, even though it’s such a popular major?
Madden: I did a little research after getting that question from you, because I was thinking, “Have the statistics changed?” Because I don’t remember engineering as a popular major. The most recent data I could find was in the school year 2017-2018: the U.S. conferred two million bachelor’s degrees that year, and six percent of those degrees were engineering. Twenty percent were what we colloquially call “STEM programs”, but six percent were engineering. Now, by comparison, I think there were four times as many business majors. So six percent engineering graduates: I recall that being somewhat similar in years past when we were doing recruiting at universities. So for the United States I don’t know that the percentage has changed all that much.
[According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2018-2019 the United States conferred 2,012,854 bachelor’s degrees; 6.3% of them were in engineering. By comparison, 19.4% were in business, 12.5% were in health professions, and 8.0% percent were in social sciences and history. In 1970-1971, the first year this data was collected, engineering accounted for 5.4% of bachelor’s degrees.]
Maloney: I didn’t even think to check; I just assumed it was more popular than that.
Madden: I wish it were. I think there are some countries that are doing a better job; I think India is doing a fantastic job of educating engineers. I haven’t looked at the stats in India recently, and of course it’s a billion people there and they don’t have the college percentage that we do in the U.S. of kids going to college. But nonetheless, of the kids who go to college, I think instead of six percent being engineering graduates it might even be twenty-five percent or thirty percent.
Maloney: Does that include people who are coming here, or just staying in India?
Madden: That’s graduating in India. Don’t quote me on that; please do a quick Google search to confirm that.
[According to India’s Ministry for Human Resource Development, in 2015-2016 Indian engineering undergraduates accounted for 16.5% of all undergraduates.]
Now, when you do a search you’re probably going to say, “What about China?” Well, we looked at China a few years ago; and China, as you know, is a Communist country; they have ministers of propaganda that only put out statements they want to be heard. And they claimed they graduated a ridiculous number of engineering graduates: 20X the U.S, number. And I didn’t believe it. So we had a few of our contacts in China–because we have businesses over there–and we said, “Hey, verify this data.” And they started laughing and said, “That’s just government data. What they’re trying to do is show the world that they’re a technological powerhouse: ‘Come do business in China because look at all the graduates we’re putting out into the world; and you can have access to all this talent if you come to China with your business.’” Well, the reality is they would count welders, and carpenters, and electricians. They would lump in any vocational school with any degree.
Maloney: I think the most striking thing you just said was about six percent engineering graduates and twenty percent business graduates in the United States. I don’t want to poo-poo business, but I’d like to hear you respond to this: business is just an easier major, you know? It’s an easier thing to study; it’s kind of safe; and in engineering, just introductory chemistry is really hard. Introductory physics is really hard. And I wonder if higher ed, or training in general in the United States, would be better-served by trying to get more students through those more difficult career tracks, and finding something in there that they’re interested in. Because whether or not you have a business degree you’re going to graduate into a business; you’re going to learn how to do business just because you’re in a business. I don’t want to speak badly about any business program, but am I on to something?
Madden: In engineering you need to have an interest in it; you need to have an aptitude for it; and you need to have a willingness to put in the effort. If you have the interest, and you have the aptitude, but you don’t have the willingness to put in the effort you’re going to get crushed. I remember going into my freshman classes–whether it was physics or calculus or chemistry–and the professor would say the old joke, “Look left; look right; one of the three of you isn’t going to be here after this term.” They grind you to salt in that first year; they really do. Now, mind you, those other years require willingness to put in the work too, but in that freshman year–and this is where I would speak to the students who read your blogs–if you put in the work, and be mindful to just gut it out for that first year then it will work out for you, assuming you have the interest and the aptitude. But way too many times these professors, they think of these introductory courses as weeding out classes; and they’re weeding out these students who either don’t have the interest, the aptitude, or the willingness to put in the work. And I think most of the folks who go into engineering when they’re freshmen, they’re interested in it, and they have the aptitude–they’re smart, they know the math, they have high school physics, chemistry, calculus–but what shocks them is the amount of work. That, and this attitude professors have of “I’m going to weed you out.”
