The Economics of Tenderness
- The whole world is an exchange of things desiring things.
- Desires are processes and flows, not goals and objectives.
- Enjoy the taste of your food as much as the fatness of your belly.
- Thoughtfulness trumps strategy.
- Leaders wash the dishes and scrub the floors.
- You are an individual, but you are not independent.
What Is Tenderness?
Tenderness, n. The state of being tender or easily broken, bruised or injured; softness; Kind attention; Anxiety for the good of another, or to save him from pain.
Tenderness points to our own vulnerability as well as to the vulnerability of others. It is a quality shared by possibly all sentient beings.
We find momentary bliss in small, tender moments: a hug from a stranger when you needed it most; a dog's excited tail wag; the grumpy neighbor with a heart of gold; a traveler awestruck at the crimson sun setting over the ocean.
We find momentary bliss also in painfully tender moments: heartbreak; betrayal; disappointment.
Tenderness comes in the everyday and the mundane. Farmers are tied to their crop, gardeners to their garden, fishermen to the open waters, mechanics to engines and carburetors.
Through tenderness, we feel connected to what is happening all around us. We're not alone, and we're not in full control. We feel a mix of fear, gratitude, awe, and grace at all the ways life has converged to bring us here to this very moment.
Maybe tenderness is one of our primordial, unifying desires, a desire that scares us because it renders us so vulnerable, to want to care for and be cared for by something.
We want to tend to things, we want to care for them. If only we had permission to do so.
I get the sense that many of our negative emotions (sadness, anger, jealousy, paranoia, depression) emerge from unreciprocated tenderness. We want to care, but our environment doesn't let us.
And we care so much, but our care encounters painful obstacles. Our tenderness transforms into negative energy. Negative, yes, but rooted in a tenderness worth uncovering.
Strange Bedfellows: Tenderness and Business
Living in the concrete jungle of New York seemingly leaves no room for tenderness. In this mecca of commerce and finance, to be tender is to slow down and get run over by the unrelenting profit-driven pace of life.
Is that really the case, though? Or are we not looking carefully enough?
New Yorkers are notorious coconuts -- rough exterior but a soft and sweet interior. After experiencing enough unexpected acts of kindness and care on the subway, I've realized that even in a steel-choked environment, tenderness finds a way.
I've also realized there's a growing number of businesses doing their work with thoughtfulness and care. Some are doing this because that's what they value. And it turns out consumers want thought and care in their products.
What if capitalism is compatible with tenderness?
Marketer and serial entrepreneur Ryan Kulp has been harping on this for years. He's run successful marketing campaigns and product launches for bigtime companies. And to him, "honest marketing" is not only the right thing to do, but it's also good for business.
From his Honest Marketer Manifesto:
"Modern technology equipped consumers with two weapons: intelligence, and options. Authenticity is an expression of intelligence, transparency is earnest acceptance of optionality.
As such consumers don't respond to ”growth hacking,” which promised fast results and delivered spam email. They (we) don’t respond to gimmicks, false urgency, or hyperbole.
To succeed in marketing today is to participate in the culture. To stop shouting, and start listening. The problem with dishonest marketing is it just doesn't fit the culture anymore."
When consumers have options and intelligence, they are less likely to settle for crappy manipulative goods. When given the choice, consumers will pick products that exude a sense of care, craftsmanship, and thoughtfulness. Companies can lead with these qualities at the forefront.
Are you surprised by the success of Allbirds (carbon-neutral shoes), Everlane (eco-friendly clothing), and Warby Parker (buy a pair, donate a pair)?
Are you surprised that cultish fitness studios like Soul Cycle or CrossFit became runaway successes?
Are you surprised that small outfits like Sagmeister&Walsh or Basecamp can remain small and still build a global fanbase?
I doubt all these companies are perfectly tender or caring, but I bet you they care a whole damn lot about how their products touch their customers and the world. And by doing so, they create products and experiences their greedier, less tender competitors cannot steal or replicate.
Greed and ruthlessness will still exist in a capitalist system. But it is no longer the only way to run a business. You can do business with tenderness. It can be a big venture-backed business, or it can be a small shop or studio.