Author: Jack Fuller

Styrofoam language

What is wrong with all the rubbish, empty language we find all around us? Of course, much as I hate it, it’s not entirely empty. To say “we should leverage our brand equity with customers early in the pipeline to drive conversions” means something. Like most bad things, it is just lame. It is bad because it lacks what’s good. It comes from a place – a mind – that has a shrunken, little perspective on the world, like a raisin’s view of the world from out of the opening of its small packet. This language gives away this origin because it is made out of building blocks which were themselves constructed by defensive, self-important people – the kind of people it would be very annoying to meet. Who invented the term ‘brand equity’? Probably some very annoying person, who felt too dumb writing in a straightforward way. So instead of saying in a sentence “whether people like our brand or not” or “the popularity of the brand” he felt he had to invent a new concept, which lots of people like him who wanted to sound smart and cover their dumbness copied. Then it got to the point of becoming a habit, and now lots of nice people say ‘brand equity’, often to other nice people who don’t really understand what they mean.

There is a place for unusual words and expressions, as long as they carry important but unusual concepts. ‘Eudaimonia’ is a good Greek word, and it’s sometimes useful to use it and point out its difference from our ideas around ‘happiness’. ‘Reticent’ is another nice word, somewhere between reluctant and hesitant. (Yes, I was once told off for using the word ‘reticent’ by my manager. He said we don’t use those kinds of words in business communications.) But I think the most important thing in language is the feeling and thought (the motive) behind the words, and the directness of the connection between the motive and the words. If the motive is secretly ‘let’s say something clever’ then the words become like a play with a very boring ending: I am clever. The two biggest problems with language are: (1) We are defensive: we don’t let ourselves say things that other people might mock us for, around our most painful vulnerability – appearing dumb, being ignored, appearing weak. (2) We don’t allow ourselves to admit things we are actually feeling, so our world becomes narrowed to a little stereotyped world shaped by the equally people around us equally out of touch with what is going on inside them. If I say ‘I feel a bit sad’ in contexts when I’m not supposed to be sad, most people won’t know what to do with this and it will come off badly for me. If I say to my boss ‘work is frustrating and dull, but it’s ok, I didn’t expect any better’ I may eventually be fired. So we start from a place of having to lie in order to go with the flow, and this is a cause of so much wispy, wafty, bullshit language – the kind of bullshit that’s not fake technical terms, but language floating around unrooted in anything anyone feels or believes, and so ultimately ten times worse than animal noises.

The disconnect between ‘great thinkers’ and living better

There is a strange disconnect we never talk about, between the great ideas of the past, and living better day to day. For example, I remember the moment when reading Thomas Aquinas finally clarified for me the concept of ‘art’. ‘Art’ is such a vague idea, and obviously made even more confusing by developments in art in the 20th century, and I had never really pinned down what it meant. I can now say I understand art to be the capacity to produce some good out of some external material. ‘An art’, like the art of carpentry, is the set of skills required to produce good form in wood. Thus the ‘art of friendship’ is about how to bring out what is good in another person, your friend, and vice versa from them to you. The art of painting has a lot of attention because, historically, people have been ambitious about what you can do with paint and canvas. But we might equally have great arts of drawing in a sandbox, or video making, or gardening.

So I finally have a definition of art which is as flexible as the concept appears to be. Yes, ‘art’ can apply to anything, but the essence of the idea is that someone is acting to bring about some form or pattern in some material. When we get ambitious about what forms we can produce from particular kinds of matter (paint, MP3 files, skywriting, film), then we build up a set of skills, habits and insights into the possibilities of the material – then we have a recognised practice, an art, with great examples, experiments, and new insights into ‘good’, exciting, alluring things that can be achieved. Yet figuring all this out makes basically zero difference to my life. I say ‘thank you Thomas Aquinas’ – for what? We never think about how little difference knowing this kind of stuff makes to our actual day to day lives: worrying about some small work thing that is due, getting continually distracted by online chess, feeling that my life is trickling away, trying to work out why I feel frustrated…

Has any idea ever helped me live better? There must be some, but not a whole lot. It seems kind of random to have dedicated a decade or so to reading and thinking, for the payoff of a couple of ideas which have helped me a little bit, around the edges of my life, and which I can’t even remember right now. I should have just spent the time going to seminars about relationships – or better, just enjoying myself outdoors. Listening to a good, cathartic pop song has a more beneficial effect in my life than having figured out a clear and insightful definition of art. Perhaps there are plenty of good ideas out there, produced over time, that I just haven’t absorbed properly yet. Perhaps our whole approach to reading and thinking is actually terrible and basically a waste of time. Probably both. But it seems criminal that I have spent so much time around things that I have absorbed so little from. Something is fundamentally wrong here.