Maloney: Even when I was in college ten, fifteen years ago, that was the dominant narrative. I hope that’s beginning to change, and I think there’s a culture forming in higher ed of getting students through these introductory courses. And I say that because I just read this book called The College Dropout Scandal about this topic, and it was story after story of professors trying to change that “weeding out” culture, trying to help students through these introductory courses. It’s sad when students get weeded out. Like you said, when professors take their jobs seriously it’s stressful; maybe some professors run away from that stress by saying, “Well, if you don’t pass you don’t pass.”
Madden: That’s exactly right. It was a long time ago when I was an undergrad so you could probably get a more up-to-date feel for it, but what is the percentage of young men and women in their freshman year that drop out of these three plus two engineering programs? It could well be fifty percent.
Maloney: That’s a good question. I don’t know. It would be interesting to know, but that information is hard to come by at any college. But now that I’m reflecting on it it feels like that’s one of the most important things higher education can do, is getting these students through to the places they actually want to be.
Madden: That freshman year is such a vulnerable year for young men and women: you’re eighteen-years-old, you don’t quite know. I’ve seen it too many times where students have the interest and the aptitude but they just need a little more mentoring; then these professors ought to mentor them, as opposed to weeding them out. I get it: if someone’s thirty-years-old and you need to weed them out from a company because they’re just a non-productive employee, that’s one thing. But if you’re eighteen-years-old: that’s a different story.
Maloney: I think so too. In PhD programs, though, it’s about publishing research. That’s your calling. It’s not mentoring eighteen-year-olds.
Madden: Sadly for them it’s publish or perish. They’ll never get tenure otherwise.
Maloney: I’m wondering: you went to Carnegie-Mellon, and when you go to Carnegie-Mellon I imagine you have a world of careers available to you. But if you go to some small regional school it’s harder. How did Johnson and Johnson hire? Did you go to certain schools? Did you look for certain things? I’ve led a few search committees and it’s so important to get the hiring process right; and it’s so hard to know if you’ve gotten it right. Is it helpful to go to elite universities that you know have the best job candidates?
Madden: At Johnson & Johnson–and whether we’re talking about Johnson & Johnson, or Apple, or Microsoft–it’s such a large company with a brand that people know. We would typically go to a top-tier university to recruit, whether it was at MIT, or Stanford, or Carnegie-Mellon, or a number of the Big Ten schools like Michigan or Illinois or Purdue. We would concentrate our resources on those schools, call it the top ten schools in the discipline. We recognized that many other schools had great students, but we were just playing a statistics game: we’d have a greater probability of getting who we want out of those top schools. And the name Johnson & Johnson helped us. Now, I could easily be wrong too, Ryan, because this is 2021, and some of these young men and women coming out of college might think, “Why do I want to go work at a big company? Let me go to a start-up who’s innovating in some really cool space that aligns with my interests from my thesis program.” I recognize there are pluses and minuses of working for a large, brand-name company.
Maloney: I’m thinking of a student that we have here who just got turned down by a large, brand-name company. What advice might you give her if she really wanted to get a job at a big company like the one you worked for? How do you market yourself to a company like that?
Madden: You need to set yourself apart from the pack. And so for her, she needs to differentiate herself from the pack. Now, what can that mean? I’m assuming she’s a bright person, very good grades, et cetera. One option would be to spend two years at a job to gain excellent experience. That can set her up to switch companies, or perhaps attend grad school or an MBA program. And if you go to an MBA program, only go to one of the top-tier MBA programs in the country. You don’t want to go to a bottom program. Nobody cares. It’s kind of like going to a bottom law school; nobody’s going to care. Go to a top program.
Maloney: Can you say more about that? What is the value of an MBA program?
Madden: I think the value is very low for the great majority of them; I really do.
Madden: I hate to say it, but I think it’s very low for the great majority of them. It’s only really good if–and I believe the evidence has shown this–it’s only really good if you go to a top school.
Maloney: But it must be hard to get into one of those schools. Would you say either get into one of those schools or don’t go?
Madden: Absolutely. I think you’re wasting your time if you’re going to go to a middling school for an MBA. I really do.
Maloney: What was the value of your own MBA program? Was it helpful in your career, economically or otherwise?
Madden: Well, let me come back to that in a minute; let’s finish up with this young student of yours. So she needs to differentiate herself from the pack. And did she tell you why she didn’t get the job? Did they tell her why she wasn’t going to get it?
Maloney: They told her to reapply. I don’t know if it was some internship or foot-in-the-door program, but they said “Reapply and we think you’ll get it.”
