Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas – My Six Lessons and Takeaways

If you have an understanding of the world that’s currently faulty, how are you going to find that out?
Dani Rodrik, asked in Winners Take All


There are books that help you know what to do next.  There are books that help you plan, or critique your work.

Winners Take AllAnd then there are true big, big picture books; what one of my mentors calls “big think books.”  This is that kind of book. Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World is a tough book to read.  Tough in the sense that it makes you think, re-think, reset, and ask all sorts of disturbing questions.  Like, what are we doing to our world with our current approach to success?

The subtitle says so much: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.  His premise is this:  that there are a very small number of people who have so very much that they now have the luxury of trying to do good.  But, as they try to do good, they do not ever stop to ask, or ponder, how that their ways that they attained their plenty was doing harm to the many.

I’ve started asking about the books I read:  What is the point?  Here’s my summary of the point of this book:  Many very wealthy well-meaning people are seeking to change the world by helping people. But, as they seek to do good, they ignore correcting the bad.  This may be their great big failure.

I always ask: Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three reasons for this book:

#1 – There is a new generation of very wealthy people aiming to change the world for the better.  Are they being honest? successful?  This book will help you think about these issues.
#2 – This book is a “What is government for? What is business for? What is success for?” big think book.  It is worth pondering such questions.  This book will help you do that. 
#3 – This book will remind you that the world of work has truly changed; and will continue to change.  How will the these changes impact the “common people?” 

Here are a number of my highlighted passages from the book:

Rich American men, who tend to live longer than the average citizens of any other country, now live fifteen years longer than poor American men, who endure only as long as men in Sudan and Pakistan.

Thus many millions of Americans, on the left and right, feel one thing in common: that the game is rigged against people like them.  

Conferences and idea festivals sponsored by plutocrats and big business host panels on injustice and promote “thought leaders” who are willing to confine their thinking to improving lives within the faulty system rather than tackling the faults.

This book is an attempt to understand the connection between these elites’ social concern and predation, between the extraordinary helping and the extraordinary hoarding, between the milking—and perhaps abetting—of an unjust status quo and the attempts by the milkers to repair a small part of it. …The slightly more critical view is that this elite-led change is well-meaning but inadequate.

What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. 

These elites believe and promote the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law and the reform of the systems that people share in common; that it should be supervised by the winners of capitalism and their allies, and not be antagonistic to their needs; and that the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo should play a leading role in the status quo’s reform.

The MarketWorld problem-solver does not tend to hunt for perpetrators and is not interested in blame.

Real change can require being against things.

Here’s what I think the author is saying:  that the really, really wealthy have now developed a desire to help others.  That is good, but not enough.  And, they don’t have much trust in any approach other than their own “superior” wisdom; wisdom based on the markets – “Marketworld”.  With apology to Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, they believe that their one idea (their one approach) is the only idea to follow.

I included a few thoughts in my synopsis handout, and in my presentation verbally:

• let’s start here:
• let’s not pass judgment on motive. It is possible to want the best for people; to be well-meaning; but to be very wrong…
• and, yes, it is also possible to be selfish jerks; or to become “corrupted;” and/or to become “willfully blind”
• and, let’s remember the law of unintended consequences…(consider opioids)

The author invents/sees/perceives a new “world” — MarketWorld:The Elite “MarketWorld” — MarketWorld is an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.MarketWorld is a network and community, but it is also a culture and state of mind. …they have their own conferences (e.g., TED; Aspen Ideas Festiival; Clinton Global Initiative, and others) — Elite networking forums like the Aspen Institute and the Clinton Global Initiative groom the rich to be self-appointed leaders of social change, taking on the problems people like them have been instrumental in creating or sustaining. …they have their own neighborhoods, clubs, gated communities, even gated/protected discos.

He suggests that maybe the question asked by the elite is:  does the business/management approach provide the only solution to follow (cf. McKinsey). They seem to say yes to this question.

And here’s a question – if you make money in a “bad way” (e.g.; selling opioids, turning a blind eye to how they are being used; selling Newport cigarettes) can you “make it up” with generous philanthropy?

  • And he speaks of the fallacy of “Win-Win” – there is not always a “win-win!”

And here are my six lessons and takeaways:

#1 – Choosing a career path that provides meaning and success, without adding to the gaping divide between people, is no easy task. But thinking about that gap should be part of one’s “what do I do with the rest of my life?” considerations.
#2 – Maybe, providing just the positive “wins” without dealing with why there are “losses (i.e., “losers,” rather than “winners”) is not the approach to follow.
#3 – Your table needs to save a seat for those on the “other end” of the spectrum.
#4 – The greater the gap, the more help will be needed. Maybe we need to restore some of the impact of government from earlier decades to help provide this help.
#5 — Beware of narrowness (the arrogance of “the one answer”), and arrogance which could come from such narrowness.
#6 – Silicone Valley elites (and, other elites) are probably not the wise solution-providers that they think they are, and that we may think them to be. They certainly should not be the only voices in the room.

People will think a little more deeply about things after reading this book.  And that kind of thinking would be good to tackle.

In Chapter Four, The Critic and the Thought Leader, he basically says that “thought leaders” come up with “tiny tweaks to make things better.”  (A phrase popularized by Amy Cuddy in her TED Talk).  But, maybe, we need critics, not “thought leaders,”  Critics who will actually criticize, and call people to genuiine change.  Big change.

So, what to do?  What to do?  I think the starting point recommended by Mr. Giridharadas is here:  learn to look for, point out and call out, and fix the bad that is caused by the profit, and even the good, that we pursue.


A footnote/recommendation:  If one were to look at Scripture, one might recommend reading the book of Amos along with this book.  But, I’m not sure Amos changed things much either.

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