“Better safe than sorry”? Thoughts on CEOs and intuition, false expectations of security, change, and our moral obligation to live up to our human potential. And then, 13 friendly anarchistic pointers to fix the world.
Have you ever seen Steve Jobs’ commencement address in Stanford? It’s basically the world’s most valuable CEO advocating to follow your heart and intuition, and a bunch of recently graduated yuppies listening to him in awe. Since then, they were joined by roughly three million people who watched the speech on YouTube. “Stay hungry, stay foolish”, Jobs ends, leaving the viewer inspired – and a little puzzled, maybe. Millions of people have seen this address? Why is this planet still a mess, then? Why didn’t they act on it?!
The thing is, old-fashioned rationalism and playing it safe is still cutting edge when it comes to making decisions. Intuition is neither taught nor listened to, even if people like Jobs talk about it. Many of the Stanford graduates can certainly relate to this: Law School instead of Art School, MBA instead of NGO, McKinsey instead of building a start-up in your garage. That’s where the money is, just look at the numbers! Keep in mind the statistics! Make a career, dominate, never look back! It’s only “rational”! Thoughts like this not only govern the economic and political spheres, but also our personal lives. “Stay hungry, stay foolish” is replaced by “Better safe than sorry” – not just for the graduates Jobs spoke to, but for most of us.
The Choice to Change
It’s not as if everybody had a choice, to be sure! I have to think of the little girl from the mountainous regions of Eastern El Salvador, who had to leave school at 12 years of age to help her parents till their land, in order to have something to eat, in order to survive. I don’t think Steve Jobs had this kind of hunger in mind when preparing his speech. I also have to think of my friend Luis who walked around the streets of his barrio even though members of the MS-13 gang had ordered him to stay at home. They didn’t want to see neutral people on “their” soil. He ended up being shot in his head, half his body is paralyzed until today. The offenders are still on the same streets, and he still walks around his barrio, as good as he can. Foolish, maybe, but certainly not the kind Steve Jobs had thought of.
In the meanwhile, we are sitting comfortably at our homes, trying to forget about all this in order to keep plugging away at our jobs or in our online businesses. We sit in our cubicle, worrying about that report we have to hand in. Or we sit in a coffee shop, worrying about how to grow our follower numbers on Twitter. We attend a meeting, showing off our shiny new Blackberry. We hack some boring numbers into a boring spreadsheet, waiting for the boring clock to turn 5pm. If we’re well off, we may leave earlier, making a living as micro entrepreneurs selling info products.
Stay hungry, stay foolish? It certainly doesn’t look like it! We can see all the motivational speeches in the world and still live life below our human potential. We can turn these presentations into just another commodity to consume. It’s true, we can watch every single TED talk ever recorded and still suck at life.
Motivation Alone is Not Enough
If we compare our opportunities – being literate, having access to a computer, living in a hopefully stable democracy (or living voluntarily abroad) – to those of billions of other people in the world, I think we should do a little more than that. In some sense, we have an obligation to do it, because we are part of the priviledged few. An obligation to change, because we can change.
Do we have to build a masterplan to save the planet right away? No. Do we all have to sell our crap and move to El Salvador (or India, or Sri Lanka), to help these poor people? I’m not sure about it. It’s an option, but who says “these poor people” want our help in the first place? It’s certainly not just up to us to decide on that, and history has provided some examples where our help resulted not being helpful at all. “The opposite of good is good intention”, as Kurt Tucholsky said. (Remember Haiti? The Western half of the island of Hispaniola, in the middle of the Caribbean? The first nation to declare independence in Latin America in 1804? The country where more than 230.000 people were killed in an earthquake earlier this year? After the catastrophe, Haiti was flooded by wanna-be helpers from the richer countries in the world that went there without having a clue on what to do. The water and food and shelter they needed was actually making things worse for the affected population. Not always well-intentioned help is the best solution.)