Being in your 30s

When she was 33, one of my favourite singers Ani DiFranco wrote: “I suited up for the long walk back to myself, closer to the ground now, with sorrow, and stealth”. Beginning your 30s is not an easy thing, especially in a culture which places so much emphasis on youth. We need guidance for how to think in a life-giving way about the decades after youth. One of the most helpful things for me is the mood captured by Ani DiFranco’s line: “closer to the ground now, with sorrow, and stealth”. It suggests a seriousness that comes after you have been knocked back a bit in life. Being “closer to the ground” means being more realistic. You know now that life is short, lots of things fail, time is limited. It’s time to focus more now on what matters, and start making steps forward. You know now that small steps forward, when the goal is good, are to be seriously appreciated. It’s much better than hard work for organizations which have no proper goal.

A similar, helpful, thought came from Cicero: that life has stages. Youth is energetic, late youth and middle age is serious, and old age has perspective. It is helpful to think of life has having distinct, legitimate stages, and that it’s okay to move emotionally and intellectually from one to the next. Yes, you lose some of the energy of your teenage years. But you gain a sense of seriousness which can become a sense of determination if you are willing to start making small steps towards the things you care about. Cicero also said that life is like a play: a good actor knows when to move from one act to the next, when to come and go, and not to cling unnecessarily to previous parts of the story.

I’d like to hold on to the best parts of youth: having confidence in putting together a vision, and unhappiness with the difference between the ideal and reality. But I can learn to do this in a more focused way. I am starting to take steps towards building a therapy company, which is my attempt to show how business can engage with important needs, and how the reality of organization and revenues can come together with ideals. Our 30s are the time to get more in touch with what we actually care about and to start guiding our work according to this. Even though we know some of the sorrows, difficulties, and disappointments of life, we can still keep loving and getting energy from the ideal, as we are a little more stealthy and closer to the ground in the messiness of the real.

How to not care

It is easy to feel oppressed by things we are supposed to care about: we feel weighed down by demands that other people make on us, and things that ‘need’ to be done. Most of us could do better with practicing the (secret) skill of being selfish. Being selfish, in this context, is an inward mental move that can be very helpful for freeing our minds. There is no need to tell the world about your decision; just inwardly say “I don’t care, this is a waste of time”, and then if you can, turn your attention towards doing something you love and care about.

Very few things are actual emergencies, and very few consequences are as bad as we think. People go to lengths to make things seem like an emergency, but they are the deluded ones. Consequences can seem terrible when you are up close to them, but from a sane perspective, life should contain some ‘bad’ consequences or we are simply living a life being driven by fear. We will shuffle right into the thing we really should be afraid of – wasting our lives – due to running away from very small things.

As Plato said, most of the world is a shadow world. People are mesmerized by the flickering shadows on the cave wall, caused by a random fire. Most of the things people care about are simply random patterns of darkness. They get worked up over a particular shadow, but it will pass. They think the limits of the world are the limits of their cave, but in fact their inbuilt sense of what matters has latched on to things that do not matter at all. Most people’s brains are like swamps. Even though they look organized on the outside, inside it is a mess. Remember this when you are supposed to care about something completely unimportant which people have decided is important. It’s not even worth engaging with these people; trying to change their mind is like trying to change a swamp by pushing the vegetation around with a pole. A few people are different to this, and they are the ones worth respecting intellectually.

The challenge for someone who cares about clear ideas – about grand, noble, helpful, generous visions, and how they can be made real in the world – is to work out how to play the game of the shadow world when necessary. This is Plato’s point about the ‘noble lie’: if we are sane, there will always be two sides to us, the one side that loves what is truly worth loving, the other side that plays with shadows.

The plan for capitalism

Capitalism at the moment is pretty terrible. Obviously, we all know how much many big businesses wreck the environment and societies around the globe. But mainly, capitalism is lacklustre. It is terrible for what it lacks. The system organizes lots of effort towards creating and distributing products that are incredibly dull. Yet it is so big and world-conquering that it makes you think it is important – the most important thing. In the 19th Century we started with efficiently made bread and shoes and nails; today there are empires of people dedicated to watches, cars, cereal, moisturiser, more shoes, beer, soft drinks, etc. It has of course been a great achievement: a lot of industrial capitalist effort is put towards organizing very good things like clean water, electricity, roads, hospital equipment, wifi, etc. Compared to any other era we have an extraordinary power to organize these basic things on a large scale.

