Chrysippus and Diogenes were the first and most decisive authorities to hold that glory is to be disdained; they said that of all the pleasures none was more dangerous nor more to be fled than the pleasure which comes to us from other men’s approval. And, truly, experience shows us that its deceptions can often be very harmful.Michel de Montaigne, ‘On glory’, The Complete Essays
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There are names and there are things. A name is a spoken sound which designates a thing and acts as a sign for it. The name is not part of that thing nor part of its substance: it is a foreign body attached to that thing; it is quite outside it.Michel de Montaigne, ‘On glory’, The Complete Essays
We often mistake the very things that enable us to be free — context, meaning, facticity, situation, a general direction in our lives — for things that define us and take away our freedom. It is only with all of these that we can be free in a real sense.Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café, p.155
A deserted street is not one along which no one walks, but a street along which people walk as if it were deserted. (Fernando Pessoa)
I’ve just started reading Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Café: freedom, being, and apricot cocktails, a book I’ve been looking forward to reading ever since enjoying her previous book on Montaigne.
Sure enough, right in the first chapter, she hit me right between the eyes with this:
Sartre read Kierkegaard and was fascinated by his contrarian spirit and by his rebellion against the grand philosophical systems of the past. He also borrowed Kierkegaard’s specific use of the word ‘existence’ to denote the human way of being, in which we mild ourselves by making ‘either/or’ choices at every step. Sartre agreed with him that this constant choosing brings a pervasive anxiety, not unlike the vertigo that confess from looking over a cliff. It is not the fear of falling so much as the fear that you can’t trust yourself not to throw yourself off. Your head spins; you want to cling to something, to tie yourself down — but you can’t secure yourself so easily against the dangers that confess with being free. ‘Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom’, wrote Kierkegaard. Our whole lives are lived on the edge of that precipice, in his view and also in Sartre’s.
Perhaps I’m a phenomenogical existentialist, as this seems to sum up my inner life pretty well.
Update: thanks to some nudging by Laura, you can now find the PDF for this here.
Last year, Laura Hilliger shared with me something created by Dancing Fox, that I can no longer find online — not even on the Wayback Machine. Entitled Inappropriate Guidelines for Unacceptable Behaviour, it’s a hugely uplifting manifesto for life and work.
As you can see from the above photo, it was released under a CC BY-NC-SA license, so I’m reproducing it below.
- Whatever you do, make it awesome. If it’s not awesome, crumple it up. Start again. Your best work should scare you.
- Inspire courage by being courageous.
- Be remarkable. To be remarkable, you have to create things and behave in ways that will be remarked upon. This seldom happens in your comfort zone. It’s seldom done by repeating yourself.
- Be human or be ignored. You’re not a cog. This is not a machine. Don’t try to sound grown up, or professional, or respectable. You’re out to change the world. Be passionae. Wild. Crazy. Disruptive.
- Stand for something bigger.
- Ask of every transaction, how can I make this kinder?
- Challenge conformity. Challenge authority. True leadership will empower you to break the rules.
- Speak the truth. Even when your voice shakes.
- Prove, every day, that a better world is possible. That you can’t sink a rainbow.
- When in despair, remember two things: Big ships turn slowly. And big change always looks impossible when you start, and inevitable when you finish.
My daily reading of Stoic philosophy and the like helps me prepare for the day ahead. Most days, each reading contains a nugget that puts me in the right frame of mind. On rare occasions, however, like today, it’s like moving the numbers of a combination lock, and something ‘springs open’ in my mind.
Here’s François de La Rochefoucauld, in his Collected Maxims and Other Reflections:
Fools and stupid people see things only in the light of their own temper.
This was followed by a famous passage from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:
People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You are very much in the habit of yearning for those same things. But this is entirely the trait of a base person, when you can, at any moment, find such a retreat in yourself. For nowhere can you find a more peaceful and less busy retreat than in your own soul — especially if on close inspection it is filled with east, which I say is nothing more than being well-ordered. Treat yourself often to this retreat and be renewed.
The kicker, however, was this from Fernando Pessoa’s singular The Book of Disquiet:
Revolutionaries and reformers all make the same mistake. Lacking the power to master and reform their own attitude towards life, which is everything, or their own being, which is almost everything, they escape into wanting to change others and the external world. Every revolutionary, every reformer, is an escapee. To fight is proof of one’s inability to do battle with oneself. To reform is proof that one is oneself beyond all help. If a man of real sensitivity and correct reasoning feels concerned about the evil and injustice of the world, he naturally seeks to correct it first where it manifests itself closest to home and that, he will find, is in his own being. The task will take him his whole lifetime. For us everything lies in our concept of the world; changing our concept of the world means changing our world, that is, the world itself, since it will never be anything other than how we perceive it.
Plenty to dwell on there.
Image CC BY-NC Daniel Goude
This story in The Guardian about Christopher Knight is incredible. He parked his car and disappeared into the woods in Maine, USA at the age of 20. He’s been living there for 27 years.
What interests me the most, however, is this section:
Knight said that he couldn’t accurately describe what it felt like to spend such an immense period of time alone. Silence does not translate into words. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.”
