The Business of “Fear and Loathing”

“Maybe it meant something. Maybe not in the long run…”

–          “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” By Hunter S. Thompson

If all “Fear and Loathing” reminds you of is drugs or Johnny Depp with a funny hat and Cruella Deville cigarette-holder, I can’t fault you. What we should remember (or at least know) of the story is its lesson on cultural movements, pre- and post- peak.* This lesson is especially valuable from a business owner/operator perspective.

Fear, in the business sense, can mean risk or uncertainty. Loathing, in Thompson’s sense, roughly equals intentionally getting “messed up.” For our sake, we’re going to focus on narrative (or story, or “meaning,” hence the leadoff quote), risk or uncertainty about that narrative, and the action we take to resolve or respond to that narrative (ex. “loathing”).

Now, risk and uncertainty regularly get jumbled up, so let’s make this clear: risk can be quantified, uncertainty can’t. When an insurance company sells car insurance, it’s because they know how many accidents a group of driver’s gets themselves into on average. That’s risk. There’s big business in risk.

When the insurance company can’t figure out the answers to questions like, “what happens to insurance rates when half of the cars are automated,” or “how much could marijuana legalization change inebriated driver accident rates,” that’s uncertainty. There’s bigger business in uncertainty, but not necessarily in the way that you think.

All businesses are narrative manufacturers. Businesses build a story about some action that you can take to alleviate a risk or uncertainty in your life. The difference between risk businesses and uncertainty businesses is in the quality of the data that backs up their story and their solution. The insurance company tells you a story about why you need car insurance while their actuaries show them how to make a profit (risk). The management consultant tells the insurance company a story on where/how to direct R&D dollars for a driverless world, with potentially compelling but less than actuarial accuracy (uncertainty). Profits are the business of the business, but stories are how things actually get done.

Thompson isn’t writing a business book however. Instead, this is a form of journalism.  Thompson is reacting and reflecting on the series of events that have triggered his fear and loathing. His role here is as a critical consumer of culture, not a business person. That has business value to us.

So here’s the insight: risk and uncertainty exist both forwards AND backwards. As consumers, we have feelings about prior experiences, and expectations about future ones. Rarely are they rational. Always are they subjective. The future expectations can be scary. That story that we think explains the past can’t explain the future yet, so we experience fear.

Far too often we feel like it’s our job as professionals (or parents, or teachers, or…) to have all the answers, but that’s simply not true. It’s no-one’s job to know the future, despite what some narratives claim. Instead, the most important job we can have is to reduce the potential for future loathing.

Maybe it means something, maybe it doesn’t, but we have to make positive, forward progress. Maybe the journalists beat us to the story of the past, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fresh business opportunity in framing the future. If your core driver is to be smart about risks, accepting of uncertainty, and always striving to reduce future loathing, we’re all going to be OK.

*Venture Capitalist and all-round interesting guy Howard Lindzon had a blog post recently titled, “Fear and Buying or Fear and Loathing… Preparation matters.” Howard was citing stock market volatility and how to mentally process it. He triggered these thoughts.

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