What would MacGyver do? An excerpt from the revised edition of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide (2016)

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Angus MacGyver thought when he retired from the secret service, he’d put his days of danger behind him. But MacGyver was forever getting caught in life and death situations. Fortunately, MacGyver had a preternatural knack for improvising his way out of them. Since Richard Dean Anderson played MacGyver in the eponymous TV series (originally screening on ABC television between 1985 and 1992), MacGyver has become synonymous with seat-of-you-pants, DIY innovation. In each episode of the show, MacGyver gets caught in at least one life threatening situation, only to escape it, Houdini-like, by applying his knowledge and cobbling together an improbable solution using whatever happens to be lying around.

MacGyver’s indefatigable knowledge and resourcefulness became a running gag on the show. As the episodes rolled by, MacGyver revealed extraordinary insights into medicine, engineering, chemistry, physics, and a host of other disciplines beyond the ken of your average secret agent. The show’s writers would drop MacGyver into increasingly desperate situations only to have him invent ever more outlandish ways to escape them. MacGyver treated every situation with his trademark cool. While other people panicked and despaired, MacGyver would cobble together a parachute, a rocket launcher, some plastic explosive, or a jerry-rigged jet ski that would enable him to avert the crisis and save the day.

Most of the time, it was ludicrous. Still, audiences loved it. Such was the success of the show that one still hears talk of people ‘MacGyvering’ their way out difficult situations today.

Thirty years on, MacGyver is more a cultural icon than ever before. The recent announcement of a movie reboot of the show is not surprising. MacGyver personifies the agile, entrepreneurial, innovative ideal of contemporary startup culture. He represents the hacker genius we’d all like to be – the nimble, resourceful, visionary individual who is always changing and inventing things, never standing still. MacGyver is a hero for our times.

MacGyver is a hero for readers of this book – or should be, at least. Consider the attitude MacGyver displays towards change. MacGyver is never stumped by a situation. He confronts each new challenge head on and reveals it as an opportunity to apply his knowledge and skills. MacGyver doesn’t worry about what is out of his hands. He is too Stoic for that. He focuses on his resources and what he can do with them. Drawing on his full range of powers, and applying them in creative ways, MacGyver transforms crises into moments of glory. He flourishes in contexts of change. Calamitous situations bring out the best in him. Given the regularity with which MacGyver finds himself in peril, one can only assume he pursues these situations to put himself to the test.

Life Changing is a handbook for philosophical MacGyvers. Obviously, the point of this book is not to teach you how to devise unlikely gadgets to escape life or death situations. The aim is to show you how to cultivate the essential skills needed to transform the experience of change, and turning it around, to make it an adventure. With resilience, agility and vision, it is possible to ‘MacGyver’ change by revealing new opportunities in unexpected situations.

Next time you find yourself in a difficult situation without any idea how to proceed, ask: ‘What would MacGyver do?’ MacGyver would get a grip on himself, tap into his powers, and project a solution that transformed everything. MacGyver would rethink the situation and turn the moment of change into a life-changing moment of vision. [Read more…]

Life Changing (2nd ed). Coming March ’16!

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Philosophy at the foot of Mt. Blank. Photo courtesy of Con Georgiou

News flash! A revised edition of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide will be available soon. This is a sharper, clearer, and more satisfying version of the first. I decided to revise the book to bring it into line with the content of another manuscript I am preparing for publication on hacker innovation culture. Software programs have versions – why not books?

Life Changing is based on a workshop I ran at the University of Sydney between 2007 and 2013, called ‘Philosophy for Change’. Many good things in my life have emerged from it, including Coalition of the Willing and the many exciting projects that followed from that film.

I’d like to thank the readers of this blog and the 500+ people who have purchased a copy of Life Changing since it came out in 2012. I couldn’t have written this new edition without your comments and support. I had to publish something that was done but not perfect, and learn to use it and understand it, before I could write the new and improved version.

I plan to make the 2nd ed. nice and cheap, so that people who bought a copy of the original book don’t feel too ripped off. I trust that readers will see value in it. In 2016, Life Changing is more relevant than ever. I wrote this book for people who are looking for change. It is not a manifesto. It is a handbook for personal transformation. It is philosophy for change.

More updates are on the way. Until then: don’t change – keep changing.

Cynic simplicity: the courage to think

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Twenty years had taken their toll. I hadn’t seen Andy since our high school reunion. At first, I barely recognised him. There was more of him than I remembered. His face was broad, carved with crevasses of flesh. The hams and T-bar shoulders that had made him a star on the rugby field now hefted an imposing gut. His hand absorbed mine, pumping fiercely. He seemed to have swelled in size, as if his whole body were inflated with air.

