Scott Galloway wants to be the most influential thought leader in the history of business. When asked why, he offered his usual self-criticism: mostly narcissism, a desire to be relevant, fear of death, a drive for economic security. “Mostly selfish reasons,” he summarized. Upon reflecting further, however, he noted, “I also feel as if I have something to say about technology and monopoly power and unchecked corporate interests. They’ve always existed, but I think it has gotten worse. As I’ve gotten older, experienced fatherhood, and looked back on how fortunate I was to be born when I was born, to be born who I was, and some of my struggles as a young man, I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about young men who I think are struggling in our society, and I want to have a positive influence there. It’s a mixture of wanting to be influential for some good reasons and some less good reasons.” For Prof G, it is always about finding pathways to self-improvement and helping others through comparable journeys of self-discovery.
Today, Galloway seems ubiquitous: from his podcasts, Pivot and the Prof G pod, his venture backed ed-tech company, Section 4, Prof G Media, which produces not only his podcast, but a weekly newsletter, YouTube videos, and a column for New York magazine, he is in your ears or in front of your eyes in many forms. Add to that his propensity to publish a book every 12 to 18 months or so, and it can feel like he is everywhere. His latest book has just been released, and it is called Adrift: America in 100 Charts.
Many of the 100 charts paint a bleak picture as to the state of the union in the United States. Galloway makes the case that, just as in 1945 and 1980, America is once again a nation at a crossroads. Some sections of the book include titles such as “Idolatry of Innovators”, “Privatized R&D; Privatized Progress”, “The Hunger Games”, “From Lopsided to Dystopian”, “The Attention Economy”, “Political Censorship and Fake News”, and “House of Cards.” It seems at times that Galloway believes there is more wrong than right with America. He admits to being a glass is half empty kind of guy, but he forces himself to highlight silver linings in addition to noting the existential challenges that we face. “Whenever I really sit down and look at the data, I think there’s a lot of wonderful points of light,” said Galloway. “You can be a pessimist, but we have one in five households with kids were food insecure pre-pandemic. It went to 1 in 11. With a simple child tax credit, we were able to reduce child poverty by 50%. Now the bad news is we decided at the last minute to strip it out of the infrastructure bill, but the good news is I’m not sure any of us even thought we could reduce it by 50% in a year.”
Galloway also pushes us to view the challenges with more perspective. Though the issues of the day might seem insurmountable, they are not greater than challenges we have given ourselves and accomplished in the past. “50 years ago, we sent three men into space, a quarter of a million miles away, and figured out a way to land them on…we didn’t even know what they were landing on,” said Galloway. “Somehow, we got them there and figured out a way to get them back home alive. It just feels like these are enormous problems and they’re…mole hills compared to the Everest that we’ve climbed as the nation before. Taking any one in isolation, that’ll never happen.”
Galloway is fond of saying, “There is nothing wrong with America that can’t be solved with what is right with America.” He notes that at a time when 54% of Democrats are most worried about their kid marrying a Republican and a third of each party sees the members of the other party as their mortal enemy, there are moments of remarkable grace. “If you look at a sober analysis of how we got here, the skills we have, the capital we have, the innovation, the generosity that’s built into the DNA of Americans, the uptick in empathy,” there is reason for optimism, said Galloway. “The most wonderful chart in the book [highlights] that people all over the world universally, are spending more time helping people that they will never meet. Planting trees [creating] shade of which they will never sit under.”
Among the solutions he speaks most passionately about are the necessity for national service. The fact that our representatives in government are less likely to have served in the military than in past generations means that Democrats and Republicans do not have a shared bond of service. “[In the past, representatives] absolutely saw themselves as American first well ahead of Democrat or Republican,” said Galloway. He believes following the lead of a country like Israel, making national service a required right of passage would have the advantage of forging those bonds while creating a new generation of Americans who have that much more of a relationship to giving to their country. “I think national service and creating more connective tissues give kids a chance who are increasingly segregated, a chance to mix with other kids from different ethnic backgrounds, different income backgrounds before they even developed this crazy polarization around politics,” he noted.
Perhaps the most ironic analysis comes in his views on four-year universities, considering he is a professor at one, albeit at the graduate level, serving as a professor of Marketing at the Stern School of Business at New York University. He stresses that the pathway to upward mobility will increasingly come through community colleges and vocational schools, and he encourages the government to continue to fund these alternatives appropriately. “I think we need to stop fetishizing the traditional four-year degree from elite universities,” Galloway said. “There’s this pathway that every parent and kid is focused on, and we all track towards it. I’m tracking toward it with my kids that they need to get to MIT or an Ivy League School, and then up at Google or KKR, and anything diverging from that is a disappointment. It’s not only not true and it’s bad for the economy, and it creates an unbelievable emotional stress.”
A serial entrepreneur, Galloway’s latest foray has been Section 4, an ed-tech start up that provides “business education for builders, disrupters, doers, changemakers and builders.” This hands-on experience taught by top professors made enormous progress since its launch through the pandemic, where online training options were the best and often only option for many. During that period, Section 4 signed up 1,200 people per class, covering topics in the business core, leadership, marketing and product. “We knew we had wind in our sails, but we didn’t realize how much the winds would die down when COVID ended,” Galloway admitted. “That business is off, business was growing 70% a year. This year will probably be down 30% or 40% because nobody wants to be in their home staring at a screen and learning right now. That’s been tough.” As his start up goes through a rough patch, traditional higher education is as strong as ever. “Traditional education at an elite university has never been stronger, and I would argue it’s strong for the wrong reasons that we’ve embraced this LVMH, rejectionist, NIMBY model,” Galloway noted. “We artificially constrain supply such that we can grow or raise prices faster than inflation, constantly coming up with new departments and administrators that never go away.”
Galloway noted that UCLA, where he did his undergraduate studies, accepted three out of every four applicants when he applied. He believes that four years ago, universities were much more apt to attempt to lift up the unremarkable to make them remarkable. Now, only the already remarkable are the ones who get in, and plenty of them are rejected. “We’ve decided that we’re an Hermes bag, and we want to identify the top 1%, the freakishly remarkable and kids of rich people, and turn them into billionaires,” said Galloway. “I think we’ve absolutely lost the script in Higher Ed. The cartel is more corrupt than OPEC…I think we’re preying on the hopes and dreams of the middle class and leveraging this fetishization and this dictum where you have failed as parents if you don’t get your kid through a traditional four-year degree. I’m trying to do something about it, but at the same time, I continue to affiliate with NYU.” When asked how he squares this ironic position of being a chief critic of higher education, especially at elite universities, increasingly competing with them through his start up while also affiliating with one of the elites, he noted that he gains mightily through this affiliation. “It provides a halo of credibility,” Galloway noted. “I’ve been at NYU 20 years I’d like to be there another 10 or 20…I may not be because I say some provocative things. I’m not sure I’d be as patient with me as they are with me. I do bite the hand that feeds me. I’ve returned all my compensation for the last decade…they’re just incredibly flexible with me and I have wonderful friends there and there’s just no getting around it.”
Galloway’s influence grows as he masters multiple media. Whether he reaches his goal of being the most influential thought leader in business history remains to be seen, but he will be continue to be a great source of insight at the very least.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He has written two bestselling books, and his third, Getting to Nimble, was recently released. He also moderates the Technovation podcast series and speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.