Fixing this planet is a big task to put on a single man’s to-do list. We may invest a whole lifetime and still fail. This is so scary that we prefer to fall into paralysis in front of our plasma TVs. But watching the whole Sopranos (again!) won’t make things better. What we can do is implement change in our own lives, one step at a time, and make a difference through that. We can start to become part of the solution instead of being part of the problem. We can consciously accept the limitations of our actions, the possibility of failure, and still listen to our hearts, listen to our intuition, and do the shit that has to be done. Stay foolish, even if this means leaving rhetorics aside, and staying hungry from time to time. Even if it means to risk being sorry rather than safe.
Fix the Planet (Yes, You!)
How can this be put into practice? As a friendly anarchist I believe that the answer to this question can only be given by yourself. I’m not here to tell you what to do. But in order to get you started, here are some pointers:
- Listen to your intuition. I cannot repeat this enough. You already know what’s right and wrong, if you’re honest with yourself.
- Take one of 100 small steps to save the environment.
- Get rid of your car and walk, bike, or use public transport.
- Eat less meat. If you love the taste of quality meat (like I do), consider becoming a weekday vegetarian.
- Raise consciousness about the problems we have.
- Start with a one human revolution and see where it takes you.
- Lead by example, but don’t force people to follow you.
- Stop buying crap. And stop selling crap. You need to make a living, but you can do it ethically!
- Understand that money, power and health are only subordinate goals. To reach happiness, they matter to some extent, but they are not central.
- Happiness is not a fixed status in your life. It is reached and maintained only through activity that is in line with your beliefs.
- Thus, get active. Follow your passion! At least if it’s not about bombing foreign countries.
- Work to live rather than live to work. Find the balance between idleness and action.
- Use your energy to do good to other people, but respect their uniqueness and that their views and beliefs may differ from yours.
Is this the recipe for saving the Earth? I don’t know. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it a try. As a minimum, we should get clear about one thing: Our expectations of security aren’t worth a damn. Just because a task looks too big to get it done in a day, it doesn’t mean we should procrastinate and ignore it forever. We can always start by changing our own lives. We can always start by building teams, groups, tribes and handle that thing together. But whatever way we decide to pursue, we have to start with one single step, or we will lose our lives about it.
In his commencement address, Steve Jobs is delightfully clear about one issue: All of us will die, rather sooner than later. At one point of the speech, he says: “We are already naked. We have nothing to lose.” This reminds me of a favorite saying of my Colombian buddy Juan, who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this year: “Yo nací en cuero!”, Juan says, “I was born naked.” We all were. And naked we will die. What we do in between is up to us. It might as well be something worth our while.
Did you enjoy reading this post? Sharing it won’t save the planet, but it would certainly brighten up my day. Thanks in advance!
Featured Comment by James: “I feel I should defend rationality […]. Businesses, politicians, etc. rationalize their actions and choices based on what they believe in, but that’s not the same as actually being rational, or logical. I actually think most people don’t think rationally enough (put their emotions or feelings to one side and actually look at the evidence in front of them). It doesn’t take much clinical thinking to see where your life, the life of others and the state of the world in general, can be improved. Yet most won’t make the changes because of fear, because it doesn’t match with their beliefs, because of the herd mentality, it clashes with their ideological values, it’s too hard, etc. […]”
Good Fabian, as always! I hope to remember tomorrow to add it to my “Favourites” in the RSS reader, as I am reading this live from Twitter. You already appeared in the 33 Best Posts of August 2010, will appear in N Best Posts of September 2010 (to be written yet…) and have already made it to October. On your way to win some kind of Best of the Year or the like :D?
I enjoyed a lot the post, and more even, the 13 point list. Oddly enough, I am almost vegetarian… I eat meat rarely (like less than 3 times a week, although I eat some Spanish ‘wurst’, the cured kind, not the sausage kind). For the other points… They can be hard, you know! (at least some of them, they can be almost impossible).
Ruben, thanks for your kind words! I hope to make it to the Best of the Year list! :)
As for meat, I hold it like you. In Spain, there are some great meat products. But it’s really about quality over quantity for me. As for the other points, are they really so hard? I think they are not absolute values, but rather ideas how to gradually leave behind the stuff in our lives that sucks and transform it into something more livable.