If the suit didn’t give it away, you could tell from his manner that he’d done well for himself. Andy had done a bit of everything. Five years’ work in the WA mines had set him up to make some smart investments. Andy was a ‘self-made’ man, with a dozen businesses behind him and two failed marriages along the way. These days he worked as a consultant to the coal industry (‘Carbon budget, my ass’, he said. ‘The stuff’s in the ground, it’s coming out’). He liked how the Asians partied with a bottle of whiskey on the table. We bonded over shots at the bar, but the more we talked, the more the years yawned like a chasm between us.

He laughed when I told him that I was a philosopher. ‘So am I’, he said. ‘I’m a professional cynic’.

Cynicism used to be a dirty word. When Andy and I were kids, we wouldn’t have thought of affirming it. To be cynical means to be distrusting of people’s motives and dismissive of their good intentions. Only a fool would want to try to change the world. Cynics are convinced that everyone operates out of self-interest. Given this state of affairs, the only smart response is to take care of number one. In business life, cynics are distinguished by a ‘me first’ mentality. They don’t care much where they make their money. If the money’s easy, it’s good. Often, you’ll find them working for pariah industries like coal and tobacco. They are working for a broken system, and they know its going nowhere, but they’re riding the gravy train to the end.

I am troubled by the easy affirmation of cynicism in contemporary life. To my mind, the fact that successful people like Andy know that things are getting worse; also that aspects of their existence are helping things to get worse; yet think the matter is out of their hands, that it is beyond their power to do or change anything, so they may as well be cynical – this amazes and upsets me. ‘Pretty stupid not to be cynical, these days’, Andy laughed when I pressed him on the issue. ‘Take it from me, mate, it’s a pack of dogs out there’. He squared his shoulders and knocked my glass with his drink. ‘Chi-ching’. Same old Andy. Yet something had changed – I could see it in his eyes. It was a flicker of fear. Our conversation was taking him places that he rarely went. Difficult places. His cynical philosophy gave him license to live the way he wanted. But did it allow for journeys of the mind? Did the old school battler have the courage to think? [Read more…]

Da Vinci on change: cultivate your powers and unleash your whole person

leonardo-vitruvian-man-bLeonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the quintessential ‘Renaissance man’. Leonardo’s life is a testament to human creativity. Over six decades of creative activity, Leonardo showcased gifts as a painter, sculptor, scientist, anatomist, architect, engineer, inventor, botanist, and musician. His contributions are remarkable for their consistent brilliance. Leonardo’s paintings, including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, are touchstones for the history of Western art. In his sketchbooks and journals, Leonardo developed a new visual language for representing bodies and surfaces, which fed into his painting and gave his figures an unprecedented realism. Leonardo’s studies of the natural world made a decisive contribution to the embryonic sciences of anatomy, hydrodynamics and physics. His architectural and engineering designs included bridges, irrigation projects, villas and cathedrals. His notebooks brim over with fantastic inventions, including diving equipment, armoured cars, flying machines, musical instruments and more.

As a cultural figure, Leonardo da Vinci sets a high bar for the rest of us. Few of us could hope to match his success in such a diversity of pursuits. Mostly when we dabble in fields beyond our professional training, we wind up conceding that, while we may be happy apprentices, we will never be grand masters. Yet, we shouldn’t be discouraged by this. While you and I may never enjoy the accomplishments of Leonardo da Vinci, we can nurture and explore a plethora of talents and abilities, just as he did. Leonardo gives us an ideal to aspire to, even if we can’t match his achievements. He is someone who cultivated his full potential to think, feel, do and be.

[Read more…]

Five things lion tracking taught me about teamwork

IMG_6206My partner and I just returned from a month in Zambia. We went there to track lions on foot. This was our second time in Africa, an amazing experience. We spent most of our time in remote bush camps in North Luangwa and Kafue National Parks. We slept in bamboo huts and listened to the big cats calling in the dark. We tracked a pride of lions from a buffalo kill through pathless wilderness, encountering them unexpectedly and holding our breath as they sprang roaring through the trees. At one point, we were charged by a bull hippo and ran for our lives, saved by a warning shot from Justin, our scout, who stood his ground. We spent our nights about campfires in the bush, sipping whiskey from tin cups and feeling the thrum of nature about us.

