On my Mind
Citizens, Pirates, and Messages in Bottles
This has been as surreal a week as I can remember (and I have enough years to remember rather a lot). It feels rather like waking up to find that we’ve been become complicit in some giant , sophisticated Ponzi scheme covering our politics and economy, and have just recognised it for what it is.
I feel we have allowed ourselves to be gradually drawn, ever deeper, over decades into a web of debt fuelled promises and have now realised that there’s no new cohort of the gullible to buy the next tranche. I think those of us who have had the luxury of time have rather abused it, hoping that we’ll have time to do tomorrow what we really know we should have done at the time. It’s not a comfortable feeling.
Meanwhile, the people at the top of the pyramid have squirrelled their proceeds away somewhere warm and inaccessible and when we ask where what they promised is, shrug their shoulders and proffer excuses from predictable (but not precisely forecastable) pandemics to herd instincts.
Our Political leaders look little different to those corporate leaders who have siphoned off the pension fund and been knighted for doing so. A combination of detachment, hubris and often privilege has convinced them they can beat the system, even though they, and we know the house always wins.
As a result, we find ourselves where we are, having gone along with the carefully designed and targeted messaging that in reality doesn’t withstand serious scrutiny, and trusted where we probably should not have. When a magazine as sober and reliable as The Economist carries a front cover with a title of “Clownfall, Britain after Boris“, and warns that here in the U.K. we are poorer than we think, we can be pretty confident our chickens are coming home to roost.
The question becomes, “what do we do now?”
In a longer reflection this Sunday I’ve been joining some dots in the hope that some of them may resonate as we answer the questions for ourselves.
Being angry doesn’t work very well. It might be temporarily satisfying, but it just becomes a lot of energy with nowhere worthwhile to go, and in any event gets uncomfortable as we realise it ends up being directed at ourselves.
We can look at this differently. It is not something happening to us, it’s happening for us. It represents opportunity, and I find myself optimistic and energised notwithstanding the challenges, because we can do something about it.
So, some suggestions as to dots we might join. Firstly, how we see ourselves. Secondly, how we turn up and thirdly how we connect using lenses of Citizens, Pirates and Messages in Bottles.
I often refer to Jon Alexander’s work on Citizens, and his classification of us as Subjects (what our politicians think we are), Consumers (what business wants us to be) and Citizens (who we actually are if we choose). As we leave this giant Ponzi scheme behind us, I believe we need to think less like subjects, act less like consumers and learn, again, the lost art of citizenship.
The question becomes though, citizens of what? We used to be defined by tribe, then village, then city, then country, then for many, corporation. These definitions though are becoming ever more fluid, and the pandemic, combined with Zoom, has seen us increasingly become citizens of virtual communities. A combination of all the above. In my own case, I’ve formed close connections to, and worked with people from all five continents in the last three years, and the notions raised in Balaji Srinivasan’s “The Network State – How to start a New Country” become increasingly relevant. We are less and less bound by old loyalties when they are abused by those in power, and other connections are increasingly available. A huge subject, for another time (and I’ve linked to an interview further down)
I also think we would do well to reflect for a moment on the heuristics we use as we consider those who wield influence in societies we choose to be citizens of.
In his book “Give and Take“, Adam Grant draws a clear line between the impact of those who are net givers, and those who are net takers in a community. Whilst the evidence comes down firmly on the side of the givers when it comes to creating wealth, it so often seems it’s the takers we lionise.
We talk about the importance of entrepreneurs (enter and take) rather than “entredonneurs”. (enter and give). We seem to accept that those who earn their considerable living through extracting irreplaceable natural resources should receive government support in times of challenge, but pay nothing in excess of standard taxation for the damage they cause when times are good for them. We have, mostly unwittingly, created a whole lexicon that glorifies extracting more than contributing, taking more than giving, and squirrelling away rather than sharing during the last fifty years of the “consumer economy”.
It is that which has got us to now, and that which, awkward and painful though it might be for some, we have to change.
Many will be familiar with Sam Conniff’s “Be more Pirate” – and if you’re not, there’s a six minute summary further down the page. In short, the history of piracy has many lessons for us. socially and economically. They were, and are, innovators and disrupters of the status quo, whether from the Golden Age of Piracy, or Silicon Valley, and offer us insights into opportunities to not just change the way we do things, but the cultures in which we do them.