Fabian – this is the problem isn’t it? People are not heeding Steve Jobs advice…and whose fault is that? The individual. So, I suppose it’s up to the individual to actually do something with the advice. The office job is actually only boring and mundane if the individual makes it seem that way…don’t you think? I’ve been reading up on flow and even people who you would think have the most mundane jobs ever (e.g. line worker in a factory ‘punching buttons’), can actually have a truly enriching life and enriching experience at work with that so-called mundane job based on 1. How they view their job and 2. The degree to which that person perceives him/herself as the master of their own life (rather than the victim)…there’s a lot more to it, but I won’t digress here…
That’s why Jobs speech is probably one of the better speeches on life advice I’ve EVER listened to. It clearly shows how he did both of the above. He took charge of his life and more importantly he viewed himself as in control of his life….and THAT’S where people usually screw up. They listen to these speeches, or TED talks, or read blogs, or whatever…and still lead a life making decisions based on external factors even when they truly believe they aren’t…but they are :). So, that’s where Steve’s advice of stay hungry, stay foolish really comes in. And I like it, because it takes the seriousness out of it and shows us that we need to have some fun with this crazy ride we call life.
Hmmm…maybe he should have ended with “stay hungry, stay foolish….no, I’m serious, REALLY do it!!!” :)
Interesting thoughts, Nate. You see, I believe in individual action. But I also see that our society isn’t helping. Why aren’t we taught more free thinking at school? It’s all about fitting in, about being “usable”. They actually fucked up the German university system by forcing even philosophy degree courses to focus strictly on teaching students how to be “useful” to a company. I see this as being related to everybody buzzing about “providing value” in your blog, but defining “value” only in economic terms. There’s something to it, of course, but for me, value goes far beyond a mere economic definition.
This is also something that makes me wonder about the line worker you mention. Flow is an interesting concept, like is, let’s say, GTD in an office context, or even meditation. And the causalities you describe are certainly real. But I’m not sure if these concepts and practices are automatically solutions to the underlying problem or if they just hide it. If they improve the life of the worker or if they just help the company because they make him more productive. This is a bit more complicated, and I’m currently writing about it. Hope to finish it soon to put it out there for discussion.
As always, thanks for taking the time to comment, Nate, and for the content input from your blog. You continually help me to push things a little farther.
Well, I definitely think GTD, the pomodoro technique and all those other productivity buzz words are much different than flow. I actually think they can kind of distract from the real goal. GTD is a ‘system’ where flow is a pyschological condition….a literal way of being and relating to the world and ourselves. So, in the case of the line worker, it wasn’t a practice or process imposed on him by the company to make him more productive and the company more successful. It was literally the way he viewed and related to his job that gave him a sense of purpose. What was so striking was that the line worker next to this one guy was more what you describe above….waiting for the boring clock to strike five, punching the boring buttons…etc. This guy was different. It had absolutely nothing to do with external factors (i.e. the company). It all had to do with his outlook on life and the the way he relates to his own life (#1 and #2 that I mention above). So, yeah, I definitely agree with your point above. While some people, like this worker, are naturally like this (Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mark Zukerberg, Henry David Thoreau…etc would all fall under this category as well), MOST aren’t. The question is, how can we then teach people to be more like this? How can the system be changed to address this? I scratch the surface of this stuff and my thoughts and frustrations with this in the manifesto I wrote.
You’re certainly right that it’s complicated! But hey, that’s kind of what makes it interesting and fun to talk about! As always, it’s good to chat about this. I’d love to do it in person over a beer sometime! :)
You are absolutely right, flow is very different from GTD… I just somehow see it related when it comes to trying to “create” it inside a company context. It’s hard to outline in a few words, because my point of view is by no means a black&white simplification, but just to show a bit the direction I’m heading at: Is it a good use of one’s time to push buttons eight hours a day in an assembly line? Or sitting in an office hacking data into a computer? Or, for that matter, reading blog posts, hanging out on Twitter, building an “online empire”? If not, is it an optimal solution to just make us feel better about it (flow, meditation, even GTD because of the sense of accomplishment) or should we try to fix the issue at the roots and accept that we’re just losing our time on things that don’t matter?
Sometimes I ask myself how much we really fall into a mode of self-hypnotization. I’ve seen this with students, with office workers, with factory workers (though I never worked at an assembly line), and especially with all these online marketing people and lifestyle designers. They tell themselves they are doing a great and awesome and important job and whatnot, until they start believing it themselves.
