Apple is a Manic Pixie Dream Firm

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Nancy and I saw Ruby Sparks last night, and really enjoyed it. It’s written by Zoe Kazan, who also stars, and it absolutely skewers the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.

Nathan Rabin defined Manic Pixie Dreams Girls (MPDG) in his review of Elizabethtown:

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family.

You can identify a MPDG because she:

  • Is beautiful, uninhibited, and usually kooky. Or weird.
  • Likes the hero of the movie for no real apparent reason.
  • Has no obvious inner life, career aspirations, or desires of her own.

Examples are the characters played by Natalie Portman in Garden State, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild, to pick three examples from three different eras. If you’re still not clear on the concept, this might help:

Ruby Sparks quite cleverly sends up this trope by making the title character explicitly the creation of a writer’s imagination. Then every time she tries to express a desire or need of her own, he freaks out.

The Manic Pixie Dream Firm

As Nancy and I talked about the film today, I realised that Apple is a Manic Pixie Dream Firm.

Last week we saw Bob Sutton moderate a talk by Geoffrey Nunberg, discussing Nunberg’s new book Ascent of the A-Word. During the discussion, Sutton talked about his theory that Steve Jobs is a Rorschach Test. The piece about Jobs in Wired that came out last week quotes Sutton, and says:

Sutton now thinks that Jobs was too contradictory and contentious a man, too singular a figure, to offer many usable lessons. As the tale of those Chinese CEOs demonstrates, Jobs has become a Rorschach test, a screen onto which entrepreneurs and executives can project a justification of their own lives: choices they would have made anyway, difficult traits they already possess. “Everyone has their own private Steve Jobs,” Sutton says. “It usually tells you a lot about them—and little about Jobs.”

Like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Jobs is a projection. One consequence of this is that peoples’ view of Apple is often a Rorschach test as well – it becomes the firm that they want it to be – a Manic Pixie Dream Firm.

A post by Jessica G. argues that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is dangerous, because it creates unrealistic expectations of what women should be. I think that the Manic Pixie Dream Firm is equally dangerous.

How to Identify a Manic Pixie Dream Firm

You can identify a Manic Pixie Dream Firm because it:

  • Never Makes Mistakes: the Manic Pixie Dream Firm understands its market perfectly. So it never has to deal with uncertainty, and it never does anything wrong. It is a beacon of stability and hope in a world filled with chaos.
  • Does things by magic: the MPDF usually springs from genius. This means that the things that it does will never work in a normal firm. It is so far out of the norm that there is no point trying to do the same things in your firm.
  • Makes everyone happy: because it is perfect and never makes mistakes, a MPDF makes its customers, employees and fans happy. All the time.

Why Manic Pixie Dream Firms are Dangerous

The Manic Pixie Dream Firm trope is extremely dangerous, much like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is. The latter takes all the responsibility out of the hands of the movie hero. The MPDG exists to make him happy, and to enable him to do his creative work. In most of the movies with a MPDG, she fixes things for the hero, whether they end up together or not.

But that’s not the way that real relationships work. No one makes you happy – you’re responsible for yourself.

It’s the same with work. The Manic Pixie Dream Firm trope is dangerous for two reasons. The first is that it creates an unattainable ideal for firms to reach. This is part of what I am trying to get at with The Innovation Matrix – because not everyone can (or should) be Apple, Google or Procter & Gamble.

We need to understand how real firms work, because this how we undertake evidence-based management. We actually know a lot about what makes firms work – but we often don’t use this knowledge. In part, we don’t use what we know because it doesn’t fit with the distorted view of what a perfect firm should be created by the Manic Pixie Dream Firm idea.

The second problem with the MPDF is that it takes responsibility away from managers and workers for making their firms better. If a MPDF never makes mistakes, and does this by magic (or genius, same thing), then there’s no hope for the rest of us. Which means that if our firm isn’t as great as the Manic Pixie Dream Firm, then it is our firm’s fault for being inadequate.

But it’s not our firm’s fault – it’s ours. Firms are made of people, and we determine how our firms work.

The movie hero really needs to take control of his own life, instead of relying on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to fix everything for him. And we need to take control of our work lives, instead of relying on the Manic Pixie Dream Firm to fix everything for us.

Goals based on illusions can’t be met. The clip below from NPR concludes by saying that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a wonderful character, but not a real person. Believing that she’s real is the danger.

In the same way, the Manic Pixie Dream Firm may be a wonderful character in a business book, but they’re not real either. If you spend your working life looking for one, you’re bound to be disappointed. That is why the way that we often talk about Apple, Google, and, for quite a while Toyota, can be dangerous. We end up describing idealised fantasy firms built by untouchable geniuses. Hoping to somehow work for a firm like this is dangerous, because they don’t exist.

It’s better to do what you can to make your own firm great.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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