Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

“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.

Defying Death

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. […]”

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