It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.Steve Jobs
As the Ponzi scheme collapses, It seems to be an appropriate time for pirates, and I’ve been wondering where we might find them today. I’ve thought about them in terms of archetypes to see if there are any dots waiting to be found.
The under 18’s. The Caged Generation
Those who, after the age of two, we remove from the world of play and discovery and place on the conveyor belt to industrial usefulness. Measuring and assessing them to within an inch of their lives based on a tiny part of who they are capable of being in order to prepare them for jobs that will no longer exist by the time they are eighteen.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”Pablo Picasso
This is the most valuable generation we have, and we need to treasure them for what they are capable of becoming. And I think there is a comparison to pirates; they were effective quickly because they had been well trained by the Navies, but created conditions for them that led them to defect. Education is never wasted if we decouple it from what we expect of people.
The 18-25’s – The Warrior Generation
In different times, these would have been the warriors shaping the world around them in the service of the communities they were part of. We though have created conditions that stifle them, regard them as gig economy fodder, and deny them the aspirations of the basics, from housing to careers that earlier generations took for granted.
This generation has already turned its back on the material values of their predecessors, and properly supported is the generation who will bring about the changes we need.
Capable, but not yet mired in the debt that goes with membership of the consumer economy and with the freedom not to join it, they have astonishing potential.
The 25-65’s – The Workhorse Generations
I think the most challenged generations. In harness as they come to terms with the reality of the jobs they have, constrained by the debt they owe and the responsibilities of family, from children to parents. They are the mainstay of the tax gatherers, and the target of the consumer economy. We have been profiling them for nearly a century.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”Edward Bernays in Propaganda 1928.
The over 65’s – The Generations of Elders
If the Warrior Generation can bring about the change that the Workhorse Generation can create the conditions for, then it is the over 65’s who can provide wisdom and support. For the avoidance of doubt, I am of this generation. I have shared the combination of privation, privilege, and accidents of history that leave most of us with a combination of freedom from debt, some assets, experience of our version of what the other generations are going through and enough health to make spending the rest of our lives on cruises or playing golf an outrageous waste of talent and resources at this time. We can, if we choose, play a much more active part in bringing about the changes that will look after those generations following us.
Messages in Bottles
As things change, perhaps so do our approaches to making the connections we need to do the work we want to do. To move away from carefully crafting our resumés to fit into an organisation that is rarely “what it says on the tin” and towards making it clear what we believe in, what we want, what we bring and who we want to work with.
A digital “message in a bottle” thrown into the ocean that is the internet, trusting that it will wash up somewhere and connect us to what we seek.
One of the most compelling lessons for me of the last three years is that the odds on the digital message has a far higher chance of success than its plastic equivalent. I have made, and seen others make, meaningful and powerful connections to others based more on who they are and the questions they are holding than what they do, to find opportunities that recruiters have never heard of. What we have found with our experiments at Originize and the emerging community of New Artisans is that turning up as who we are, not what we do, opens up new horizons.
Increasingly, conventonal jobs seem two dimensional as they are measured, rewarded on “performance” and assessed for compatibility with technology. People on the other hand are four dimensional as their intellect, intuition, emotions and senses collide with those of others to spark ideas and connections that would never see the light of day in most organisations.
This is a great time to craft our individual messages, link to others who can help us, and break the link to those who see people as “resources”.
Here are a few people doing that.
I’ve mentioned him above. He’s making waves, and his timing is spot on. He’s making connections and asking questions that serve all of us.
A pirate sailing oceans of uncertainty. Much to be learned from him and his work, and it’s connections to Citizens.
Here in conversation with Tim Ferriss in perhaps the longest podcast I’ve ever made it through (at over three hours) but his ideas are so provocative that I found it well worth the time. There’s a real set of ideas here summarised in one sentence.
“A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a senseSrinivasan, Balaji. The Network State: How To Start a New Country (p. 6). Kindle Edition.
of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for
collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated
cryptocurrency, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a
virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough
population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a measure of