The purple prose of Shervin Pishevar: the limits of passion at work
Investor Shervin Pishevar wrote a letter defending his friend, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, as investors attempted to eject him from Uber’s board of directors. It’s the most florid business communication you’ll ever see. In a moment of passion, you may be tempted to write like this. Don’t — it’ll come back to haunt you.
Here’s the backstory. After a host of toxic scandals, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned. Uber investor Benchmark Capital sued to remove Kalanick from the company’s board of directors. Pishevar, another Uber investor, apparently wrote this letter to fire up the passion of lawyers attempting to preserve Kalanick’s board seat.
There’s no describing it: you just have to read the whole thing. Then I’ll deconstruct it.
Let us take this pause in this moment, when we find ourselves swimming in the crucible of one of the grandest business and moral battles of our generation, and find strength in each stroke of our proverbial digital pens, that we wrote with the indelible, eternal and permanent ink of righteousness. We write with the souls of thousands of lives saved, the lives of millions of jobs created liberating multitudes of drivers from the shackles of servitude to iniquitous taxi cartels of corrupt cabals that choked cities with their pollution of air and morals. We write with the spirit of Bonnie Kalanick, who raised her son with deep unconditional love and unfading faith in his ability to do good for the world. Whose tragic and untimely death was used against her son at his most vulnerable, unspeakable time of pain. They chose to strike at a moment of a devoted son’s retreat and leave of absence to mourn the absence of the inviolable love of his mother. In doing so, they joined the very corruption her son had devoted such fervent passion to fight. In her memory, we devote our actions to a just cause; to defend what is right and to protect the interest of not only shareholders but most importantly the far more important stakeholders of employees, drivers and customers whose lives have been forever altered by the abiding faith and fervent hard work of Travis Kalanick and the Uber team. Their allegiance was met by this unholy alliance of perfidious greed devolving rapidly into the audacity of vituperative unparalleled predatory rapacity.
Let us strike tomorrow with the full and fulsome courage of our convictions. Let our just cause give pause to those who would ever dream of ever emulating the shameful shenanigans of these sanctimonious hypocrites who fling filings and letters de haut en bas; when it is we who have the higher moral ground and our letters and filing will hail down upon their platforms, exposing them as bitterly barren barons of moral turpitude. And as the summer sets, we let us be steward of truth who in unison proclaim: fiat justitia ruat caelum.
Not nearly everything wrong with this letter
What the heck did I just read?
This is what happens when people with big vocabularies get carried away. Here’s are a few notable elements that don’t belong in any business communication (and thanks to Becky Peterson of Business Insider for decoding some of this):
swimming in the crucible: The crucible is a metaphor for a time of great stress. It’s where you melt metal. You don’t swim in it.
proverbial digital pens: What proverb mentions digital pens?
indelible, eternal and permanent ink of righteousness: Three redundant synonyms for permanent can’t change the fact that digital words aren’t permanent.
the souls of thousands of lives saved, the lives of millions of jobs created liberating multitudes of drivers from the shackles of servitude to iniquitous taxi cartels of corrupt cabals that choked cities with their pollution of air and morals: Nice turns of phrase about the corruption of the taxi industry, although cartels of cabals are redundant. Perhaps this is enough to distract the readers from all the corrupt things that Kalanick and Uber did? Ends justify the means, perhaps?
We write with the spirit of Bonnie Kalanick, who raised her son with deep unconditional love and unfading faith in his ability to do good for the world. Whose tragic and untimely death was used against her son at his most vulnerable, unspeakable time of pain. They chose to strike at a moment of a devoted son’s retreat and leave of absence to mourn the absence of the inviolable love of his mother: If you love your mother and she dies, you get to keep your job. This may be heartbreaking — even business titans have moms — but it’s not much of a legal argument.
unholy alliance of perfidious greed devolving rapidly into the audacity of vituperative unparalleled predatory rapacity: Hold on a second, I almost swallowed my thesaurus. I love some of these words: “perfidious greed” is awesome. Perfidious means evil and deceitful, and carries a connotation of being a despicable traitor; I used to use it to describe my old boss. Vituperative means bitter and abusive, while rapacious (the more common adjective form of rapacity) means greedy and carries echoes of another word from the same root origin, “rape.” This many big and obscure words in one phrase carries a different connotation: it proves the writer is just showing off.
full and fulsome courage: Fulsome can mean excessively flattering, or sometimes abundant. I know Shervin means the latter and likes the alliteration, but the connotations of excessive flattery are distracting.
shameful shenanigans of these sanctimonious hypocrites who fling filings, bitterly barren barons of moral turpitude: Now you’re just saying stuff because you like the sound of the words. Flung any filings at bitterly barren barons lately?
de haut en bas: French, literally means “from on high to down low;” figuratively, means “in a condescending way.”
fiat justitia ruat caelum: I had to look this one up; my French is ok, but I never took Latin. It means “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” Lawyer friends: do people in the law really say this?
ROAM analysis: Why this letter is a failure
Let’s assume that, as advertised, this letter is supposed to fire up a bunch of lawyers. So here’s the ROAM analysis:
- Readers: lawyers
- Objective: make lawyers care about their work in this case
- Action: generate effective legal arguments
- iMpression: make the lawyers respect Pishevar
From this perspective, the letter is an utter failure. Lawyers reading this letter will think Pishevar is a raving fool; it could conceivably motivate them, but it won’t help them work any better. Lawyers are not football players; pep talks in the locker room don’t help them perform.
Perhaps the real audience is not actually the lawyers. Maybe Pishevar just wants to stir up public opinion. He did read the letter on CNBC. So let’s analyze it from that perspective:
- Readers: general business press and businesspeople who care about Uber
- Objective: explain why Kalanick deserves your sympathy
- Action: turn public opinion in favor of Kalanick
- iMpression: perceive Pishevar as credible
Still a failure. Businesspeople don’t respond to prose that would make a romance novelist blush. And this is unlikely to sway Uber’s public perception among businesspeople, a reputation currently in the toilet due to failing to pay drivers properly, circumventing local regulators, verbally abusing drivers, evading law enforcement, and countless other transgressions.
Why you should never do this
“Passion” is all the rage in business writing. It’s bullshit. To succeed in business you need intelligence, creativity, competence, and the ability to work on a team. Passion is fleeting; prioritizing emotion over competence results in poor work that you’ll have to redo later. The other thing about passion is that, regardless of what you might think, it doesn’t result in leadership. Passionate people who can explain what they’re doing and why to subordinates and investors will succeed, not because they are passionate, but because they are committed. Passionate people who don’t know what they’re doing and can’t effectively explain it will just become figures of ridicule. That’s exactly what is happening with Shervin Pishevar’s letter.
People at work sometimes get very excited about their cause. I know I have. If you do, you may be tempted to apply your literary talents and write something like this. That would be very dumb. Even if you have anything close to Pishevar’s talent for florid prose, you are going to look like an idiot. You will not help your cause; businesspeople care about logic, numbers, team dynamics and many other factors, but not poetry. Go ahead if you want; write something like this. Then put it away and never show it to anyone, unless you’re auditioning as a writer for the next Aaron Sorkin drama.