I’m finding Me, Inc. to be an enjoyable read, and while I’d like to finish it I think for my purposes I’ve read enough to say what I have to say. I have little to offer in the way of critique of the business aspects of the book, since Gene is rolling in it and it appears that if I went in the funeral business people would stop dying. Actually, in many ways our business philosophies are quite similar, especially about the philanthropic issue. He must be familiar with the Rambam’s (Maimonides) statement that the highest form of charity is helping someone become self-sufficient. I hope in the next 10 years I’m able to catch up at least a little bit.
What concerns me (big surprise) is the Jewish theme, which pops up a lot more than I would have thought before having actually met Gene. Post book signing, actually not at all. I stood on line to meet a rock star and I met a Jew, a proud Jew who was happy to speak to an Orthodox Jew for almost 2 minutes in Hebrew, and at least part of the conversation to mention proudly that he learned in Yeshivat Torah v’Da’at. Understanding Gene’s Judaism is very important to understanding Gene’s philosophy on life, particularly when it relates to business.
I’m going to do something I almost never do when I write, which is switch to second person. I don’t think it’s any secret that I am writing this with the intention that Gene should read it, and Gene, I think you’d appreciate the sentiment that if someone has something to say to you, they should say it to your face. So Gene, this is how I understand your philosophy on life. I’d say the number one issue I have with your book is your view on education. It’s the view of a fifth grader. Why do I say fifth grader? Because that’s when you left yeshiva. While you may have your share of diplomas and degrees on the wall, your fundamental attitude toward education isn’t Jewish. While I agree with you that education should prepare you for the working world, and I have taken this side of the argument, education is about a lot more than that, a lot more that can be quantified with dollars and cents. Education should improve your metacognitive skills, appreciation of learning, and moral/ethical refinement. Whether or not it’s currently doing that…
I want to go further with this point. You claim that anything you can learn in school you can be self-taught, on the job, no experience necessary. This may be true, to a point. There are levels of perfection and refinement that can’t be achieved through self study. Several times in your book you mention your ability to debate believers based on your having read certain texts. I think you’d find those of us with serious theological backgrounds, especially those of us with a few years in the beit midrash (upper level yeshiva study,) to be a lot more challenging. Let’s even talk about music. You cite a number of musicians, including yourself, with no formal musical training, who have been commercially successful. This may be true, but your self-study crowd is not producing the next Pavarotti or Yo Yo Ma, or any composers the likes of Mozart or Tchaikovsky. Do you know there are bass guitar players in the rock world that use a pick? A pick Gene!!!
I did notice you also got two digs in on Shabbat, so I’d like to address your understanding of vacations, particularly of religious days of rest. First off, none other than the Rambam (Maimonides) quotes Shabbat as being a mitzvah that is inherently logical, just that the specifics of how Jews fulfill it are not. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi in the Kuzari also quotes the King of the Khazars (or possibly puts in his mouth) who praises the Torah for giving the Jews 1/6 of the year for rest (including holidays), which he says is a proper balance. In short, people are not animals and were not meant to work like them, and the workaholic lifestyle is for an extreme view. The fact that you actually offered some praise for the working conditions of the 1800′s just blew my mind, considering the systematic abuse of its workers that it involved.
Secondly, it is clear that the message ‘Shabbat is a day on, not a day off’ was not properly communicated to you during your time in yeshiva, which is very sad. Given, it’s not a day to make money. Rather, it’s a day to earn reward for the Next World, the one that comes after you die and other people get all the money you worked so hard to accumulate. While many people even in the observant community miss this point, it is nonetheless the point of Shabbat to focus one’s attention away from the mundane and toward the holy, at least in part for preparing for the inevitable. And I know you recognize this inevitability; you sell coffins for G-d’s sake!
While we’re on the topic of reorienting priorities, I really have to mention your attitude about family, though I could not really do it justice. What I would have to write would be sufficiently scathing and personal that I couldn’t do a proper write-up without explicit permission. That being said, I’d like to make one point. I think you recognize, as the sane world does, that you can’t put a price tag on family. You wouldn’t trade either of your kids for a billion dollars, and you wouldn’t hesitate to go into bankruptcy to save one of their lives. So why would you advocate something different for others? I would suggest you rewrite the budgeting section that your young entrepreneurs budget for a significant other and AT LEAST one shorty by the end of theirs 20′s, so that they actually can enjoy them rather than being too old to run around chasing around kiddies.
The last point I’d like to address, but arguably the most important, is your attitude toward outward expressions of religion. I touched on the point before, but taking a lesson from your book, I’m going to pound it home. Religion is not a regular activity or a way to kill time. It’s not simply an entertainment industry, although as you aptly point out it does have aspects of the entertainment industry, especially the way it’s practiced in America. Religion is what explains the big questions in life. It has the explanatory power science lacks. The only inconvenience of course is with that explanatory power comes obligation; not a waste of time, but obligation. Therefore, to say it should be pushed aside as an impediment to material success is bad advice indeed. I’m not saying you are wrong that religious expression makes it more difficult to find work. I can tell you from experience that it is absolutely true. However, it has gotten much better. Tim Tebow kneeled in prayer on the field. Matisyahu, Shyne, Mayim Bialik, and Ben Shapiro either are or were outwardly expressive Orthodox Jews who did not compromise their religious brand for their product brand. Tim Uppal did not shave or remove his turban to become Canada’s Minister of State for Multiculturalism…
And here comes my real point: you could have been part of that, and you could have helped advance it way further than where it is now. You are one of those rare personalities that takes over a room and a drive to do whatever you want, almost literally. However, while you were directing your energies toward material gain, there were all the quiet Rosa Parks, or maybe Steven Hills I should say, out there making changes in society to make being religious and/or ethnic more acceptable. In the 1980′s, Jews who worked for law and accounting firms had to take their kippot off their heads. Now find a law or accounting firm, at least ones with a branch in New York, that doesn’t have a Jew with a kippah. Similar accommodations have been made for people of all faith groups because of those brave labor suppliers that made employers reexamine what might simply be distasteful (peyot, turbans) and what might actually reflect negatively on the candidate (ink, plugs).
So, in short, why isn’t Me, Inc. a 501(c)(3)? Because there is a fundamental lack of recognition of a world beyond the physical. Gene has some very deep philosophical questions about the world, but seeing as his yeshiva education ended in 5th grade, so did his trek through the massive body of Rabbinic material dealing with those issues. With that lack of knowledge comes a lack of appreciation of those things that can’t be quantified on a balance sheet. While I do find it sad, I can’t blame him given my knowledge of his background. I do hope this piece challenges some of his conceptions though.
UPDATE: While I already said the relationship portion requires its own, extensive article, I did finish the book, including the piece on Women Entrepreneurs. I was sufficiently horrified that I decided to chime in with this piece of wisdom about reading the book. I couldn’t believe Gene could had such a negative attitude toward child rearing and family until I figured out how he understands wives and children, and the marriage relationship. Unlike Judaism, which understands the marriage relationship as a partnership and the children as capital assets currently in R&D, he understands himself to be a sole proprietor, with a wife and kids being little more than recurring expenses, ignoring the emotional aspect of course. This isn’t a surprise given the fact that Gene’s business model is Me, Inc., great for a sole proprietorship and a recipe for disaster for a partnership. It’s like an old Navy chaplain explained to me: the organization that is successful on a Navy boat would get a Marines platoon killed, and the organization that works for a Marines platoon would cause mutiny on a ship.