Shark Tank and Philosophy: Mr. Wonderful and Plato’s Pursuit of Truth


Shark Tank and Philosophy:

Mr. Wonderful and Plato’s Pursuit of Truth

Brandon Kirby

Plato taught us to have reverence for mathematics. He saw it as the pathway to truth. The inscription above the Academy read, Let none ignorant of geometry enter here. On Shark Tank (and the Canadian version of the show, Dragons’ Den) Kevin O’Leary has taught us that before business owners come to talk to him, they have to know their numbers. If they don’t, a great big foot will squash them like cockroaches.

Plato insisted on knowing mathematics before entering his Academy because of its certainty; i.e., 2 + 2 will always equal 4. In simple terms, if someone were to ask me the color of the walls in my living room, I would claim that they are a light brown. However, what if I went home and someone had painted the walls? In that case, I would have been wrong. I had the possibility of being wrong because of the possibility for change. Change implies a lack of certainty. Conversely, mathematics speaks of absolutes that will never change. Mathematics is the first step to eliminating doubt.

In the Republic, Plato wrote through the character of Socrates: “….[the philosopher] has to rise out of the sea of change and lay hold of true being, and therefore he must be an arithmetician” (Book VII, Benjamin Jowett translation). Just as Plato insisted on students understanding mathematics before arriving at his academy, Kevin O’Leary insists on knowing your financial numbers before you pitch a business idea. He once commented:“The biggest mistake entrepreneurs make when they come onto Dragons’ Den is they don’t know their numbers. As soon as somebody starts bumbling the numbers I’m gone. You have to know your numbers” (Dragons’ Den, Season 3, Episode 12).

His reasoning is related to the certainty of mathematics. O’Leary insists that numbers never lie. He can understand the true nature of a business and make reasonable predictions about its performance with simple arithmetical operations that determine a company’s value. For O’Leary, understanding comes through math, just as it did with Plato.

Plato discovered truth through the dialectic. His writings were a conversation between interlocutors showcasing a proposition under rational scrutiny, which allows the reader to draw a conclusion as to whether or not the proposition is true or false. Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank operate on the same principle. An entrepreneur comes to the show with a proposition to make money, which the Dragons and Sharks assess. O’Leary does so with arithmetic, which allows him and the viewers to arrive at a conclusion as to whether or not the business will be successful. For both Plato and O’Leary, whether or not we cherish the proposition, like the proposer, or become emotionally involved with the idea is irrelevant–what is relevant is whether or not the proposition survives rational inquiry. Socrates helped people to see that their poorly formed ideas about truth, beauty, and goodness were not worth pursuing. O’Leary helps entrepreneurs realize that their ideas about how to make money are not worth pursuing. Socrates loved truth, beauty, and goodness just as O’Leary loves money, but they both use reason to vehemently attack poor attempts at achieving goals.

During a presentation touting beer-flavored ice cream, one of the Sharks, Daymond, refused to try a sample due to his lactose intolerance. O’Leary quipped that he is “sales intolerant.” As the makers of the beer-flavored ice cream continued with their presentation, they demonstrated a poor understanding of the financial health of their business, stumbling over answers to basic questions about their manufacturing costs, their break-even point, and their orders. O’Leary was unable to make meaningful calculations and declined to invest (Shark Tank, Season 3, Episode 10).

Plato had a famous allegory to illustrate a similar point. Imagine some poor souls chained in a cave who could only look at a wall, with light coming into the cave illuminating the wall. As people or animals passed by the cave entrance, they cast a shadow on the wall that the prisoners were able to see. The prisoners are only able to see shadows of reality and not reality itself. Imagine if one of the prisoners were to escape from the entrapment and venture out to see reality itself. Imagine their shock, their reaction to the burning and piercing light, and their greater understanding of the way the world works.

The allegory suggests that rational thought is the way out of the cave. Reason shows us reality itself. With emotions and desire people see what they want to see, what they desire to see, and what they have been conditioned to see. Reason goes beyond our desires, our emotions, and our conditioning. In business, understanding financial statements rather than falling in love with the novelty of an idea, or the utility of a product, or the charming personality of the business owner brings reality to a situation. Reason gives us reality. In Platonic philosophy desire and emotion stimulate us to movement, while reason is the guide. Desire and emotion are two horses on a chariot, while reason is the charioteer. It is the same in business. A novel, useful product with an amiable and prudent entrepreneur can sell. But for O’Leary and other calculating investors this process is guided by financial numbers.

