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Creating Value In a Meaningless Universe

Gold is an ancient symbol of value
Not all that glitters is gold. What is the secret of value?

In business, the concept of creating value or adding value to a product or service has become a go-to catchphrase. It’s simple enough, if you add value, then you make something more valuable. If it’s more valuable then its sale is inevitable. A product that has a greater perceived value and its price gives the advantage to the salesperson. A service that provides value for the customer seems like a no-brainer trade. It is simple enough, however, there are some complications to the simple formula. From at least an existentialist view of the universe, value is arbitrary, and from a market perspective, the buyer is always the arbiter. This means that apart from some cunning tricks of psychology, that the definition and appearance of value changes from product to product, service to service, and person to person.

As a purely capitalistic issue, that kind of variability does not scale well. For this reason, larger markets are made to work within broader value systems. For instance, every human being values, at least for themselves, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That means a product that either keeps you alive, keeps you free, or helps you pursue pleasure is an easier sell to a larger segment of people. This is especially true if the problem that it solves, the specific way in which it helps to protect or provide these values, is a problem that affects average, healthy people. While everyone is aging, for example, it is primarily a very specific age group that comes face-to-face with the threat to life and happiness that comes from aging. If the experience of a problem is differet across a population, the solution (and the product tied to that solution) may come in many forms.

So is there a universal method to assess and add value, or is it inextricably tied to the subjective experience? An answer to this question could be a potentially powerful tool for the business owner, salesperson, or marketer who can understand it. Not to mention the designers, product developers, and even consumers. An efficient and universally applicable formula for measuring and applying value would possibly mean the ability to set indisputable prices based on the value absolute that is provided from a product combined with the hard cost for creating it. First, it should be made clear that there is not necessarily an agreed-upon definition a value. Second, it should also be made clear that such a definition might not be useful or pragmatic for the sake of working with competitive markets. That all having been said, I would like to begin by presenting my idea of what value fundamentally is. This will require establishing a couple of concepts and jumping through a few hoops.

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Do You Catch My Meaning, Here

If we lived in a meaningless universe, then this would be a very brief point to make. The problem, however, is that regardless of how well-developed existentialist or nihilist arguments are delivered, the universe has meaning, or at least has meaning in it. Human beings are in the universe, and human beings perceive meaning. The perception of meaning is enough for meaning to exist because meaning is a construct that doesn’t need further measurement, it just needs an activity to act on its behalf. Meaning is a result of equivalence and representation. For example, the word “banana” means “an oblong, curved, yellow fruit”. The word has meaning and exists to represent its object. In objective terms, the word banana is not equivalent to the physical fruit, but behaviorally, they do bear equivalence. The word acts as a stand-in reference to the fruit even when it isn’t there. If I said “look for the banana in the adjacent room,” I have referenced what you need to know to distinguish a banana in a room neither of us is in.

Almost every consumer product and service can be described in terms of meaning. Medicine can mean life or death to somebody, which is a pretty hefty meaning to carry. Figuring out what something means to somebody is a key way of learning the value it holds to them. The problem with stopping here is that as I’ve mentioned, one thing can represent or be equivalent to another. I did not, however, describe any top-level ideas or entities to which everything can ultimately point. This implies that meaning is still an arbitrary relationship. In order to create something fairly strong, we will need a top-level entity or series of entities that other concepts can inherit or derive subsequent referential meaning. At best we can say all meaning represents some experience and all experience represents some instance of reality, but without some way to usefully divide and measure reality, or some unit of reality, we reach a bit of a dead end.

Give Me Just One Reason

The word reason has a couple of meanings, both of which I will use in parallel here. For starters, reason is a way in which we are able to employ rational logic. Further, reason is also an explanation of purpose.

Rational Meaning

Rational logic is a system of managing values. For instance, mathematics tells us that 2 + 2 = 4. In other words, either side of the equal sign contains a statement of equal value. This works really well in the world of pure numbers but gets messier as we escape into the real world. It’s for this reason, actually, that money has come to exist in the first place. Bartering led to a variable ad hoc trading system in which certain people’s resources were inconsistently valued across the market. The items of trade were too real to hold a steady or universal value. Money created a way to capture their value. For example, if I collected berries for a living, the value of my berries was up to the whims of whomever I wanted to trade with. Not to mention, berries depreciate quickly because they will eventually spoil and rot. With a money-based system, I could convert my berries into their cash value, just like everyone else would do with their resources, and now we all have a single resource to trade that appreciates and depreciates at the same rate based on the same circumstances. Money, however, is also pretty arbitrary. The value is based solely on a manipulatable market, and that market based off of a combination of human behavior and natural influences. There is no conservation of value in this system, which suggest that the only is not absolute but that it also cannot be. Either that or the market as it currently stands is a highly inefficient engine.