What is missing is the capacity to meet needs higher up the ‘pyramid of needs’. We have amazing systems to provide water, food and transport, but no equivalent large-scale organization around good relationships, mindfulness, self-knowledge, and wisdom about one’s career – to name a few practical areas of great need. For example, there is a central human need to have good relationships, but we are only at the beginning of designing products and services that will help us with this. The dating industry is the ‘pioneer’ in this area: even though its services are not very helpful, it is at least engaging with the need for relationships. The dating industry is brings in about $2 billion USD annually in the US (growing at 5% per year). In the background is the self-help market, which also touches on needs around relationships; it is worth $9 billion in the US. Both dating and self-help are very rudimentary industries at the moment, but there is huge scope to design new products and services that better meet the underlying challenges and aspirations people have in this area of life. Really, given the scale and centrality of the need, companies helping us have better relationships should be bringing in revenue of something like $400 billion – at least equivalent in scale to global annual sales of smartphones.

As for relationships, so for the other areas where organizations currently provide us with little help. One could imagine LinkedIn, for example, growing into a business that offered us well-crafted and highly personalized help around how we think through our careers – helping us clarify and address the underlying longings we have around ‘careers’ as well as addressing the practical issues of getting seen by recruiters and meeting the right company to join, and so on. Offering personalized help around careers should be an industry as big as soft drinks – the needs around career decisions are even stronger than the desire for soft drink, it is just that effective products are harder to design. Once we crack the design of these products though, the global desire is very strong, and almost entirely unmet. Capitalism at the moment is very good at creating a wide variety of shoes and holiday packages; the capitalism of the future will be equally as organized, efficient and widespread around meeting needs that are central to the human soul. We will get organized and successful around providing key aspects of human flourishing – highly personalized products and services that help us become truly more fulfilled – because if we don’t, then our competitors will.

Taking a step back to look briefly at the global politics of capitalism – of course many people don’t yet have access to clean drinking water and a range of affordable shoes. Creating these things is of course vital to continue. What we don’t want is for large sections of the planet to become prosperous and ‘middle class’ in the way we currently find depressing: being anxious and lost about careers and directing one’s work in life, having worse relationships, lacking all mindfulness and compensating with a million distractions and anxiety suppressants. In the places where we have clean drinking water, we need to focus on filling in other parts of the picture of human flourishing, so that when people are lifted out of extreme poverty, there are ways of living with money and resources that are worth aspiring to, that are good for ourselves and good for each other.

I hate pointless things

I truly despise things that have no point. This is a surprisingly large number of things. A lot of what goes on in business has no point, or very little point. People get flown from all over the world to have terrible, unstructured conversations that produce nothing of value. People in intermediate positions of power (managers) create work for others that has no clear purpose, and adds nothing of value to the world, although everyone pretends that it does. We pour our effort into things that literally do nothing for no one, and are not even an enjoyable distraction from the fact that our lives are seeping away.

It’s very easy to do things that have no point, because it is hard to clarify a truly worthwhile point for an effort. Our modern mental disease is the habit of getting started on something, and then trying to dream up a point for it afterwards, if we even get around to trying to articulate the mission at all. Perhaps this is also an ancient mental disease. The habit of half-arseing the point certainly holds humanity back from doing great things – or even just nice things – and instead ensures we stay sleepwalking over the landscape of possible things to do, occasionally bumping into rocks, then eventually falling down a hole, and then pretending the walls of that hole are the limits of what is possible.

To clarify a point to something means: to connect what you are doing with something truly valuable. Obviously this is an ongoing effort: we constantly need to discuss and refine our understanding of what valuable things we are aiming to bring about or honour in the world. For example, I want to start a therapy company, because I feel that people taking good-quality therapy will help them be more conscious of their emotions day to day, which will help them (a little bit) be more understanding of other people’s weirdness, and (slightly) more apt to realise the they are often a difficult pill to swallow themselves. To give a single label to this state of affairs, I would say “increase forgiveness”. So the point of doing this work, and all the sub-tasks associated with it, is to increase forgiveness in the world. And I would learn more about what forgiveness is as I go on.

Because clarifying the point to something is a challenging exercise, it is hard to find organizations and tasks that have a genuinely satisfying purpose. In modern capitalism we float in a gigantic ocean garbage patch of: (a) things that have no point, and (b) things that have a minor point, but not articulated. This latter case includes things like: building an office supplies company. It is not a bad thing to provide people with paperclips, post-it notes and sticky tape; there is a small point to this because it is nice to have these things around in life. They make life slightly more ordered. But it’s not a hugely inspiring point. If the company grew into a business thoroughly devoted to bringing beautiful order into the lives of millions – through a variety of means, from post-it notes, to architecture, to personalized services – it would be inspiring.

