A friend and I were recently talking about the upcoming WeWork IPO and some of the more questionable decisions that its CEO Adam Neumann had made – including the decision to trademark the “We” brand and then sell its rights to WeWork for $5.9M.
Almost collectively we wondered: “what must he have been thinking?”
But then I remembered something that helped me understand – or at least try to understand – what he must have been thinking: namely not much.
I remembered that many years ago, before my friends and I went to North Korea, I felt very anxious about the trip and that I had sworn myself to be utterly cautious while there. But then, a few days into the trip, all of those worries were gone. We felt at ease, drinking, joking, taking pictures, and just behaving with a comfort that I could have never foreseen. At some point I was even sitting on a barber chair and a woman was shaving my neck with a razor. Ahead of the trip, this idea would have appeared insane to me.
It made me realize what a difference there is between how we see things from the outside versus how things feel from the inside once we are in the moment.
It was the same story with Otto Warmbier who had presumably stolen a sign in North Korea and was sentenced to prison. While it’s not entirely clear whether it was all staged or not, but after my own experience in North Korea, it was comprehensible to me that after a few days in the country, you might let go of your fears, start to feel comfortable, and do something evidently stupid. Except that in that moment it doesn’t really feel that stupid anymore.
Once you are in the moment, things just look differently. You start building your own narratives and rationalize away concerns that you might have previously held. You build your own reality. It’s very similar to Elizabeth Holmes’ story of Theranos, or Jho Low’s story of the 1MDB fund. From the outside, WTF. From the inside, a world that makes perfectly sense to you because it runs on your own narrative.
And I thought that it might have been a very similar story with that “We” trademark deal with WeWork. From the outside this looks stupid. But from the inside, I am sure it didn’t as much. It’s not justification for what he did, but more an attempt to understand what he must have been thinking: namely not much.