Reason as a purpose is very similar to meaning with one major and important difference. Meaning places equivalence between two or more entities, whether those entities are words, products, or concepts. Purpose, however, implies a sense of utility. A meaningful universe represents something, while a purposeful universe has something that it needs to do. It has a point and is trying to get somewhere. As a value system, purpose is goal-oriented. Things are more or less valuable as they aid or distract from progress toward a single outcome. In post-modern culture, there is a zeitgeist of doubting any form of universal reason. It is unfashionable to describe things at large in a context of purpose but quite the opposite at the scale of the individual or an organization. I definitely do not have a strong argument that there is a purpose to the universe, so there may not be a great argument here for universal value. However, arguments that can be derived by advocates of Richard Dawkins can suggest a type of purpose to human life. Genes and cells as functional units exist with a utility; this utility is to propagate. While there is great success found from using sex and sexuality as a sales and marketing model, it is also clear that both are subject to sweeping cultural influence. While genetic propagation is fairly objective, the rituals, methods, and symbols of them are not. Again, another dead end.

Is It Worth It? Let Me Work It!

Now that we’ve described meaning, reason as rationality, and reason as purpose as being merely packages and envelopes for value let’s describe what value is. Value as a word simply describes the quality of an object, entity, or idea. The shine of gold is a quality of that metal. The fungibility of a dollar is a quality of that tender. The rarity of a gemstone is a quality of that mineral. These qualities are values because they can be encountered or measured. When we use that word in common speech, that is when we say that something is “quality” or is a “thing of quality”, we are describing the virtue of its combined or prominent qualities as being remarkably high or noble. They are virtues. For that matter, the word virtue, which simply means a quality that can be experienced (virtual) also has an intrinsic implication of being good for honorable. So while value, quality, and virtue all simply describe the properties of a thing or idea, positive or negative, they all seem to insinuate something positive. Why? Because value is generative.

If we were to take the above and start describing what value is, we might have to say that value is made of experience. That it is generated by existing consciously. That value is phenomenological and the value or quality of something is based on the gestalt of the experience of encountering it. This, however, still seems very human-centric. If we didn’t exist there may very well not be any value in the universe. If you wanted to get more universal, we have to take a step back from experience. It’s for that reason I say that value is a measurable packet of attention. After laughing at the fun wordplay opportunities like “paying attention,” and “raised interest” you might stop and say “hey, attention sounds even more human-centric than experience!” I’m going to play a little fast and loose with the definition of the word, but attention means “to regard something, to take notice of it, or regard it as important”. It comes from the Latin root -tendere which means “to stretch”. It’s the same root as words like intention and extend.

So I’m going to say that attention isn’t merely a conscious activity like experience is. Attention is a response that validates the existence of a secondary entity. If I throw a rock at a glass window, you better believe that window paid attention. By shattering it validated the stone flying through the air. “Valid” and “value” also come from the same root. If something is valid, it evaluates to true. If something is true, it is real. And by our first definition of meaning it, therefore, represents a part of objective reality. I even go as far as to say that attention is the gold standard of value. Now, if it’s the gold standard, then what is the currency? Well, the difference between monetary standard and currency is that the currency is the representation of the former. And it is completely fungible, that is its value is equivalent to all other forms of itself. One dollar has the same value as each other dollar. I think that effort is the representation of attention that acts as the spendable and tradeable universal currency for attention. If attention is finite and consistent in the universe as the total amount of validations capable within the universe, then effort is the sum total of all work that can be done in the universe to become validated. There are a lot of interesting questions here. Not least of which is, “does that mean that the more real something is that the more valuable it is?” or “does that mean that the greater impact something has is also the greater value?” The intuitive answer to these things is yes, but I think they deserve your own conversation. Let’s get back to our original topic.

How does this work?

If attention and effort act in the way that I have described above, then it stands to reason that to make a product or service more valuable you simply need to apply more attention and effort into it. Well, that seems to be a huge duh. It’s very intuitive, but just like gold and money, you have to decide where to spend attention and effort to get the best result. What is it called when you pay the right kind of attention and extend the right kind of effort? Pay them in a way that is generative, that creates something more? It’s called caring. The secret to value is to care. And it is just that simple.

“Are you telling me that you drug me through a year of freshman philosophy just to tell me that if I care about my product and customers, I give and I get more value?” Yes. Yes, that’s precisely what I did. I think it’s important to realize that it’s easy for us to have our attention and effort put into other places, but fundamentally if we are trying to create a world of ever-increasing value we need to make sure that we put in the right effort and attention. We need to make sure that we care. Care about our products, services, customers, the market itself, and the ecosystems that they all interact and. As I possibly demonstrated above it is a concern of universal scale. Care is an economic and sustainability matter and should be held in mind constantly and dearly.

Are you a business owner or entrepreneur planning or designing a new product or service? Consider putting care first. Are you a salesperson or marketer? Place care directly in front of your audience. Are you a buyer or consumer? Search for the products that not only you care for, but that care for you, that are strong with the aroma of care. It is the key to value, to ethical success, to conscious capitalism, and to sustainable economic development. We can all reap the benefits from a wealth of care, and it’s a paycheck that’s paid with each instance of effort, not the week after. We have to care more if we care even at all. I say this fervently and in earnest, not because I’m trying to drive a point, but rather it is because I truly care.

Let’s talk about how to use care to generate value in your product or service!