“Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.”- Ancient Proverb
As we move out of the year’s most commercial time, I can’t help reflecting on a recurring theme that has permeated the narrative on Future Commerce over the last 18 months: boundaries. In our 124th episode with Pattern Brands, we talked to Emmett Shine and Nick Ling about how consumers can deal with digital burnout in an ever digital world, a counter to the current lack of boundaries between consumers and technology.
And in our current business climate, the thought of having boundaries or limits seems radical. In fact, many advertising campaigns are centered around this idea of having absolutely no boundaries or limits. Walmart even has a house brand called “No Boundaries”. Even further, boundaries and limits are nearly viewed as morally reprehensible and oppressive. For individuals, for work output, and for businesses expect to embark on growth paths at breakneck speed.
If there was any time period more reflective of a lack of boundaries, well, I can’t think of one better than to look back 100 years to the Roaring 20s. And look at what happened immediately after - America fell into a period of extreme depression. This cycle seems to be hardwired into the American psyche: the machine of capitalism runs smoothly, then we experience great success, which leads to great excess, which results in a massive wave of burnout. We push the machine as far as it can go in every way until it finally collapses. Look at our current environment - where the market demands quarter over quarter improvement and venture demands 20x growth or bust - everyone begins to feel like the machine will churn so fast that it will explode.
As consumers and people, it’s hard to recognize how to create boundaries. Deciding to go on a diet or make better food choices is one of the clearer places in our culture where people decide to limit their lives in an intentional and seemingly artificial way. Everyone knows that being healthy is good for them. But there are many other areas of life where what is good for us is not as apparent. Finance, consumption, relationships, carbon footprint, career, etc. We struggle to know what is enough and where to set limits. We see this reflected in our current cult-culture of business growth as well.
I’m not looking to naysay growth, as many are prone to do. There are those who would be happy to dial the machine back entirely. My view is simple: having set boundaries is good for everyone. As brands and retailers, we can best serve our customers by finding our place within the narrative of their limits, and when we set our own boundaries as businesses as well. By doing so we can create products that encourage our customers to set their own boundaries and improve their lives, and maybe have an impact on moving the needle forward towards a better world.
It’s not surprising that we all struggle to know when enough is enough. The sheer volume of information we’re confronted with on both a personal and professional level is practically untenable - lakes of data. The speed and frequency of expectations around communication are unparalleled in history. And the length of time required for us to remain active is effectively 24hrs a day. I recently dropped my phone while on a business trip and shattered the display. I was phoneless for a couple of days while I waited for the replacement to be shipped to my hotel. I practically felt like I was missing part of my body. I also felt like I wasn’t being as productive as I could be - I wasn’t running at max capacity, and it felt like I was not doing enough.
We have come to expect ourselves to be productive every second. Technology must always be on (we wake up to alarms on our watches and phones, which we immediately look at). So not only do we expect to be productive every second, we effectively can be. This is the age of a 5g cloud, and this is America. We have infinite options for our time, attention, effort, and we can do anything without end, and it can be hard to know when to stop.
Our industry in retail demands extreme growth, but is extreme growth at all-costs sustainable over the next decade? As Phillip and I look ahead to next year, we are going to thread the eye of the needle - the path between explosive growth and reasonable expectations. We will be conducting research and interviewing guests towards this trend. Our tagline is “the future is what you make of it and we want to help you shape that future”. There seems to be two choices ahead. We can work toward a future where we may exceed our targets every year but eventually the engine may burn out.
Or we can consciously move toward a future where our targets are actually finding a balance that includes both growth and reality, and one that allows for both consumers and business leaders to find balance in work, and in their everyday lives. If this next decade includes a shift in culture towards having better boundaries, then we’ll all be better for it.