The hidden choice between growth and survival

Life boils down to choices.

I like the way Epictetus put it, which was:

“You are not your body body and hairstyle, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be”.

Unfortunately, choices are by definition hard. An “easy choice” between something unambiguously good, and something unambiguously bad, is really no choice at all, it’s a fait accompli. Choice only raises its head when they direction isn’t obvious; when you are choosing between two things of seemingly equal value.

For me, one of the most fundamental choices is one which will recur in our lives again and again:

The choice between growth and survival.

One reason this choice is so important is because many don’t realise it’s a choice at all. They think that “success” by definition delivers both. That something can both grow and survive, and that’s the outcome we’re shooting for. But on inspection we can find that this isn’t true. Growth, in fact, imperils survival; and equally survival, ultimately, must put a stop to growth.

Consider the following vignettes:

  • Cells must grow, but if they grow continuously we call them cancer.
  • Crocodiles are nature’s ultimate survivor, having been on Earth for 200 million years — but have not meaningfully evolved or multiplied in that time.
  • Businesses that become accustomed to growth tend to quickly go pop — the average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 is only 18 years. In 2016 McKinsey estimated that 75% of them would be gone by 2027.
  • By contrast businesses that have survived for over 100 years tend to have remained fairly static over that time — finding the natural size at which they operate best, and then coasting; gently expanding and contracting with the undulations of the market.

In any growth endeavour you need to know when to say “enough”, and switch to survival mode, or else you will surely perish. This is because, paradoxically:

The very characteristics which cause things to grow also cause them to fail.

To give you some examples of these characteristics, consider the following.

  1. That which grows must constantly change. Growth and change are synonymous; not only because things change as they grow, but because you must also change in order to stimulate growth. Without constant experimentation and new behaviours, things will only grow to their natural level and no more. To provoke further growth you must force them out of their shape, and into one that has the potential to grow still larger. However forced (i.e. top-down, non-natural) change is extremely risky. Eventually and inevitably, you will go one change too far, and collapse; for every change carries with it an inherent risk. You will undermine the qualities which enabled you to reach maturity in the first place, and create a monstrosity not fit for survival, like those S&P 500 companies chasing infinite expansion.
  2. That which grows consumes resources. Although the inevitable can be delayed by a degree of alchemy, at some point there is no more juice that can be drained from the fruit. Resources might be customers, fertile soil, money, clean air — you name it but eventually you hit a wall, a wall that generally arrives long after the threshold of healthy survival has been passed. Nature is not a consumptive system, eating and eating and growing and growing; nature is a circular system — a state of gradually shifting equilibrium that sustains life for the long term. Thus, to attempt endless consumption is an affront to natural law itself.
  3. That which grows changes the world around it. Nothing exists other than as part of a larger system. No matter how big something is, it is itself a part of something larger. Your liver is a “whole” made up of cells, but it is a part in your body. Your company is a whole made up of employees and resources, but it is a part in the market. Even the Earth itself, the ultimate cohesive whole, is still only a part of the solar system. Nothing can grow without changing the whole of which it is a part. Eventually this can lead to conditions which are no longer favourable to the part — and it can find itself being spat out by the very revolution it created.

One of the grandest comparisons of growth versus survival is that between modern secular society, and “primitive” societies such as that of the Kalahari Bushmen.

I’ll dig into this a bit here in order to illustrate the idea, as it’s a more interesting case study than some business cautionary tale or whatever. Rest assured however that the principles remain the same.

To give a brief strategic comparison of the two models:

Modern society: growth oriented
Primitive society: survival oriented
Modern society: constant change and experimentation
Primitive society: hostile to change, static in customs
Modern society: future focused
Primitive society: present focused
Modern society: intellectually varied, internally inconsistent
Primitive society: intellectually homogenous, internally consistent
Modern society: consumptive, linear
Primitive society: net-neutral, circular

So which of these is better? Stupid question. It of course depends on the metric you are prioritising.

The growth and power of the modern secular society — with its roots in the Protestant Reformation and its decision to cast spirituality as a private, rather than public, affair — is so overwhelming that it is redundant to even compare it to that of indigenous peoples. If this is how we judge success (which it is quite reasonable to do) then the discussion ends here.

However if we judge success by the survival metric, rather than growth, then the victory is equally emphatic in the other direction.

Some primitive societies survived, pretty much unchanged, for 100,000 years (until they were subsumed by the irrepressible expansion of the new model). That’s roughly 300x longer than the modern growth paradigm has been ticking along.

Of course the modern paradigm is still going, so in some ways it’s an unfair comparison — however it’s not unreasonable to question how long it can keep it up. Already the rules of growth, the characteristics that have served it so well in its short history, are starting to bite:

  • In terms of change, the philosophical experimentation it encourages has taken many dodgy — near fatal — turns. If your model demands continual innovation then you have to accept that ideas like those found in Russia in 1917, or in Germany in 1938 will occasionally bubble to the surface. These are the social equivalents of misguided corporate growth strategies which almost bankrupt the business. Competing ideas can, of course, overwhelm them, but it’s a life lived constantly on the edge.
  • In terms of resources, it is of course well know that continual expansion comes at an environmental price which sits in stark contrast to the sustainable methods of the survival oriented society. Technological innovation can of course mitigate this for a time, but there’s no reason to believe the game can be played indefinitely.
  • And finally in terms the foundational changes wrought by growth, whether they be unprecedented technologies, social conflict, territorial competition, disease, or any of the other infinite possible side effects, one always operates in a state of uncertainty that is alien to the primitive (whose risks while also great are at least predictable). You merrily build the skyscraper higher and higher but miss what is happening to the ground it stands upon.

In no way shape or form do I wish to stand up for one of these models in particular. My explanation only leans towards the survival mindset because I believe the benefits of growth are more obvious, more aligned with our current values, and so need less elaboration.

The point is simply to use a colourful example to paint a picture of this tension which will return to us again and again throughout our lives.

  • When do I push my company, and when do I let it coast?
  • When do I climb the corporate ladder, and when do I simply live?
  • When do I accumulate, when am I satisfied?

I think most of us will have no problem in chasing growth — what will come much harder is knowing when to move into a circular model, and to take pleasure survival — in a physical, financial, emotional, or whatever sense. Indeed I’m not sure how often we even realise this is an option.

That then is the moral of the story. To recognise that survival is not something that just “happens”, automatically, and unconsciously, while you are chasing growth. It is actually something that must be actively chosen — and yes, paid for.

Know this, and you can enjoy the harvest of growth, without letting it smother you.

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