At the moment we live under a hegemony of morons. And a combination of intellectual currents from history that lead us to honour and respect the idea of collecting random shit, or doing random research, or pouring herculean resources into doing whatever we happen to be doing (and who knows what that is, or really why), but more efficiently. At least at some periods in history people have had the good sense to try to avoid these things. At the moment most collective efforts are either completely mediocre, or like some gigantic machine, pulling and pushing things back and forth, built up piece by random piece, with no conception of a goal. And staring into it is staring into the abyss.

What is ethics?

Ethics is more important now than ever. The US has a bad and erratic President, who is touchy and vindictive, and who does not understand the inherited achievements he is supposed to be protecting. The global balance of power is changing as increasingly powerful countries threaten the post-WWII order. And closer to home – at least in my corner of capitalism – people are tired, overloaded, and struggling to find meaning, in what they do day-to-day, and in the bigger picture: What is our work contributing towards? What are the ideals of the country we live in (and where have they gone)?

‘Ethics’ is the name for a body of knowledge that can help us solve these problems: the problem of defining what is a good life, and what is a ‘good person’; the problem of clarifying what is valuable and therefore what we should work towards, individually and collectively; and overall, the problem of ‘meaning’ – what it would feel like to have more ‘meaning’ in our lives, and how we can go about changing our lives and changing the system we live under – capitalism – to make it more meaningful and inspiring.

Ethics does not have a clear boundary. It is a collection of all the answers given by deep thinkers throughout history and across geographies on the topic of what is good, valuable and meaningful. One thing in common across all ethical thinking, however, is that it’s not just interested in thought but in application. It doesn’t just want to think about what is truly good and valuable. It wants to put it into action in our lives at a personal and political level. If we think of philosophy overall as the search for wisdom, ethics is the branch of philosophy that seeks to make wisdom powerful – in our lives and in the broader world. Ethics wants us to think not just about our own personal lives, and how we imagine our goals and how we relate to others, but also about institutions and politics, and how we might collectively embed ideals on a large scale.

What do we mean when we say ‘good’? On one level it’s just an innocuous word, that could be replaced by synonyms like ‘great’, or ‘awesome’. Or we could just talk about specific good things, like a good relationship (i.e., we could have a substantive, interesting conversation about the ingredients that make a relationship flourish, without even having to use the word ‘good’). The point of the word ‘good’, other than the normal ways we use it in daily life, is to carry one valuable idea: the idea that all true values are linked, and go together. This is expressed by the phrase ‘the good’. The idea of the unity of all values is not a proven one, though, it is a suggestion. It is a suggestion, from Plato, that if we keep looking, further and further, into ideas like ‘kindness’, ‘generosity’, ‘courage’, ‘love’ we will start to see connections between them. If we push far enough, goes Plato’s suggestion, we will see that all our hazy initial concepts were in fact getting at fundamentally the same thing, just expressed in different contexts. Whether it turns out to be true or not, this is a hope that can guide us, as we seek to clarify what is good, and bring what is good to life.

Discovering who you really are

In the beginning of our lives, we are shaped primarily by outside forces. What our parents think of us. The interactions we have at school. The ambitions and the fears that we absorb from the culture around us.

We end up driven by some big clusters of motivation, which grew up in response to outside pressures: perhaps we never really absorbed love from our parents – either because love was scarce or because we didn’t absorb it – and so we are driven to become powerful, noticeable, and what we secretly hope is lovable, through acquiring achievements and status. Or, we might have felt intellectually inferior at multiple points in life, and so devote our talents and efforts towards showing the world that we are smart, and desperately avoiding any situation in which anyone might see us as stupid.

For some people, the motives formed before they were 20 years old continue to drive them throughout most of their lives. The “mid-life crisis” is what happens when our brain registers, on some level, that the way we are living is actually very far from what might make us happy, that we our dedicating our working lives to the maintenance of a complicated edifice we have constructed, which we have built on top of, rather than developed out of, who we really are. In the mid-life crisis, the big, buried forces within us break out – often with messy results for ourselves and other people around. We are 45 years old and decide to move to another country – which turns out to be a dumb idea. Or we buy an impressive car – which doesn’t solve the underlying problem.

I am 32 not 45, and the challenge I am giving myself over the coming years is to avoid the mid-life crisis by having lots of mini-crises in advance. I want to work out how to trust myself enough to figure out what is really on, deep in, my mind, what I really enjoy, what I personally think is good and should be done in the world, and then to have the determination to follow this through practically. Life is an adventure, with the possibility of genuine, worthwhile achievement. No matter how many times we have lost ourselves, the magic is always there waiting to start again, when we set off in search of good things to make part of our active ‘self’. Like an underwater archaeologist diving down into the skeleton of a sunken ship, swimming through the seaweed and dark blue water, looking to bring gold back to the light.