Madden: Well, at least that’s somewhat encouraging. So, for example, my undergrad was at the University of Dayton; my master’s in engineering was at Carnegie-Mellon. Throughout my career whenever I told people where I went to college they ignored when I said Dayton, but they were like, “Oh, Carnegie-Mellon, that’s great”
Maloney: [laughs] Right.
Madden: If I had gotten a master’s degree in engineering from Dayton along with my bachelor’s degree it would have been ho-hum; I hate to say it, but it would have been ho-hum. So whether or not the education of Carnegie-Mellon’s master’s program was better than Dayton, you never know, but the reputation of the school matters. And you see this in your life and all the readings you do about the future of higher education. For whatever reason the reputation makes a difference to employers.
Maloney: It makes me think about what the value is of these lower-brand schools; these small, private schools that nobody’s ever heard of. A degree is a degree, but gosh, if I had to do it all over again maybe I would have gone to a bigger-name school.
Madden: And for this young lady she can still do that. I’m sure she got a very good education; I’m sure she did. In fact, there are many advantages to receiving a bachelor’s at any number of regional universities. Compare a bachelor’s at her school to a bachelor’s from, say, Columbia. At Columbia it may have been a grad student teaching that class; whereas for her it was likely a tenured faculty member who cared about her education. Because I would tell you that at Dayton, everybody who taught my class was a tenured faculty member who cared about the students, and I felt, “Man, this is great.” But that didn’t matter to all these employers. So maybe for her it’s not an MBA; maybe for her it’s a master’s or a graduate program that’s different from business. She probably had a great GPA where she is now; so take that, go to one of these top-tier schools, and get a master’s degree. And everyone will then remember that; they’ll associate that brand with her.
Maloney: For an employer, that’s a very efficient way to do it: recruit at the most prestigious schools. But I wonder if there’s a better way to find people, and I’m thinking in particular of online microcredentials. It’s a powerful signal to graduate from Carnegie-Mellon, but it’s only a signal.
Madden: It doesn’t mean you’re a good engineer; it just means you graduated, yes. But that is the proxy that every company uses for their filter when they recruit.
Maloney: What if you made a bad hire? How do you weed those people out?
Madden: At one of the companies I was at at Johnson & Johnson from 2002-2006, I established a new college hire program where we would bring students in for the summer between their junior and senior years of undergrad. We would bring in, call it twelve of them, for that summer and we’d give them assignments. They’d work; they’d do work for us under the mentorship of an experienced engineer; and then we’d invite, say, three of them back for a full-time job. And that could have been this young lady: maybe if she could rewind the clock she could’ve gotten herself into a program like that.
Maloney: I guess I never thought about it from an employer’s perspective: you have to pay for those interns, but the production you get from them in the future is much greater.
Madden: And they’re helping you out. You’re not doing groundbreaking research, but every good engineer needs an assistant (to help with labwork, prototyping, testing, etc.). This gives you a sense of someone’s aptitude and capability.
Maloney: Can you talk about relations between labor and management? I imagine you’ve been on both sides of that. And I think it’s very tense, particularly with unions: they can interfere with good service to the consumer. As an executive team how does one go about making sure that that’s smooth?
Madden: As far as unions go I’m going to have to deflect to others. In the engineering profession there are very few companies that have unionized engineering groups. Everywhere I’ve been in Johnson & Johnson the engineering and science teams were not unionized. So I don’t have the experience to answer that well for you.
Maloney: That’s okay. Part of me thinks that that’s good. It makes things easier.
Madden: I will tell you: I remember having this discussion with one of the senior HR leaders at J&J ten, fifteen years ago. And this leader said, “Thank God we don’t have any of our engineering groups unionized. And also, by the way, one of my jobs,” and she was pointing at herself, “is to keep it that way.”
Maloney: [laughs] Yeah.
Madden: “We need to do everything we can to keep the unions out of our engineering workforce.” And so employee benefits, the way management treats people, those all have to come to the fore.
Maloney: Jeff Bezos comes in for a lot of heat for squashing unions; he doesn’t let his people unionize. It’s probably a tricky balance, because I can understand that HR person’s hesitancy to let unions form because they can cause so many problems.
Getting towards the last couple of questions: really broadly–you worked for one of the biggest companies in the world–what makes a company great?