The poet Homer told a story in the Odyssey that dominated philosophy for over two thousand years. Circe the Sorceress tempted Odysseus’ troops with her enchanting music, wine, delicious food, and beauty. The troops were so intoxicated with each of the enchantments that they drank her mysterious potion. Their commander, Eurylochus, refused to follow his desires; instead, he followed his rational skepticism and refrained from approaching her. Those who followed their animalistic passions and drank the potion were transformed into various animals—notably, swine. The point is, when we forsake our rational skepticism, our ability to question our desires, we become animals.

The idea presented to us by the ancient Greeks suggests that when we pursue emotions and desire when reason tells us that a course is not the right action, then we experience a moment of pleasure and a month of despair. If I am dieting or training for athletic competition and I see a cookie, my desire will suggest one course of action while my reasoning will suggest the opposite option. Plato taught us that when reason and desire conflict we should listen to reason—the greater happiness is found in doing what’s reasonable over what we desire. The greater happiness is the end result of the diet, not the temporary result of the cookie. The reasoning process that tells us that 2 + 2 = 4, or that if A = B, and B = C, then A = C, is unchanging and eternal, while our desires are transitory and temporal. Reason encompasses a greater scope and can give us greater happiness.

The analogy of pigs has not been lost in the investment sector. A bull market is when stocks perform well, and a bear market is when stocks underperform. A famous maxim on Wall Street is bulls get fed, bears get fed, and pigs get slaughtered. O’Leary himself once said to two gentlemen (wearing pink ties) who were asking for more money than their company was worth: “You know why you’re wearing those ties? You’re pigs. Pigs get slaughtered” (Shark Tank Season 1 Episode 1).

Pigs symbolize greed—wanting to eat more and more without reflecting on why the farmer is fattening them up. Pigs are unfortunately helpless, as they do not have the capacity for such reflection. By contrast, we have the capacity for thinking things through. Investors have to temper their greed; their wants or cravings have to be tempered by the numbers that dictate whether or not an investment is sound. The only way in the long-term for an investor to be successful is to be rigorously systematic, and put aside an emotional attachment to a company or a desire for more money. Investors who, out of pride in their stock analysis, hold onto stocks that have underperformed or who, out of greed and desire for a higher return, hold onto stocks that have already turned out their expected profit, are guided by emotions. They may enjoy short-term success but in the long term, after market averages have played out, they lose everything. Eating a cookie is relatively harmless but if it becomes a regular part of our diet, then the end result is failed health.

O’Leary often looks utterly heartless on Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank. On an episode of Dragons’ Den, O’Leary and the other potential investors assessed an entrepreneur’s financial indicators as representing a poor investment. When the entrepreneur broke down and cried, O’Leary’s response was, “This is all crap; money and tears don’t mix. Life’s hard—money doesn’t care. Your tears don’t add any value” (Dragons’ Den, Season 3, Episode 2).

Never shy to tell an entrepreneur their “idea is crap” or that they should burn their existing inventory to create warmth—claiming that is the only thing the inventory will ever produce of value—Mr. Wonderful hardly strikes one as the poster-boy for Platonic philosophy, which focuses on goodness. However, Socrates himself, Plato’s teacher and the hero of Plato’s dialogues, would often humiliate his dialectical opponents. As a result, Socrates was vilified and ultimately executed. The philosophers’ defense of Socrates is that he only did so after rational inquiry disproved his opponents. O’Leary has similarly defended his actions:

People say I’m the mean one but it’s so unfair a characterization. The truth is I’m Mr.Wonderful and here’s why—I’m preprogrammed to only speak the truth. I can’t lie to anybody; it’s impossible for me to tell them something that’s erroneous. So being forced this way, from birth, to only tell the truth makes my answers honest and pure. I’m the white light versus the dark and sinister way of trying to keep people encouraged without giving them money, which I find my other Dragons often do. There’s nothing more sinister and dark than encouraging a really stupid idea. Not everybody wants to hear the truth, they can’t deal with it…not my problem…don’t care. I have no regrets, as long as I tell the truth I can walk off the set feeling good about myself, and I do (Dragons’ Den Season 3, Episode 12).

O’Leary pursues the truth in his field of business. He brands himself as the Merchant of Truth. Coddling business owners with platitudes and solidifying naïve judgments in entrepreneurial endeavors might increase harm to the entrepreneur. Yet, bad business ideas will eventually face market averages that will inform the business owner of the truth. An initial sober and detached financial assessment might save the entrepreneur years of labor without fruitful returns. Plato would, no doubt, have questions for Mr. Wonderful regarding his love of money. But given the unplatonic state of the financial world, O’Leary is emblematic of mathematical guidance and decision-making. O’Leary is Socrates in a tie.

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