This is the story of F.C. “Jack” Reith. You probably don’t know him, but we need his story right now. Reith was one of the Whiz Kids: A group of 10 Army Air Force veterans who helped America win World War II. Early in the war, the Army had no way to track how many planes it had, where planes were located, how many pilots it had, what parts were needed, and so on.
The logistics system was a guessing game, and the inefficiency started to take its toll. Seeing this, the Whiz Kids devised a system using teletype machines and punch card calculators to generate daily Army Air Force logistics reports. In an era before computers, this system gave the U.S. a competitive advantage and ended up saving over one billion dollars.
It’s incredible, but the real story starts after the war.
The Whiz Kids stuck together. They sent brochures to 100 major corporations to apply for work as a team. They only got one response. It was a telegram from Henry Ford, and it changed their lives. He invited the team to Detroit to meet, and he hired them all that day.
The Whiz Kids rose quickly. Most became executives, and Robert McNamara even rose to be the first non-Ford president of the company. Jack Reith became the president of Mercury.
It was destiny and Jack was ready.
Reith had a longstanding dream to build the greatest American automobile. He would eventually call it the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. With automatic adjusting “seat-o-matic” seats, a retractable rear window, and gold anodized trim, the car was the epitome of American excess. And Reith worked obsessively to design it, micromanaging everything down to the shapes of the headlights, knobs, and door pulls. The ads called the car a “Preview of the Future,” and by the time it was done, he saw it as his greatest contribution to this country.
Unfortunately, America didn’t agree. Despite a national promotional tour, the car was met with abysmal sales. It was an unequivocal failure. The company discontinued the Cruiser in 1958, and Jack Reith lost his job as the head of Mercury. He spiraled into a brutal and deep depression.
Jack Reith was ahead of his time.
But it wasn’t for the cars that he created. It was Reith’s approach to work that was the real preview of the future. What was it exactly? He outsourced his self-esteem. Jack Reith looked to customers, coworkers, and close relationships to give him the feedback that would help him define and build his own self worth. And that can be a dangerous path.
To be fair, we are social creatures with instinctual needs for external validation from the people close to us. This is not a new idea. The sociologist Charles Cooley wrote about this in his 1902 book, Human Nature and the Social Order. In that book he developed the now-famous concept of the looking-glass self, which he summed up as follows: “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”
Outsourcing our self-esteem may be an old idea, but it appears to be on the rise today. In one recent survey, over 62 percent of people responded that their self-worth was strongly tied to what others think. There is not a lot of research on what might be driving this increase, but two factors are likely at play in workplaces today.
Social media is changing our brains. Much has been written about how the real-time validation that is engineered into social media triggers dopamine-driven feedback loops that make the platforms addictive. It’s why adults in America spend an average of 2-4 hours per day tapping and typing on their devices, adding up to over 2,600 daily touches. But that addiction doesn’t necessarily stop with our phones. Once we train our brains to prioritize external validation, we will seek it at work in meetings, email threads, product launches, and more. It’s a bucket that never fills.
Modern work can be shallow. In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport paints a picture of work today where we face an endless stream of emails, meetings, and logistical tasks. By completing these transactional tasks, we can trigger a quick sense of accomplishment and external validation. And just like those social media posts, these logistical tasks can become addictive. How many times do you check your work email in a day? The problem is that shallow work doesn’t actually contribute significant long-term value to ourselves or the organization. It may be necessary, but it also feeds addiction.
So, what can we do?
This is dangerous territory. We are now at risk of venturing into the woo-woo waters of self-help motivation. Don’t worry, this isn't that, but the answer does come from within.
In Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he describes a future where hundreds of millions of jobs won't exist in 50 years, democracy loses footing on the global stage, and real ethical questions arise from automation and AI. It’s a sobering look at the forces of technology and nature that will inevitably shape our future.
But it’s how he ends that book that is most interesting. In the last chapter, Harari argues that the most important thing that we can do to survive in a world with increasing change and uncertainty is to discover the power of self-reflection and non-attachment using meditation. That is, the strength, resilience, and self-worth we need for the future will come from within.
Which brings us back to Jack Reith. At 2:00 AM on July 3, 1960, he grabbed a .38 caliber Colt revolver and shot himself twice in the chest. It was his son’s seventh birthday. His is the tragic story of a man with seemingly infinite ambition, vision, and creativity who just couldn’t see it. He couldn’t see past the looking-glass self.
To Jack Reith, and the peace inside us all.