I don’t believe I’ve ever felt more present and alive than when walking with small groups of people in the African wilderness. The experience is at once magnificently beautiful and incredibly edgy. At one moment you might be feeling isolated, peaceful, and relaxed. The next moment you encounter a pride of lions, some elephants, or a herd of buffalo and the situation changes. Under these circumstances, people work instinctively as a team. I learned five lessons about teamwork from my experience tracking lions in Zambia that cast light on what is required for the best team-based collaboration. [Read more…]

Who is Foucault’s Heidegger? An introduction to transformative philosophy

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A new species of philosopher is appearing: I venture to baptize these philosophers with a name not without danger in it. As I divine them, as they let themselves be divined – for it pertains to their nature to want to remain a riddle in some respects – these philosophers of the future might rightly, but perhaps also wrongly, be described as attempters. This name itself is in the end only an attempt and, if you will, a temptation.

–Friedrich Nietzsche

Martin Heidegger (1888-1976) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984) are two of the most important philosophers in the history of twentieth century European thought. There is clearly much that divides them. Heidegger devoted his life to a single question, the question of being. Foucault was mercurial in the transformability of his questions, which ranged from madness, literature, discourse and knowledge, to power, sexuality, ethics and truth (roughly in this order). Heidegger was a political conservative – notoriously, a member of the Nazi Party through the 1930s and until the end of the war. Insofar as Foucault can be positioned anywhere on the political spectrum, he is most accurately associated with the anarchist left. Heidegger was a thinker of primordial origins and world-historical recommencements, and saw the present as a unique moment in time in which history has come to an end and stands the chance of beginning anew. Foucault defended a Nietzschean genealogical approach to history that emphasizes radical historical breaks while refusing to assume that the present is any more significant than yesterday or tomorrow.

Given these and other differences, it is hard, on the face of it, to see how Foucault and Heidegger might be related in the manner suggested by the title of this post. It seems improbable that there would be any relationship between these philosophers at all. The fact remains, however, that in his final interview, in 1984, Foucault claimed that Heidegger was an ‘essential philosopher’ for his work. This statement took Foucault scholarship by surprise. Foucault is usually seen as France’s primary Nietzschean export. While Foucault concedes that Nietzsche was ultimately the most important philosopher for his work, he insists that his ‘whole philosophical development’ was determined by his reading of Heidegger. Foucault’s final remarks on Heidegger have provoked much disagreement among readers of Foucault. Many readers prefer to ignore these remarks entirely. Those relatively few attempts to productively engage the question of Foucault’s debt to Heidegger have produced little by way of conclusion and much in the manner of debate.

This post will not attempt to close these debates. Rather, it seeks to place them on a new footing. Foucault and Heidegger’s work, I argue, reflects a common vision of philosophy as a transformative exercise. To understand Foucault’s debt to Heidegger, we need to read these philosophers on the level of transformative practice. [Read more…]

Spinoza in principle: ethics, affect, and friendship

Spinoza_3One hundred years ago, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a famous philosopher, oft-quoted and respected, if notorious for his relationship with the authorities of his time. It is unclear why he fell out of fashion. We may have seen Spinoza’s statue in Amsterdam, or heard his name mentioned by another philosopher, but of Spinoza himself, we know nothing. This is unfortunate seeing as Spinoza is one of the most practical and relevant philosophers there is. There are all sorts of ways that we can apply Spinoza’s philosophy today. Henri Bergson, writing in the early 20th century, saw Spinoza as a philosopher of intuition. The Italian political theorist Antonio Negri argues that Spinoza is the key to understanding globalization and the postmodern age.

This post does not explore the work of these thinkers. I want to focus on Spinoza himself.

oude_kerk_amsterdamSpinoza was the son of a Portuguese merchant who had fled to Amsterdam with his family to escape the Catholic Inquisition. Spinoza senior couldn’t have picked a better place to have moved the family business. It was the height of the Dutch Golden Age and Amsterdam was the trading capital of the world. Amsterdam, moreover, was an excellent spot for Spinoza to begin a philosophical education. Through the seventeenth century, the liberal climate of Amsterdam drew a hoard of political and religious refugees from other parts of Europe, stimulating a lively intellectual culture. Strolling through Dam Square, Spinoza would have rubbed shoulders with French Huguenots, German Anabaptists, Spanish heretics, and Scottish freethinkers amidst the hustle and bustle of the markets and trade. Spinoza formed the principles of his philosophy long before he considered himself a philosopher, as a young man on the streets of Amsterdam.

[Read more…]

You little genius! How to cultivate your creative gifts

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Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will grow up believing it is stupid. — Albert Einstein

‘What is your genius?’ I’d like you to reflect on this for a moment. I find that when I ask people this question, they often don’t know what to say. The G-word can stop us in our tracks. Years ago, when I was first asked: What is your genius? I thought: ‘Genius? What genius? I’m just a guy’.