The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve. His isolation felt more like a communion. “My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”
Virtually everyone who has tried to describe deep solitude has said something similar. “I am nothing; I see all,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lord Byron called it “the feeling infinite”. The American mystic Thomas Merton said that “the true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself”.
For those who do not choose to be alone – like prisoners and hostages – a loss of one’s socially created identity can be terrifying, a plunge into madness. Psychologists call it “ontological insecurity”, losing your grip on who you are. Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, a chronicle of two six‑month stints as a ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument, said that being solitary for a long time “means risking everything human”. Knight, meanwhile, didn’t even keep a mirror in his camp. He was never once bored. He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom. “I was never lonely,” Knight added. He was attuned to the completeness of his own presence rather than to the absence of others.
“If you like solitude,” he said, “you are never alone.”
It’s a tenet of Stoicism (as exemplified by the discourses of Epictetus and Seneca, for example) that one needs to learn how to be comfortable in your own skin — that possessions or a change of location can’t make you happy in and of itself. Knight’s experience, and that of others who have spent a long time by themselves without going mad, seems to be a step even beyond that.
What I like about Stoic philosophy is that it emphasises the responsibility we all have towards civic society. Secreting yourself away and cutting off ties with society, at the end of the day, feels a little selfish, to be honest.
This is just a quick post to point out something shown by the above screenshot: pay-what-you-want pricing works! I increased the price of my ebook as I wrote it, as dictated by my OpenBeta process. What I also did was reduce it from the maximum price down to ‘pay what you want’. The suggested price on the product page is ‘£0.99+’.
As you can see, recently, nine people have bought my ebook (the other product is an audiobook I’m working on):
- Three of them (one third) paid nothing. Their email addresses suggest they’re students.
- Three of them (one third) paid £0.99 (the suggested price) or £1.
- One person paid something less than the suggested price (£0.59)
- One person paid £1.99.
- One person paid £20!
That last amount isn’t actually the most someone’s paid for my ebook in the last couple of years. I suspect that’s because university libraries buy my book and pay the average that regular publishers charge for these things.
Charging people different amounts for the same product is Pricing 101. This, however, is different: people are choosing their price. Enabling students and those less well-off to get the book for free, while others pay what they can afford seems like a win-win to me!
A few years ago, when I’d just joined Mozilla and become Dr. Belshaw, I ran an experiment. At that point, I was attending, on average, an event per week, so I was meeting lots of people for the first time. I had three variables in play:
- My ideas
- The fact I worked for Mozilla
- Mention of doctorate
Sometimes when I talked to people for the first time, I’d not mention who I worked for, nor give people my business card (which featured my title). I’d just talk about my ideas. People would listen and give me their ideas on the subject. That was great, but they’d usually done zero work or reading on the subject. Often, people would say what I was trying to do (Web Literacy Map, Open Badges) ‘just wouldn’t work’ for various reasons.
Interestingly, I found that just adding in one of the other two variables changed that. My status as a ‘doctor’ would often change the conversation. While people weren’t deferential, there was certainly a noticeable switch to “oh, this guy must know what he’s talking about.” Similarly, if I mentioned that I worked for Mozilla, all of a sudden what I was talking about was eminently possible. Taken together, people would often scrabble to think of ways we could work together.
Funny, isn’t it? The way that I’ve come to rationalise this that people recognise and value ‘pre-filtering’. We all recognise working for certain organisations and having particular qualifications as a kind of shorthand. These days, as a consultant, I get similar results if I mention some of the clients I’ve worked with, such as Creative Commons or City & Guilds, along with my academic qualifications. I’d like not to be just my LinkedIn profile, but it’s what people respond to.
All of this brings me to Seth Godin, who recently wrote:
The SAT is a poor indicator of college performance, but most colleges use it anyway. Famous colleges aren’t correlated with lifetime success or happiness, but we push our kids to to seek them out. And all that time on social networks still hasn’t taught us not to judge people by their profile photos… Most of all, we now know that easy-to-measure skills aren’t nearly as important as the real skills that matter. Everyone believes that other people are terrible at judging us and our potential, but we go ahead and proudly judge others on the basis of a short interview (or worse, a long one), even though the people we’re selecting aren’t being hired for their ability to be interviewed. The first step in getting better at pre-judging is to stop pre-judging. This takes guts, because it feels like giving up control, but we never really had control in the first place. Not if we’ve been obsessively measuring the wrong things all along.
When I talk to people about Open Badges, there’s still plenty of them who are being introduced to alternative credentialing for the first time. The idea that the way we hire people or recognise their knowledge, skills, and behaviours might be problematic, comes as a surprise. In effect, I’m saying that the large filters we use for everyone just don’t work that well.
This reminds me of Clay Shirky’s presentation almost a decade ago, the title of which is now also a well-known quotation of his:
It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.
Right now, there’s plenty of jobs for which HR managers receive hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. I don’t know in every case how these are boiled down to decide who comes for interview, but I can’t help but think that they’re probably using the same lenses, time and time again. Although it’s not the only reason my interest in Open Badges remains strong, I do think more granular credentials can’t help but provide smaller, additional lenses that lead to greater diversity, and better person/organisation fit.
Image CC BY-NC-ND Nadar