Cannibals and Kings

In Cannibals and Kings, Marvin Harris talks about differences between expansive and collapsing cultures. He said that it’s not too hard for a king to convince his people that massive parities in wealth are a good thing but that it is nearly impossible – in fact no culture has ever managed – to be convinced that being killed and eaten is of mutual benefit. That’s why Europe took over the world, and the Aztecs never got any further than temples. Working someone else’s land is one thing, he quipped and committing suicide is quite another.

It’s funny because that’s exactly where Hollywood is right now. For a while, I think, it made sense to pay your dues and learn the system instead of a trade. You start as an assistant, get shit on, get taught nothing and finally replace the person above you who knew nothing. The business is office politics, not making movies. The cultural conditions made that possible, in the same way they encouraged serfdom, imperialism, cannibalism or centuries of stagnation.

But people my age face a very strange fork – there is a decent chance that buying in is agreeing to be eaten. Holding back is risky too, how many people would pass up a shot at a 300% annual bonus?

I heard a pretty major film producer this morning begging the support staff to do his work for him. Go to the clubs, he said. Gossip. Chase the hot writer and keep track of what everyone else is buzzing about. Then hand it off to me so I can take credit. Nothing about finding something they loved. Nothing about doing something new or participating. Nothing even incrementally different than what he’d done twenty years ago.**

At this point, people my age would be safer betting on social security. Superempowerment is very real and very scary. When you base your business on arbitrage and the inefficiency goes away, intensification only makes the problem worse. That means being a little better that the producer I talked about earlier (who is actually awesome, did one of my favorite movies, and I have tons of respect for) is not a strategy – it’s immolation.

Think about it this way, yesterday a fresh wave of interns showed up for their first day of work at Bear Stearns. We like to laugh at the quaint servants who buried themselves alive in the tombs of their Pharaoh’s. Well? Do you want to be that person?

I don’t. I certainly don’t know the solution but I can’t imagine their better first step than state of mind.

** Then there are people like TheExecutive, who don’t whore themselves out and do better than fine. They never wedded themselves to a system, so the landscape today didn’t come as a surprise. They help people. Give people time to grow. They actually give people credit (literally, credits.)

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.