Madden: You read a lot, Ryan, and I appreciate that; and there are so many business books out there that can be read. I think the great majority of them are worthless, but there are a couple of them that are excellent. There’s one book that is particularly excellent, written probably twenty-five years ago, Good to Great. The author is trying to answer the question of what makes a company great. And by the way, it’s not easy; there are very few great, great companies.
Having a compelling mission is important. We talked earlier about the profession of curing cancer, for example. So one thing that makes a company great to work for is if its mission is so damn compelling that it gets you excited. That’s one. Another one is–almost every company says, “Our customer comes first.” That should cause a red flag to go up in your mind. I don’t remember who this company was, but one of their sayings was, “The customer comes second.” Who the hell would ever say the customer comes second? Well this company did, because they said, “Our employees come first. We have a great, highly-motivated team that love doing what they’re doing, and if we keep the culture that way then we’ll satisfy our customers.” On the other hand, when companies have to hit a quarterly number they may say, “we need to keep this profit stream going, and therefore, let’s fire ten percent of the people.” How the hell is that going to keep people happy? You know that can’t be a great company to work for. So how you treat the employees is important; the mission is important; and then another one: as a company, how do you treat the community you live in? Are you going to be like General Electric and dump PCB pollutants in the Hudson River for decades? And then after it’s been uncovered Jack Welch comes out and says, “Yeah, we did it. We’re sorry. There’s nothing we can do about it now.” Meanwhile, 200 miles of the Hudson River is deemed a Superfund site. Or, frankly, let’s look at Johnson & Johnson. J&J has been embroiled in this opioid epidemic where, sadly, more than 500,000 US citizens have died of overdose. J&J has come out and said, “Aw, c’mon; we’re not guilty. We were just the raw material supplier. It’s the finished producer/marketer that should be held accountable” And I think that’s bullshit. J&J was a major raw material supplier to the entire industry; Johnson & Johnson had opiate fields in Tasmania as far as the eye could see. J&J provided the API (active pharmaceutical ingredient) to many of these companies including Purdue Pharma, who then sold the finished product into doctor’s offices and to pharmacies. Is J&J guilty? Well, it’s currently in the courts, and I’ll leave that to the lawyers, judges, and juries. I believe deeply, however, that J&J violated its own credo (“We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work…”). So if you are the raw material supplier and you’re selling it to somebody you know is a bad actor, why do you continue to sell it to that entity? Or perhaps their excuse was “I didn’t know they were bad actors”. Ignoring the blindingly obvious and/or ‘looking the other way’ must never absolve one of accountability. So in terms of a great company: is it a great mission? And do you treat people well? Then how do you act in the community, and to the world at large?
Maloney: That’s hard. I wholeheartedly agree. I’m also thinking about Facebook’s advertising model, and Pepsi’s role in American obesity. I’m trying to think about an executive team that has to return profit, and part of me has sympathy for that executive team; part of me doesn’t.
Madden: Part of me doesn’t either. I agree. When you sell sugar water you’re going to cause the obesity epidemic to continue. I’m with you on that. And that gets me back, Ryan, to something I would tell our young engineers. Early in their career they’re still questioning: “Am I following the right track? Am I doing what I should do?” I would go back to something Pope John Paul II wrote on the importance of work. One: at a base level, the importance of work is to enable you to have a standard of living that you’ve defined for yourself, whatever that standard is. But that, in and of itself, is wholly insufficient. The second element is to make a meaningful contribution to society. And the third is to realize your full potential. You were given these gifts; what are you doing to realize your full potential by the work that you’ve chosen to do? Or, what is the work you’d rather be doing to realize your full potential, while also contributing to society? So I would often mentor our young staff, “Answer those three questions”. Lastly, a final thought on meaningful contribution to society… I don’t belong to Facebook, but it aggravates me when I think of Facebook. You’ve probably read about all of the fights between Facebook and Apple in terms of privacy, and I land on the side of the Apple CEO. If I’m using an app on my iPhone I don’t want that information to be shared across all these companies and advertisers. How dare they do that? And Facebook’s business model is advertising revenue. How different is that than fifty years ago driving down a big highway and looking at a billboard? That’s advertising; they just digitized it. That also gets my ire up, when people start talking about Facebook as a tech company. Really?
Maloney: It’s not much of a mission. But it does seem like if you’re an employee of Apple right now you’re pretty proud to work for Apple.
