Death and Taxes

The road to outperformance is not the one that takes you 'back-to-basics'

Benjamin Franklin (in a letter to Jean Baptiste Le Roy) wrote that "... nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes".

Our Brains

Carl Sagan - "Cosmos":

“Deep inside the skull of every one of us there is something like a brain of a crocodile. Surrounding the R-complex is the limbic system or mammalian brain, which evolved tens of millions of years ago in ancestors who were mammal but not yet primates. It is a major source of our moods and emotions, of our concern and care for the young. And finally, on the outside, living in uneasy truce with the more primitive brains beneath, is the cerebral cortex; civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.”


Immediate (possible) mortal danger causes the amygdala (brain stem) to release hormones that prepare our bodies for fight/flight/freeze responses. This ancient part of our brains 'controls' a large part of our decision-making. The amygdala is also called the 'reptilian' brain as its evolutionary origins go back almost to the times of the dinosaurs. It is our first line of defense against mortal threats.

Fight/flight/freeze responses are not conscious decisions. Of more interest (to us here) is how the neocortex part of our brains respond to the concept of death. I.e., how do we consciously respond to knowledge of imminent or eventual death?

As one could have guessed, yes, there is a branch of psychology, named Terror Management Theory, that concerns itself with how we deal with the concept of our mortality. It's a worthwhile exercise to consider the links between our mortality-related thinking (maybe even our thanatophobia) and phenomena such as climate change denial, celebrity culture, politics, and, of course, religion and the afterlife.


Leaving aside the associated negatives, one has to admit that is a glorious privilege to be able to pay tax. Paying taxes means that there is income and/or profits.

So, this cheerful statement then leads us to back to what interests us here, namely business.

Death (again)

Many of our posts here have been about Outperformance: how can our company do much better than everybody else?

But, let's face it - for every company that strives to Outperform, there are many companies that are gazing into the abyss.

Friedrich Niezsche's quote (from "Beyond Good and Evil") is then an applicable (although slightly misused here) warning:

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

And Cormac McCarthy's quote (from "Suttree") does not apply:

“How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.”

All of use who have ever been part of a company's death journey will definitely 'remember'. And that type of 'nothingness' is most definitely a curse.

Taxes (again)

So, how does a struggling (or dying) company avoid gazing into the abyss for too long?

Unsurprisingly, the answers to that question are the exact same answers to how Outperformance is achieved: Brand-building, strategy, marketing, innovation, innovation hubs, venturing, hyper-agility, art, science, and more. Oh, yes, and a guiding policy underpinned by (lived!) guiding principles.

The athletes at the back of the bunch can improve by using the same training approaches through which the best athletes get better.

Death? Again?

It has been interesting, and will continue to be interesting, to watch whether Pick 'n Pay will manage to pull out of their death spiral - and one would think that technical insolvency is sufficient evidence for such a label?

How much "back-to-basics" and how much innovation?

And, finally,

You may want to read this assessment (that, inter alia, points here) of Sagan's statement about our brains too.