Bill Gates and The Ashoka Complex
How do driven people get to positions of such enormous power?
And once there, how many transition into philanthropy? How many reshape our world to reduce human suffering, expand access to learning and opportunity or reverse ecological harm?
I’d been thinking about this a lot and realized there seems to be a dominant archetype, and a logical decision tree that shapes the very structures of our society. I wove these learnings into the book manuscript I’m writing, “Mutineers: A Beginner’s Guide to Incentive Design,” and I’ve called this dominant archetype “The Ashoka Complex.”
Why did I settle on this name? I was reflecting on Bill Gates. He seems to have lived a life that paralleled many world-shaping figures, but foremost in my mind was 3rd century B.C.E. king Ashoka from present day India. Ashoka’s story seems emblematic, a retold story as old as history itself.
Essentially, Ashoka was a warlord, a very successful one, who conquered one of the largest kingdoms the world had ever seen, at vast cost of lives. According to most historians, this did seem to trouble his conscience, but not enough to halt his armies’ rampages. Once Ashoka’s power was consolidated, he invited renunciates and purveyors of wisdom from throughout his kingdoms to debate and present their insights for questioning at his court. Eventually, he chose a small sect, now called Buddhism, as his official state religion and carved Buddhist edicts, ethical injunctions on lion topped columns placed throughout the Indian sub-continent. These still appear on the Indian rupee note today. He became one of the most thoughtful proponents of peace and prosperity our world had ever known, but only after the burn and pillage phase had passed.
To feel a similar sense of accomplishment, perhaps even personal safety, a modern person on this parallel path accumulates as much wealth and assets as possible by any means necessary (hopefully he avoids killing or prison, but certainly not litigation). Eventually he’ll finally feel he has enough (The Number). His empire is achieved and he can soften, perhaps marry a kind person, widen his circle of empathy. Pull this off and he may end up as the most impactful philanthropist our planet has ever known. This sounds like a ledger of far more good than harm, right? Build a monopoly, dominate the planet, contribute a lot of value. No victims there.
But there is a big problem with this aspirational norm.
Our best, brightest and most compassionate young people are all aiming to be like Bill. Let’s not waste time thinking critically. Let’s act relentlessly, and emulate him. Young people do the calculations. The math imbedded in our current incentives doesn’t lie. Don’t make a difference now. Defer compassion. Amass wealth and power and become far more impactful as a rich philanthropist later than you ever would by starting out as a hand to mouth humanitarian.
We are that person or we know them, someone who started out with a big soft heart. Maybe we chose to pass on Peace Corps and go into finance or banking or corporate law instead. The process of doing whatever it takes to get rich changes us, doesn’t it? Critical thinking applied to our daily vocation becomes a liability, so it’s turned off more generally. Most of us never reach the number where we feel safe. Appetites and easy credit keep us running hard. The vast majority of folks who aspire to be like Bill end up living a frantic, self-indulgent life and never get to the second part, or do so only in a very limited fashion. And so we’ve seen a massive gulf open where the middle class once operated, wealth inequality perhaps unparalleled in the history of our planet.
Is it possible to reimagine the calculus so that a soft-hearted and compassionate, top of her class graduate at an elite university might choose to retain that big circle of empathy all through life? Maybe she could see a path to not starving, a way to have that big impact without having to create an extractive empire? Maybe she could skip the conquest and start as a humanitarian making a big impact?
I wrote a chapter on this in my manuscript. The base layer issue is the ethics driving effort, a “more is always better” philosophy of accumulation and exploitation. That’s what needs to be remedied. And not by tinkering at the margins with edits, but by creating new incentive systems to render this kind of maximalism obsolete. Either we invent new paradigms that drive behaviors, the coordination of human effort, in the direction of more modest human consumption, human industry in equilibrium with the biosphere, or we collapse. Collapse may come fast or slow, but every scientific indicator reveals its approach.
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