There are a million problems with this view, of course. First of all, who am I to say that this kind of work isn’t a good use of somebody’s time? I get this, and I find it very interesting to learn that flow can be experienced in pretty much any kind of activity.
The beers will happen one day, Nate. When I get the next time to the States, I would love to meet you… would be a real pleasure.
I’ll just end with this…actually your comment in the blog that:
“Happiness is not a fixed status in your life. It is reached and maintained only through activity that is in line with your beliefs.”
So, based on that, I do think it’s an optimal solution because these people are happy, whether it’s a line worker in a factory or a woman living in a remote village in the Alps whose sole life consists of tending to the farm animals, doing some knitting, cooking and reading. And that’s the main point….happiness. Not a detached, ‘ignorance is bliss’ happiness, but a happiness that comes from being fully engaged with their life and work and having full control over their lives.
But, like you say, it is complicated and ethics are involved. The tribe you mention and not wanting to take food even if it means starvation or not taking traditional medicine even if it means death. So, they may have the right, but do we have an ethical obligation to respond?
Crap, I’m digressing again :)
Yeah man, these issues take you down the rabbit hole deeper and deeper as you think about them. And then try to put them into an 800 words blog post that’s easily digestible and you’re doomed! ;)
We can just keep this notion of happiness for now (it really works, as far as I can see…), and leave the ethics for further investigation…
Fabian, I was struck by your question: “…who says “these poor people” want our help in the first place?” It reminded me that people tend to look at the world from within the context of their own experiences. What might be right within the context of our community, society, culture, and history may not be “right” or desirable for others. The descriptions of and thoughts based on your direct experiences offer readers like me an appreciation of these other stories.
Greg, thanks for joining in! I first became aware of this issue when researching a Colombian indigenous tribe for my diploma thesis. I was mainly studying their mythology, but I ended up reading pretty much everything that was ever published about them, because they are really interesting people.
One thing of note was that this tribe permanently is in conflict with the state – even if the government is sending food and medicine to help them. They just aren’t interested; they prefer to die from starvation over eating industrial produce and suffer illnesses over leaving their traditional medicine behind. I think they have a point – they have a right to reject this, even though it may strike us as weird at first. We really have to learn to be more open to cultural differences… things get even worse in many cases of international cooperation, like in the Haiti example or in the whole NGO economy.
Change starts inside. But only last inside the minds of those who have re-programmed there ideologies into more powerful and enjoyable ones. It takes time as all things do. But it will happen as long as the new habit is consistent.
Why not drop ideologies altogether? That would maintain us open for necessary change, I believe.
Oh, and I absolutely agree with you when it comes to consistency. Even a “change habit” has to be practiced, and we have to accept that it will take us some time to really make it a part of us! Thanks for joining in, Jonathan!
Great read as ever. I feel I should defend rationality though. Businesses, politicians, etc. rationalize their actions and choices based on what they believe in, but that’s not the same as actually being rational, or logical. I actually think most people don’t think rationally enough (put their emotions or feelings to one side and actually look at the evidence in front of them). It doesn’t take much clinical thinking to see where your life, the life of others and the state of the world in general, can be improved. Yet most won’t make the changes because of fear, because it doesn’t match with their beliefs, because of the herd mentality, it clashes with their ideological values, it’s too hard, etc.
Certainly, going with your gut feeling can be precisely what is needed in certain circumstances. Sometimes being analytical and rational doesn’t reveal the best course of action. There are plenty of instances where following ones intuition has changed the world, and those people end up making speeches at Stanford. But there are also plenty of people who have crashed and burned from following their gut instinct.
Once again, it’s all about balance.
You are right, James. The post is too one-sided concerning rationality, and it’s important to distinguish between “rationalizing” and “rationality”. The motivation, of course, was Jobs’ highlighting of intuition in his speech versus the role of intuition in daily life. But it’s true that rationality is a very important tool, a useful “sweater” (as in A Skin, not a Sweater) to wear in our world. I took the liberty to feature your comment at the end of the post, in order to balance things a little.
hi fabian, welcome in the club ;-)
The “Club of People Born Naked”? ;)
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