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John Mackey

The New Yorker has a good article about John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market. I worked for WFM around the turn of the century, hired as “Internet Guy” (one of my titles, along with Online Community Director and, at the end, Director of Technology for WholePeople.com). It was an important transition for me – I went from being a self-educated web maven to a manager of various web development projects and interactive elements, wearing many hats along the way. John was already in my network, but we became better acquainted in the three or so years I was working on WholeFoods.com and WholePeople.com. It was an intense late-dotcom-era experience, and I was devastated when all the work we’d done evaporated following the dotcom bust. Associates told me I should write a book about my experiences, but I wasn’t sure what part of the story I would tell. It was mostly hard work and inevitable internal politics; none of it seemed as interesting to me at the time as the vision that hadn’t quite succeeded.

Based on what I know of John through personal experience and shared acquaintances, the article in the New Yorker is about as accurate as an article can be. Obviously you can’t capture the full complexity of any human being in a few thousand words, and that’s especially true of someone as complex as John. One thing I’ve always admired most about John is his honesty, and I think that comes through in the article. As I’ve noted in a conversation with an author masquerading as “Kat Herding” on Facebook, a person can be both honest and deluded; I wouldn’t agree with John on a lot of points – like his recently, controversially articulated position against healthcare reform – but in any conversation I’ve ever had with him, he was completely straight, sometimes brutally honest. Whether he’s “right,” or deluded, or coming more from ego than from a position of true self-awareness is another question. But that question pertains to all of us, no?

John is at his best in this exchange, from the article:

…is he at heart an entrepreneur, who discovered, in natural foods, a worthy vehicle for self-actualization and self-enrichment, or a missionary, who discovered in the grocery business a worldly vehicle for change?

“So that’s a very interesting question,” he said, leaning forward. “How are they opposed to one another? People think that they are, but why do you think they’re opposed?”

I said that I didn’t think they had to be.

“I don’t, either. In fact, I think they’re very connected together. This is a paradigm that has polarized our country and led to bad thinking. It’s holding the nation’s progress back. It’s as if there were a wall. And on one side of the wall is this belief that not-for-profits and government exist for public service, and that they’re fundamentally altruistic, that they have a deeper purpose, and they’re doing good in the world, and they have pure motives. On the other side of the wall are corporations. And they’re just selfish and greedy. They have no purpose other than to make money. They’re a bunch of psychopaths. And I’d like to tear that wall down. Human beings are obviously self-interested. We do look after ourselves, but we’re capable of love, empathy, and compassion, and I don’t see that business is any different.”

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