Toys R Us

The recent demise of the beloved toy store chain reminded me of a story I read back in the 80’s about the company’s research and development department.  At least I think I read this somewhere …

“It started out like any other day in the Toys R Us experimental labs.  The toy makers had a rigorous yet startlingly simply approach to finding new toy ideas:  put one child in a plain, open white room and give them an ordinary, everyday household item subject to the child’s whims of fancy.

“There was an occasional problem, of course.  For example:  have you ever wondered why those large plastic dry cleaning bags and other similar items now carry the warning ‘this is not a toy’?  Let’s just say that one awful morning in the lab has gone on to save tens of thousands of children from parents who sincerely believed the shiny, smooth clear things would calm and entertain their loved ones for hours.

“Anyway … the Toys R Us labs had become so hugely successful that the marketing department struck on the handsome notion of coupling the lab work with public tours, a kind of research-themed amusement park.  Those curious enough to want to peek in on the imagination process could observe the lab by standing outside and looking through a one-way mirror.

“‘Won’t the monsoon conditions deter people from coming?’ asked one naïve toy scientist.  A few marketers admitted they hadn’t really thought about that, but no worries – some complimentary corn dogs and chips could be included and increase the park admission ticket price.

“Now you think you’d have a difficult time attracting curious looky-loos to pay good money to covertly observe children playing with mundane objects while they stood eating in the pouring rain.  And in most corners of the world, you’d be right.  But Toys R Us had the good fortune to partner with mega-retailer *******, which was always on the lookout for new ways of attracting more customers to its stores in tens of thousands of rural locations across the country.

“No amount of rain-soaked corn dogs would ever get in the way of the possibility of horrific child accidents and the consolation to be found within the huge white spaces that encompass every discount item imaginable.  Toys included.”

NOT a “Binary Proposition”

My corporate masters recently promoted me (after only ten years since my last promotion) from “analyst” to “manager.”  The money is better than before, of course – not quite as much as I had been hoping for, and still not enough to cover what I lost from part-time teaching.  But at least I am back to working forty (instead of fifty) hours a week to make ends meet, freeing up those ten extra hours for other satisfying non-financial pursuits, e.g., art, music, reading and writing.

The company regularly holds “new leader” manager orientations, for both the new and others looking to improve their managerial skills.  I attended one last week, a two-day session that ran the gamut from reviewing the company’s “leadership model” to role-playing sessions of how to work with those you manage to engage them and make them feel they are a valued member of the team.  It was all good information, even for someone who’s never been particularly fond of authority figures, and who doesn’t relish the idea of being an authority figure now.  See what I do for money?

On the morning of the second day we considered the company’s five “leadership model” metrics, with a view towards gaining a means of evaluating our charges’ performance with respect to those metrics.  Of particular concern to one individual, who made up in bravado what he lacked in humility, was how to evaluate his employee’s performance with respect to the company’s ethics metric, expressed by the phrase “[we] Live Our Values.”  He understood how things like business results, innovation, etc. admit of degrees.  When it came to living values, though, he remarked, “How do you evaluate whether someone is ‘living rightly’?  You either are living that way or you aren’t – it’s a binary proposition!”  To which 21 of the other 22 “new leaders” in the room laughed in (what I thought was) agreement.

This both annoyed and angered me – annoyed insofar as living well is NOT a binary proposition and angered because it didn’t seem to me that anyone in the room recognized what the implications are of believing this either/or claim.

Regarding “living well” (living “morally” or “rightly” or “righteously,” and not necessarily “prosperously”) as an either/or matter implies there is some threshold that one either does or doesn’t meet.  It further implies there is no such thing as the possibility of improving one’s own moral character – one either is a good person or one isn’t.  It also suggests a certain timelessness about that moral character – if one is a good person today how can one not be a good person tomorrow?

An “either/or” approach to the idea of living well is both a symptom and a cause of deficient intellectual imagination.  A complicated, messy world cannot begin to be managed with any degree of satisfaction with a simple thumb up or down.  I found it disconcerting that those who strive day after day to improve the company’s financial well-being would not see the same necessity for doing likewise with the intrinsic value of living well.

See what we do for money.  What do we do for each other, for our greater good, for love?