I am just a guy. But I have come to see that everyone is touched by genius. Perhaps it is just a gentle caress. Perhaps your genius lies in something so uncommon that you’ll have to search the world before you find the opportunity to express it. There may be years of toil, of wanderings near and far, a host of grand adventures in your path before you finally discover your potential. But there is genius in you, waiting to be discovered. This post will explain how to find it.

If everyone is a genius, why is the world so messed up? For creatures who have the capacity for genius, we do a brilliant job of being dumb. Clearly, we are not, at this point in history, living up to our potential. But this is not surprising, since we only put a fraction of the work into cultivating our genius that we could. We doubt ourselves (‘Genius, what genius?’). We aim low (an easy trap to fall into, since that’s where most people are playing). Once we’re out of the education system, few people bother to encourage us to find our inner genius. Can you imagine your boss telling you to find that rare and special thing that makes you great and cultivate it? Not going to happen (‘Get back to work!’). We are the products of cookie-cutter education systems, of ‘knuckle-down-and-conform’ economies, of shallow, hyper-mediated, cultural systems that celebrate cannibalization and incremental innovation over true disruption (Lady Gaga is the incremental innovation of Madonna; the latest superhero blockbuster is the cannibalization of every superhero trope that has come before). Given this, it’s no surprise that we forsake our deeper talent. Really, why should we bother to look for brilliance in ourselves when society as a whole is geared for averageness? Why stick your head up over the edge of the trench? You’ll only get it blown off.

What an appalling waste of talent. Don’t give up on yourself like this. Find that rare and special thing that you do extraordinarily well and make it central to your life. Here’s how you can do it.

[Read more…]

Heidegger in Silicon Valley: technology and the hacker way

‘Software is eating the world!’ US tech luminary Marc Andreessen declared in 2009, on the eve of launching his venture capital firm, Andreessen-Horowitz. This extraordinary claim has become the mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, codifying a new philosophy of tech entrepreneurialism and kickstarting a bold new era of creative destruction. Decoded it means: software engineers are world-builders – so look out! Bored with building apps, games, and websites, the latest generation of tech entrepreneurs are creating social operating systems for the societies and economies of the future. Reconfiguring the relationships between goods, consumers, and service-providers, these new social operating systems are swallowing whole marketplaces at a time, eating up business that was previously enjoyed by recruiters, cab companies, hotel chains, and estate agents. Take the sharing economy startup Airbnb, for instance (recipient of $112 million in funding from Andreessen-Horowitz in 2011). Andreessen claims:

Airbnb  makes its money in real estate. But … Airbnb … has much more in common with Facebook or Google or Microsoft or Oracle than with any real estate company. … Airbnb is building a software technology that is equivalent in complexity, power, and importance to an operating system. It’s just that it’s applied to a section of the economy.

An operating system is low-level software that runs on a computer and directs its operations. Andressen’s application of this idea to a company like Airbnb speaks volumes about the ambition of the new startup entrepreneurs and their world-building philosophy. Just as a computer operating system organises the hardware resources of the computer unit, creating a functional machine, social operating systems refigure the ‘hardware’ of human reality, connecting people and things in new and productive ways. Airbnb puts people with spare rooms to rent in touch with travellers seeking short-term accommodation. Uber and Lyft put passengers looking for a ride in touch with drivers looking for a fare. TaskRabbit links people to a universe of micro-entrepreneurs who are ready to run their errands, clean their houses, and mow their lawns for a fee. This is creative destruction on a grand scale. The social and economic strata constructed over decades is being rapidly redesigned by plucky young geeks in the shadow of the Google campus.

[Read more…]

Hooked on a feeling: how a chance encounter can change your life

I met a man named AJ Emmanuel as I was walking down the main street of my town. AJ was enlisting supporters for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. He spotted me coming from a distance and lured me in with a parody of my loping stride. By the time we met, I was laughing and he was laughing too.

‘You are wasting your time with me!’ I told him. I explained how my partner and I give a set amount of money each month to a rolling roster of aid organizations. The UNHCR was somewhere on the list. ‘A good conversation is never a waste of time’, AJ replied. It was a sunny day and I was out for a walk – why not take the opportunity to chat?

I liked AJ immediately. He was confident and upbeat. There was mischief in his eyes, but seriousness, too – a tone of gravity underlying everything that he said. I sensed that I was in the presence of a kindred spirit – a street philosopher, of sorts – a man who had seen suffering enough to know that life has no guarantees, yet who is wise enough to appreciate that the only appropriate response is to celebrate each moment.

[Read more…]