Madden: I believe so. I think they do fantastic work, and what they’re moving into in healthcare is phenomenal. It might be twenty years from now, but it won’t be surprising that on that Apple Watch, if you’re a type I diabetic that Apple Watch will have a spectrometer in there that will measure your blood glucose without any invasiveness at all, and it will tell you when you need insulin.
Maloney: That’s wild.
Madden: It is. I don’t even own Apple stock; I wish I was smart enough to have bought it twenty years ago, but I think Apple has a great mission. It’s a great company.
Maloney: This same young woman has told me that she feels like she’s supposed to have a purpose: “I’m supposed to like what I do, but all I really know is I want to make money right now.” For whatever reason all she knows is that she wants to make money. She’s really driven to be successful, and really terrified of not being successful. My advice to her tends to be to trust herself. Maybe right now it’s enough for her to only know that she wants to make money: go out in the world and experiment. But what might you say to a person who said that to you?
Madden: Wow. I might take a step back and think of some books or readings for her. I’m sure she’ll change in time. We all do. Maybe you put some questions in front of her: How have you made somebody’s life better over the past week? What is your work doing to make a contribution to society? Because if it’s just about money there will come a time where she’ll go, “Dammit, I screwed up.” It’ll happen.
Maloney: I would agree. I feel like I’ve lived my life in that way, but it’s a tough question.
Madden: So what advice did you give her, Ryan?
Maloney: I think about this quote from Alice in Wonderland that resonated with me when I was young; it was something like, “If you don’t know which way to go it doesn’t really matter which way you go.” Pick something. For now, if you know you want economic security go for economic security. I think a sense of purpose is incredibly important, but if you don’t know what that is you can’t force it.
Madden: No, you can’t force it. The thing I would mention though is helping out a fellow person, and maybe it’s not in her job. Unfortunately there are some jobs that are just transactional: you do this and you get a paycheck. That happens. So what that person ought to do then is think, “In my 168 hours a week, minus those forty hours working, minus sleeping, I’ve got another thirty hours that I can make society better and help people. So what are those couple things I’m going to do that’s going to bring help to someone else’s life?” There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about high school kids: they were helping senior citizens go online and get vaccination appointments. Ryan, a few months ago it was almost impossible to get a vaccine appointment, and think about an eighty-year-old trying to use a computer to figure out where to go to get a vaccine appointment; and even if you’re computer literate, ninety-nine percent of the time you fail. So these kids were doing this as a service for older folks. It’s great.
Maloney: Yeah, that’s nice.
Madden: I just bring that as an aside. So she has to have a purpose, and her experiences can help her but it’s got to me more than just the transactional experiences.
Maloney: Is there anything else that seems relevant to mention before I let you go?
Madden: If you could tell me: who would be the perfect set of people that you would want to read this article? Tell me who that would be, and then I’m sure I could have a concluding comment.
Maloney: In the last year or two I haven’t been very diligent about that focus, but if I think for a moment I would hope that this young woman reads this. And this young woman is not a reader, as many young people aren’t. But there are parts of this–the MBA part, the mission part, the difference between Facebook and Apple–that would be really important for her to hear. It’s easy to have young, driven people do a lot of evil in the world if they’re not careful. And so maybe I would focus on that one young person.
Madden: So if you’re a young person never lose sight of the opportunity to find a mentor. I would think where you are, Ryan, that seventy-five percent of the faculty would be open to a student coming to them and saying, “Hey, I respect you so much. Can I have breakfast with you once a month? Can you help me as I navigate early in my career?” If she could identify perhaps 2-3 personal mentors who she looks up to tremendously, and if she would be willing to put herself in a vulnerable position by saying, “Hey, I really would like your point of view. Can you please help me think something through?” The great majority of adults wouldn’t just be willing to help, they’d be honored. And then you get to folks who are seniors. Sadly in this country, people who are above the age of seventy, I think we kick them to the curb; we don’t want to listen to them anymore. Japan is very different in that regard: they honor their elderly more so than we do in the United States. But people over the age of seventy have a lot of great wisdom to share. Maybe she could identify one or two of them in her life and buy them breakfast or lunch once a month and ask for advice. Because surely those folks are going to help her move beyond this, “My personal credo is to make money and more of it.” I think that’s one last point for these young folks: I get it if they don’t want to read–maybe at some point they’ll come back around to that–but at least get mentors that can help bring valuable insights and learnings to them.