The Four by Scott Galloway

I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the last several weeks and haven’t written much. I have read several books and spent lots of road miles thinking about what I read. Among those books was The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google by Scott Galloway.

On its surface this is a book about those four companies and how they have become the dominant forces in the US and global economies. There really is much to recommend here and anyone who uses the products and services of these firms would do well to read The Four. I particularly enjoyed his explanation of how Google appeals to the brain, Facebook to the heart, and Apple to the crotch. Good stuff that is hard to argue with and hard to unsee.

Understand ahead of time though, this is a cautionary tale. As entrenched as these firms are in our lives, Galloway is quick to point out the long list of things these firms have done getting into power and are continuing to ensure they remain there.

For example, Mr. Galloway writes, “At some point the American people, and the US government, decided that Jobs and Apple were no longer constrained by the law.” As incendiary as that statement is, he backs it up with in depth analysis. It really is troubling.

His most scathing criticisms are saved for Facebook, however, and if I hadn’t already cancelled my own account I would after reading this book (yes, I know I’m a reasonably active user of Instagram which is owned by FB. I remain conflicted). “If you carry a cell-phone and are on a social network, you’ve decided to have your privacy violated, because it’s worth it.”

So, as a consumer in the US, or really in any developed country, I would strongly encourage you to read The Four. But,…

The best part of this book is Chapter 10: The Four and You.

It turns out that Scott Galloway is a professor of marketing at the NYU business school and his most important comments are directed at young people early in their careers. This chapter, as important as it is, seems slightly out of step with the rest of the book and I imagine it is the culmination of years of advice to his students that has previously been unpublished. That said, I heard him say virtually word for word the same message on Barry Ritholtz’ podcast, “Masters in Business”. I thought it was great there too.

In essence, Chapter 10 can loosely be divided into the following admonitions:

  • Go to college
  • Get to a city
  • Work really, really hard

It’s slightly more nuanced than that, but not much, and broadly speaking I agree completely.

“No one likes to admit it, but the United States has a caste system: it’s called college.”

This may be hard for some people to swallow but I believe it is the truth. Those without college degrees are at a significant disadvantage to those with degrees. You can argue that Galloway and I are wrong and that may make you feel better, but that doesn’t make you correct. People with college degrees have options and choices those without degrees do not have. Yes, it is possible to build a successful career without going to college. Everyone knows an exception to the rule. And, “Yes, Zuckerberg, Gates, and Jobs all dropped out of college. However, you, or your son, are not Mark Zuckerberg.” On a certain level it is about playing the probabilities and your probability of economic success and career stability is dramatically higher with college than without it.

I’ll take this a step further even, than Galloway does. There are some college degrees that are more beneficial than others. STEM and business are way more beneficial than history, English, or philosophy. I fully believe liberal arts educations play an important part in helping people to become well rounded, critical thinkers. From a career perspective, however, I believe you’re far better off to pursue your liberal arts education outside of your formal academic program. Do it on your own. A modern college education has long since become a white-collar vocational school and your probability of economic success is improved by playing the game.

I will contradict myself a bit here, as I disagree somewhat with Galloway’s assertion to “get to a city”. “Wealth, information, power, and opportunities have concentrated, as innovation is a function of ideas having sex. Progress is typically in person.” I don’t object to this statement and I’ve seen it to be true in my own life. Where I challenge Mr. Galloway is that his “get to a city” statement is based on the assumption that we all measure success in the same way. I have a very good friend who constantly asks me, “what is your standard of measure?”

Galloway assumes that our universal standard measure of success is more money and more promotions. I will be the first to argue that more money is better than less money, but for many people, community and family is at least as important as financial and career success. What you have to realize though, is if your standard of measure is different than that of the broader society, you probably can’t have what you want AND what everyone else wants too. You are willingly (if unknowingly) trading lifestyle for income and ultimately, wealth. If you want to live in the small town you grew up in and try to innovate and build a company there, that’s great. Realize you almost certainly will have a far longer slog than someone in Silicon Valley who just built an app to help you find appropriate matches for doggie play dates. (Note: I made that up intending to sound ridiculous because, it is. If someone makes a billion dollars on the idea…more power to them. Please don’t credit me because it really is absurd.) I am completely in favor of choosing community and lifestyle over income. If you choose to do so I applaud you as I’ve been unable to do convince myself to do so, no matter how much I might argue for it after my third glass of wine.

Which brings me to the last point which is work really, really hard.

“There are people who are successful professionally while managing a food blog, volunteering at the animal shelter, and mastering ballroom dance. Assume you are not one of those people. Balance is largely a myth when establishing your career. The slope of the trajectory for your career is (unfairly) set the first five years post-graduation. If you want the trajectory to be steep, you’ll need to burn a lot of fuel. The world is not yours for the taking, but for the trying. Try hard, really hard.”

Again, I’ve seen this to be true in my own career. I’ve had a reasonably high amount of career success by most standards, but by my estimation it can largely be attributed to my willingness to work harder and longer than those around me, over a long period of time. That’s a choice I’ve made, in partnership with my wife, for the good of our family. A 60 hour week is common for me and a 40 hour week feels like I’m getting away with something. Lots of people don’t want to work that hard. Again, I’m supportive of that, but don’t expect to have the modest success I’ve had working 33% less than I do. I work with a pretty senior executive who routinely works 80 hour weeks by choice. He’s good at what he does and is reasonably smart, but he’s had what appears to be disproportionate success. In reality, it isn’t disproportionate, he’s just chosen to work twice as much as most people. If you want that kind of success, you’ll need to work at least that hard too.

In short, I really did enjoy The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google by Scott Galloway. There’s always the risk of confirmation bias in any non-fiction book you “enjoy”, but the best challenge the way your think about and see the world. “The Four” did that for me and I believe will do the same for you as well.


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3 thoughts on “The Four by Scott Galloway

  1. Interesting take. As a history major with a checkered career of phenomenal success and occasional spectacular failures, I’m not sure I agree with your view of liberal arts – but the then again, the liberal arts for their own sake do miss the point. History is a way of thinking, or else it becomes an eccentric hobby; English is a means to examining rhetoric and the ways in which language creates meaning, or else again, it becomes an eccentric hobby. How do finance and engineering majors gain insight into the human condition except through these fundamental arts? In my experience, they don’t, and I’ll take the eccentric hobbyists over the talented machines any day. It’s the balance – coming to see the world through a lens of understanding, and then seeing that we need to be useful to the world of people and the world writ large, and finding the vocation that can celebrate both, that is the key. Now if only I could find or create the collective (or “limited liability corporation”, which is the modern version of such) that would put that into practice…

    1. I don’t disagree with liberal arts, in principle. In fact, if life were different I’d have gladly done a history degree or something similar. The problem is the way our society broadly treats undergrad degrees now. If you get a liberal arts degree you’re at best unemployable and at worst a dilettante. On the other hand, if you get a white collar voc-tech job and read Russian poetry at night, you’re somehow eccentric and interesting. Again, not saying that’s right, just that’s my view of how our current American society works.

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